Michigan Railroads In "The Great Lakes State"

Last revised: March 28, 2022

By: Adam Burns

Michigan has been known for a number of things over its 170+ year history with railroads, from iron ore and timber products to automotive parts and merchandise.

For decades,  and until the 1970s, the state also witnessed significant carfloat operations due to its location along the lakes (notably at Ludington).

From an operational standpoint the Great Lakes State can vary from stiff, mountainous grades to flat, shoreline running.

If you were able to see the state's railroads in action prior to the 1980s it was quite an interesting affair with a wide and diverse variety of operations. 

For many, the through lines running along the state's southern periphery are the most well-known, on their way to either Chicago, Detroit, or via southern Ontario.

In any event, the state is also home to the inventor of the historic Shay locomotive, Ephraim Shay, which built his first prototype in 1877.

Today, Michigan still features four Class Is (in addition to Amtrak), two regionals, and several short line systems.

Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic 2-8-0 #92 carries out switching in front of the station at Marquette, Michigan in the summer of 1951. A.C. Kalmbach photo. American-Rails.com collection.

A Brief History Of Michigan Railroads

Michigan railroads date back to 1836 when the little Erie & Kalamazoo Railroad finished its line connecting Adrian, Michigan and Port Lawrence, Ohio (what is today Toledo), a distance of nearly 40 miles (the line officially opened on November 2nd).

The history of the railroad dated as far back as 1832 although it was not officially chartered until April 22, 1833. While the E&K began as a horse-powered operation it switched to steam power by 1837, a year after begin services.

The railroad eventually became part of the large Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway, a massive system for its time, formed through smaller lines like the E&K in 1869.

It would stretch from Buffalo, through northern Ohio, southern Michigan, northern Indiana and also reached Chicago.

In 1914 it became an important part of the New York Central System. In the succeeding years Michigan would be home to a number of well remembered railroads which included the Michigan Central, Grand Trunk Western and many others. 

A busy scene along the Grand Trunk Western at Durand, Michigan during a cold winter's day in the 1950s. Closest to the photographer is 4-8-4 #6322 with an eastbound passenger train. A.C. Kalmbach photo. American-Rails.com collection.

During the state's height it was a railfan's paradise; you could catch New York Central streamliners heading to and from Detroit, head west to Lake Michigan or north to Lake Superior and enjoy unique car ferry operations, or even head up to the U.P. and catch ore trains along the Milwaukee Road and Chicago & North Western. 

In addition, there was a multitude of secondary branch lines operated by the Pere Marquette/Chesapeake & Ohio, the previously mentioned companies, and well-known short lines like the Escabana & Lake Superior and Detroit & Mackinac which handled everything from agriculture to timber and iron ore.

Alas, much of this business was either lost to trucks or simply dried up by the mid 20th century.  In addition, airlines pulled away much of the passenger business. 

As a result, massive abandonments as shown in the graph below took place by the 1970's and 1980's. 

The state map featured above shows most of the rail lines in service across Michigan by the turn of the 20th century.  Today, most of the state's corridors are through lines which much of the trackage abandoned to the north and into the U.P.  

The Chicago & North Western employed their ex-Norfolk & Western C628s mostly in ore service through the 1980s until finally retiring the units. Seen here is #6728 and #6725 working at the ore dumper yard in Escanaba, Michigan during April of 1985. Rob Kitchen photo.

Short Lines And Current Rail Service

Today, Michigan still features a number of Class I systems that include CSX, Norfolk Southern, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific.

Additionally, the state is served by two regionals, Great Lakes Central Railroad as well as the Indiana & Ohio Railway which operates in the southern regions. The rest include short lines:

  • Ann Arbor (mentioned above)

  • Central Michigan Railroad

  • Delray Connecting Railroad

  • Escanaba & Lake Superior (mentioned above)

  • Huron & Eastern Railway

  • Lake States Railway

  • Lake Superior & Ishpeming (mentioned above), 

  • Marquette Rail

  • Michigan Shore Railroad

  • Michigan Southern Railroad

  • Mid-Michigan Railroad

  • Mineral Range Railroad

  • Adrian & Blissfield Rail Road

  • Charlotte Southern Railroad

  • Detroit Connecting Railroad

  • Grand Elk Railroad

  • Grand Rapids Eastern Railroad

  • Indiana Northeastern Railroad

  • Lapeer Industrial Railroad

  • Michigan Air-Line Railway

  • Saginaw Bay Southern Railway

  • West Michigan Railroad
The Detroit & Mackinac provided car ferry service across the Straits Of Mackinac in conjunction with the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic (later Soo Line) at St. Ignace, Michigan. Here, Soo GP30 #708 unloads the "S.S. Chief Wawatam" in June of 1979. Rob Kitchen photo.

