Last revised: April 19, 2022
By: Adam Burns
Michigan's first railroad carries the honor as the first completed west of the Allegheny Mountains.
In later years, the Wolverine State became a major source of originating natural resources; in the south thick stands of timber were harvested while the Upper Peninsula held an abundance of iron ore.
There was also the Motor City of Detroit which generated great volumes of business for railroads like the New York Central, Pere Marquette (Chesapeake & Ohio), Wabash, Baltimore & Ohio, and Detroit, Toledo & Ironton.
Other noteworthy systems serving the state included the Pennsylvania Railroad, Ann Arbor, and Detroit & Mackinac.
In the U.P. you can find the Chicago & North Western, Milwaukee Road, Soo Line, and a multitude of small short lines. Today, Michigan offers a wide selection of scenic train rides, some of which are even pulled by a historic steam locomotive.
The famous Huckleberry Railroad operates a large fleet of five while the Little River Railroad in Coldwater pulls tourist trains using a 4-6-2 "Pacific Type."
Not to be forgotten is the Steam Railroading Institute, which owns the famous Pere Marquette 2-8-4 #1225, featured in the 2004 movie "The Polar Express."
Please note! The guide here pertains only to Michigan scenic train rides related to vacation and tourism destinations. If you are interested in intercity/long distance rail travel please visit Amtrak's website.
Michigan's first railroad was the Erie & Kalamazoo Railroad (E&K), chartered on April 22, 1833 to connect Port Lawrence (now known as Toledo, Ohio) with Kalamazoo River.
The line, which would link Adrian in the process, Those which organized the company had hopes of utilizing as a western leg of transporting freight and passengers from the East Coast.
In conjunction with the Erie Canal and Lake Erie, the Erie & Kalamazoo would enable this business to reach Lake Michigan.
Unfortunately, it was never finished to the latter point but did open to Adrian on November 2, 1836 as horse-powered operation featuring strap-iron rails.
It was acquired by the Michigan Southern Railroad on August 1, 1849 and eventually wound up as part of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern (1869), a longtime component of the New York Central.
For a time, the E&K operated as part of the only all-rail route from New York City to Chicago.
During the 19th century, however, components of its original route were abandoned. "The Routledge Historical Atlas Of The American Railroads," by John Stover states that during its peak years (1920's), Michigan was home to more than 8,700 miles of railroad!
However, many abandonments over the years has since this number decline by greater than half. The Association of American Railroads notes there are currently only 3,234 miles in service, operated by 28 different railroads
Bluewater Michigan Chapter, National Railroad Historical Society
This chapter of the NRHS, established in 1982, is based in Royal Oak. They do not have a physical address in which to view historic railroad equipment.
However, the group does have a collection of operational passenger equipment which may be chartered for use.
Adrian & Blissfield Railroad
The Adrian & Blissfield Railroad, based in Blissfield, Michigan is well known for its fabulous dinner trains, notably the Old Road Dinner Train.
The railroad offers a wide variety of other dinner train rides to choose from. While trains board at Blissfield you can also catch them from nearby Charlotte as well. To learn more about this attraction and planning a trip please visit their website.
Capac Historical Society Museum
This small museum is housed inside the town's restored Grand Trunk Western depot, a wooden structure originally opened on October 17, 1914 (it replaced three previous buildings, the last of which was destroyed by fire on January 9, 1914).
The building no longer resides at its original location and has been moved along State Route 21 to 401 East Kempf Street.
The depot closed on October 8, 1973 and was later purchased by the Capac Community Historical Society in 1987. It was moved to its current location (in two sections) on October 21, 1988.
Inside the building there are historic railroad displays as well as those related to the local community. The society states to call 810-395-2859 for an appointment to visit. The depot is open from June through September, " generally open Monday through Friday 12 PM-3PM, and Sunday 1-4 PM."
Clinton Northern Railway Museum
This organization is located in Clinton's preserved Grand Trunk Western depot, a brick structure (featuring stone trim and tiled roof) originally opened around 1920.
Among their exhibits includes:
In addition to these pieces the museum also contains a collection of displays and other artifacts. They state their mission is to generally preserve the railroad industry history while telling the story of its national importance.
If you are planning a visit, the depot is open from May through October, Sunday only between 1 PM - 3 PM. Guided tours area also available!
