Michigan Railroads And Railfanning In "The Great Lakes State"

Header Photo: Drew Jacksich

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. 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 shortlines systems. Finally, please note that there will be links to other pages here at the website listed throughout the article covering various topics from fallen flags to museums and excursion trains.

Winter arrives early and stays late in Michigan's U.P. Here, Milwaukee Road FP7 #98-A awaits departure from Soo Line's depot in Calumet with train #2, the southbound "Copper Country Limited," on January 7, 1967. Today, the building remains but the rails are gone. Roger Puta photo.

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 that was formed through smaller lines like the E&K in 1869.

Grand Trunk Western 4-8-4 #6408 is seen here with a passenger train near Bloomfield Hills, Michigan on July 31, 1958. A division of Canadian National the GTW provided it access to Detroit and Chicago. It's 4-8-4's were built by Lima in 1938.

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.

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.

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 shortlines 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, and 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. 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 branch and secondary tracks which looked to tap its resources as well as the number of smaller fallen flag systems whose lines have since been cutup (Pere Marquette, Ann Arbor, Detroit & Mackinac, etc.). In any even, 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.

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” shortlines. 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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