Today, all of these railroads operate just over 3,600 miles of track in the Great Lakes State, which is a just a fraction of Michigan's all-time of 8,734.

The state has lost a staggering 59% of its rail infrastructure since the 1920s and more than 5,000 miles overall.

Michigan's Abandoned Railroads

Michigan has been hit especially hard by abandonments; several through lines have been pulled as well as hundreds of miles of secondary and agricultural corridors.

To date, more than 5,300 miles have been removed.  The abandonments have largely been secondary corridors.  However, there are notable losses such as:

  • Sections of Pennsylvania's Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad subsidiary that ran from Fort Wayne, Indiana to Mackinaw City.

  • Hundreds of miles of the old Michigan Central (New York Central) lines have been removed, particularly in the southcentral regions and the north around Mackinaw City.

  • A major route of the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railway (the "Big Four"), the longtime New York Central subsidiary, is removed between Jackson, Michigan and Carlisle, Ohio (south of Dayton).

  • Several sections of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern (NYC) have been pulled throughout southcentral Michigan.

  • Large sections of the Grand Trunk Western are pulled up west and north of Detroit, as well as in other parts of Michigan.

  • Most iron ore lines in the Upper Peninsula have either been removed or severely truncated.  These branches were largely serviced by the Milwaukee Road, Soo Line, and Chicago & North Western.  In addition, the Copper Range Railroad is gone entirely.  Another notable U.P. carrier since shuttered was the Manistique and Lake Superior Railroad.

  • Finally, Michigan once contained 981 miles of interurbans at its peak, noted in the book, "The Electric Interurban Railways In America" by George Hilton and John Due.  Most were situated around Detroit and were some of the earliest ever put into service.  In addition, systems like the Detroit United Railway and Michigan United Railway were some of the best maintained and most modern interurbans in the country.  Alas, the fast growth of highways in the state resulted in its interurbans being abandoned quickly with service ending entirely by 1934.

This number is even well above the average of most states, which have seen a decline typically between 45% to 50%. Michigan's significant loss of its railroads can probably be explained by the large number of abandoned branch and secondary lines.

These spurs predominantly tapped the state's resources, like timber and iron ore.  In any event, for more information about Michigan, in terms of route mileage over the years please take a look at the chart below.

* Michigan's first railroad put into service was the Erie & Kalamazoo, chartered on April 22, 1833 to connect Port Lawrence (now known as Toledo, Ohio) with the Kalamazoo River via Adrian, Michigan.  It opened 33 miles on November 2, 1836 as horse-powered operation featuring strap-iron rails. It was acquired by the Michigan Southern Railroad in 1849, a future component of the modern New York Central System.

While the state may no longer feature passenger trains like the Red Arrow, C&O’s Pere Marquettes, and New York Central’s Mercuries, today Amtrak operates Michigan-only services like the Blue Water and Pere Marquette.

Amtrak also owns its only stretch of trackage outside of the Northeast Corridor in Michigan which is the 97-mile, 110 mph Wolverine Corridor that connects Detroit and Pontiac with Chicago. To learn more about Amtrak's current services in Michigan please click here to visit their website.

Milwaukee Road FP7's #98-C and #102-A have the "Copper Country Limited" (Chicago - Green Bay - Calumet, Michigan) skirting the banks of the Sturgeon River east of Chassell, Michigan, way [way] up in the U.P., during June of 1966. Jim Alain photo, Bob Gilreath collection.

Railroad Museums

In terms of the state's history it is home to several railroad museums and excursion trains (for instance, Michigan is also home to Pere Marquette #1225, the operational 2-8-4 Berkshire steam locomotive owned by the Steam Railroading Institute and was featured in the Polar Express).

Some of these include the Henry Ford Museum, Michigan Transit Museum, Huckleberry Railroad, Southern Michigan Railroad, and the Adrian & Blissfield Railroad(which also offers excursion train services. 

So, whatever your interests might be, Michigan railroads offer a unique experience of Class I, main line operations as well as several local “down by the depot” short lines.

And, if these tire you out after a while be sure and ride one of the state’s several dinner and excursion trains!

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It is difficult to truly articulate just how much material can be found at this website. 

It is quite staggering and a must visit!