Coopersville & Marne Railway
The Coopersville & Marne Railway, based in Coopersville, Michigan offers a wide variety of scenic train rides such as "robberies," pizza trains, Bunny Trains, seasonal trips (Christmas and Halloween), and much more.
This attraction got its start when the railroad was formed on July 13, 1989 to acquire a segment of the former Grand Trunk Western between Coopersville and Marne (this stretch of trackage was originally built under the Detroit & Pontiac Railroad, completed during 1858).
On December 14, 1989 the new company officially purchased the GTW property and began running trains less than a year later on July 4, 1990.
There are currently two diesel locomotives utilized; former Grand Trunk Western SW9 #7014 (manufactured in 1952 by Electro-Motive) and 50-ton switcher #3049 (built in 1957 by General Electric for the DuPont Corporation).
Also be sure to visit their steam locomotive on display, Canadian National 4-6-0 #1395 (Class H-6-g, manufactured by the Montreal Locomotive Works in 1913).
Durand Union Station - Michigan Railroad History Museum
This museum is located within the town's restored union station built by the Ann Arbor and Grand Trunk Western. Today, it still acts as a stop for Amtrak.
The building is an impressive work of art; it was completed in 1903 by architects Spier & Rohns based in Detroit. There is a famous photograph of the depot featuring a busy scene of trains and people mingling near the diamond at which the station was located.
At its peak 42 passenger, 22 mail, and 78 freight trains passed by or stopped at the station daily. It also served nearly 3,000 passengers daily.
Unfortunately, as the public abandoned trains for other modes of travel the building became used increasingly less until the Grand Trunk abandoned all operations there in 1974.
In 1979 it was sold to the city and became what is today known as the State Railroad History Museum. In its current form the building houses a number of displays and also hosts several events throughout the year.
Flushing Area Museum
This museum, operated by the Flushing Area Historical Society, is housed inside Flushing's beautifully restored Cincinnati, Saginaw & Mackinaw (Grand Trunk Western) brick/wooden depot, originally completed in 1889 (it was later renovated following a fire in 1980).
The depot remains at its original location and the tracks are still active, operated by the Central Michigan Railway (reporting marks, CMGN).
This short line maintains sections of the former New York Central, as well the previously mentioned Grand Trunk Western, between Durand and Bay City as well as a section reaching Owosso and Midland.
The company moves a variety of freight including agriculture, forest products, chemicals, and bulk transfer business.
The museum features a collection of displays inside, as well as an operating Lionel layout. Their mission statement is, "to collect, acquire, preserve and interpret the history and cultural development of the area in and around Flushing, Michigan."
Greenfield Village/The Henry Ford Museum
One of Michigan's most well-known museums, this complex features an impressive collection of artifacts related to America's history in transportation.
The organization also hosts various special events throughout the year. Among their railroad collection they have several pieces of rolling stock and steam locomotives, a few of which are restored and even offer scenic train rides at Greenfield Village.
Their entire locomotive fleet includes the following:
Houghton County Historical Museum
This museum, located in Lake Linden, is operated by the Houghton County Historical Society.
It is open from June through October and features several exhibits related to the area's local history, including railroads and the once prolific iron ore industry.
They also offer short scenic train rides behind 0-4-0T #3 on what they call the " Lake Linden & Torch Lake Railroad," which runs on a 36-inch (narrow-gauge) loop of track along the property.
This little tank engine was built by the H.K. Porter Company in 1915 for the Calumet & Hecla Mining Company.
While you are there be sure and visit the preserved, restored wooden Soo Line caboose as well as the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic wooden depot, originally completed in 1885.
- The DSS&A was a long-time iron ore hauler that linked Duluth/Superior with Sault Ste. Marie. It later became a part of the modern Soo Line. -
Huckleberry Railroad At The Crossroads Village
The Huckleberry Railroad is part of the Crossroads Village & Huckleberry Railroad Park, a popular tourist attraction in Flint that offers much more than just scenic train rides (such as camping, boating, paddleboat rides, fishing, beaches, and more).
While the railroad’s star attraction is Rio Grande 2-8-2 #464 (a Class K-27 "Mudhen" manufactured by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1903), there are a total of four locomotives on the property.
The Huckleberry Railroad, certainly one of the more interesting names of a tourist line, operates a short section of the former Pere Marquette Railway (which became part of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway system in the 1940s) and departs its trips from Flint, Michigan.
While the Huckleberry only operates a short stretch of railroad the real attraction to the line is its fine collection of steam locomotives.
The Huckleberry Railroad was actually once a real freight line, as a subsidiary of the Pere Marquette and established in 1857, and was officially known as the Flint Pere Marquette Railroad Company.
- It also should be noted that the railroad received its name because of its slow pace, which was said to be so slow that one could jump off of the train, pick huckleberries, and jump back on with little effort! -
Little River Railroad
The Little River Railroad, based in Coldwater, Michigan, offers excursions to Quincy (6 miles) along a segment of the former New York Central (occasionally, runs will be made as far west as Hillsdale.
The railroad maintains two steam locomotives on the premises:
The railroad's season runs from May through October with several special events held at other times throughout the year, such as the Holiday Express each December.
Lost Railway Museum
This museum is relatively new attraction which held its grand opening ceremony on July 1, 2017. The Lost Railway Museum is based in Grass Lake, focusing primarily on the state's rich history with interurban railroads.
At one time Michigan boasted some 981 miles of interurban trackage, ranking among the top states.
As Dr. George Hilton and John Due's authoritative piece, "The Electric Interurban Railways In America," notes the Great Lakes State was a trailblazer in this industry, containing some of the first interurbans and best engineered routes throughout the country.
Its two principal systems were the Detroit United and Michigan United Railways which, in conjunction with other carriers, managed to provide lake-to-lake service across the state from Detroit to Grand Haven/Muskegon/Macatawa.
Unfortunately, because the automobile industry was born in Detroit, Michigan's interurbans suffered tremendously and were the first to disappear entirely.
The last made their final runs along the Indiana Railway's St. Joseph line in 1934. To visit the Lost Railway Museum and visit their collection please click here to visit their website.
Michigan AuSable Valley Railroad
This little tourist attraction is based in Fairview and offers visitors the chance to ride one-quarter scale (16-inch) model trains during the summer months.
The railroad runs through the Huron National Forest and Comins Creek valley, passing through a 115-foot tunnel and 220-foot wooden trestle along the way.
It was built by Joanne and Howard Schrader, which came up with the idea in 1994 (the two also publish the annual Schrader's Railroad Catalog, which offers sells various items of train-related collectibles).
There is also an impressive three-stall engine-house on the premises.
The locomotives include a pair of F7A diesels, built by the Custom Locomotive Works of Chicago (they are even large enough to enclose a two-person crew!), and oil-fired 4-6-4 #5661 (originally built by E.C. Eddy in 1961 for the Pinconning & Blind River Railroad).
Michigan Transit Museum
The Michigan Transit Museum is located in Mt. Clemens, with a mission to keep alive the area's railroad history.
They feature a number of historic displays as well as a very early depot, completed in 1858 by the Chicago, Detroit & Canada Grand Trunk Junction Railroad (predecessor of the modern day Grand Trunk Western, it originally opened a 60-mile line from Detroit to Port Huron on November 21, 1859).
During the summer months you can catch a train ride from June through September while specials are also offered during the fall and at Christmas.
Trains are led by a former United States Air Force RS4TC, #4040; this locomotive was a product of the Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton Corporation, manufactured during the 1950's.
Only the Air Force and U.S. Army owned this particular model of switcher, the former 8 examples and the latter 66. Today, several examples are preserved around the country, such as at this location.
Saginaw Railway Museum
This museum is based in its Saginaw and located within the Pere Marquette's restored depot moved from Hemlock, a wooden structure originally completed in 1907.
Along with historic artifacts they feature a small collection of rolling stock and are working to restore the Mershon Tower, completed prior to 1900.
This interlocking tower once protected the main lines of the Pere Marquette, Michigan Central (New York Central), Great Trunk Western, and the Michigan Railway located near Carrollton Road.
The Michigan Railway was a third-rail, electrified interurban that opened 14 miles between Saginaw and Bay City in 1914. It became part of the Michigan United Railway, and was abandoned before 1930.
Today, it has been moved to the museum at 900 Maple Street. The Saginaw Railway Museum is open on select days between May and November.
S.S. City of Milwaukee
This unique museum is actually a preserved, coal-fired railroad carferry which has been converted for use as a museum, bed & breakfast, and various events throughout the year. It has also been designated a National Historic Landmark since 1990.
The S.S. City Of Milwaukee, maintained and owned by the Society for the Preservation of the SS City of Milwaukee, was a product of the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company and launched on November 25, 1930.
It replaced the SS Milwaukee, which was lost during a storm; its routing varied but it could be found calling at Frankfort and Muskegon, Michigan as well as Manitowoc and Kewaunee, Wisconsin.
The ship could hold up to 32 modern freight cars at capacity and was powered by four steam boilers producing 185 pounds of pressure. She was finally retired in 1982 and became a static display piece thereafter.
Southern Michigan Railroad Society
The Southern Michigan Railroad has offered excursions over 13.5 miles of a former New York Central corridor (built as the Palmyra Jacksonburgh Railroad) from Clinton (its base of operations) to Lenawee Junction since 1982.
Their fleet of locomotives (all diesels) includes:
The group also has a collection of various other pieces such as MU cars, sleepers, a speeder, and much more. If you are planning a trip the railroad operates from the spring until December each year, hosting several special trips during that time.
Steam Railroading Institute
The Steam Railroading Institute, based in Owosso, Michigan home to Pere Marquette 2-8-4 #1225, star of the hit movie The Polar Express.
The locomotive was built by the Lima Locomotive Works in 1941, part of a batch of twelve acquired that year listed as Class N-1 (#1216-1227).
At that time, the railroad already owned fifteen it had purchased a few years earlier in 1937 (#1201-1215). In addition, it would purchase another dozen in 1944 listed as Class N-2 (#1228-1239).
These Berkshires were powerful machines, the largest the railroad ever owned. Throughout the year SRI operates diesel-powered excursions and on rare occasions uses #1225.
They also have preserved Jonesboro, Lake City & Eastern Railroad (St. Louis-San Francisco Railway) 2-8-0 #76 (manufactured by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1920).
During the Christmas season they operate their North Pole Express using none other than #1225. If you want to ride on the true Polar Express train, this is it!
Tahquamenon Falls Wilderness Excursion
The Tahquamenon Falls Wilderness Excursion located in Soo Junction,
Michigan operates a short-stretch of narrow-gauge trackage (5.5 miles) in the
state's beautiful Upper Peninsula. To learn more about this interesting attraction, please click here.
Thomas Edison Depot Museum
This museum is located inside the restored Chicago, Detroit & Canada Grand Trunk Junction depot from nearby Fort Gratiot and is part of the larger Port Huron Museum complex.
It is a brick structure that was originally completed in 1858, the CD&CGTJ was the immediate predecessor of the modern day Grand Trunk Western, a wholly-owned Canadian National subsidiary which served central Michigan and provided CN a direct link into Chicago. To learn more about this company please click here.
Their mission statement notes:
"The Port Huron Museum celebrates the history and culture of the Blue Water Area and fosters an appreciation of other peoples and places.
Through exhibitions, education, and public programs, the Museum inspires knowledge of the past, participation in the present, and an imagination for the future."
The depot museum features a number of displays as well as a restored baggage car outside.
Tri-Cities Historical Museum
This museum, located inside the Detroit & Milwaukee's (another predecessor of the modern-day Grand Trunk Western) restored 1870 brick depot at Grand Haven.
The organization features a range of exhibits highlighting not only the region's railroad heritage but also its general history.
They also showcase Pere Marquette 2-8-4 #1223 along with several other pieces of rolling stock. The Pere Marquette Railway (PM) was a Michigan-based system that got its start in the timber trade.
It was formed in 1900 through three smaller railroads, which had struggled for years on this fickle traffic source. Problems persisted after the merger as shady management caused yet more financial difficulties.
Only after its reorganization during World War I, and subsequent takeover by the Van Sweringen brothers, did the Pere Marquette truly shine.
Under their leadership the property witnessed significant upgrades, allowing for fast-freight and merchandise trains between Buffalo (New York) and Chicago via southern Ontario.
During this time it was controlled by the Chesapeake & Ohio, envisioned as part of their "Greater Nickel Plate System." Had such a carrier been formed it would have boasted a 9,200 mile network with earnings rivaling the Pennsylvania and New York Central.
While this scheme ultimately failed the PM remained under Chessie's control until its formal merger in 1947. The C&O, of course, went on to create part of CSX Transportation.
Over the years, most of the original PM has either been sold or abandoned with the Class I retaining only its trackage in southern Michigan. The museum is open on select days throughout the year.