From locomotive lifestyles to vintage travel: 10 captivating ways railroads shaped Michigan’s history

(Original Caption) 9/23/1943-Detroit, MI- Scene at Detroit's Central Station as three post-Pearl Harbor dads say a fond farewell to their offspring as they leave for training at Fort Custer after induction. Left to right are Robert Wentzel, with wife and baby; Robert Matthews, with wife and baby; and Alec Vargo, with wife and baby.

By Elizabeth Jackson

June 13, 2023

Michigan’s railroad system started in the 1830s, and by the early 1900s operated over more than 9,000 route miles. With the increased use of cars and trucks, however, trains became less popular ways to get around—and today, the Mitten State’s railroad system only has about 3,500 route miles in some form of use.

MICHIGAN—As we all look toward a greener future, it’s good to also look back at the ways Michiganders relied on public transportation and the railroad system in the past. Maybe this list will spark the next wave of interest in intercity passenger trains—so pass it along to the engineer-minded folks in your life.

How have Michiganders used the rail system over time?

1. Commute to work: Railroads were a popular way for people to get to work, especially in the cities where factories and other industries were located. These trains were typically called commuter cars, which took people to work in neighboring towns. The cars were typically heated to protect against the Michigan cold, and could take people even short distances in the time before cars were common in households. For example, the villages of Coopersville and Marne are seven miles apart and have been linked with commuter trains since the 19th century.

2. Take a Ride on the Polar Express: The famous “Polar Express” train featured in the children’s book and movie of the same name was inspired by a real-life train that used to run through Michigan. The Pere Marquette 1225 steam locomotive was built in the 1940s and went to many points throughout Michigan. It was meant to replicate the experience of being at the North Pole, taking advantage of Michigan’s northern location. The Pere Marquette 1225 served Michigan for many years before being retired in 1951. Two decades later, it was restored and is now owned by the Steam Railroading Institute. As of May 2023, the train is not operational while it undergoes repairs, but the “North Pole Express” continues to run during the holiday season.

3. Ship car parts: Railroads were a major way to ship merchandise across the state, including agricultural products, raw materials, and finished goods. This became particularly important when automobile production became a major source of industry in Michigan. Car companies, in turn, became major customers of railways, which relied on them to get parts and raw materials necessary to make the Fords and Cadillacs Detroit became known for.

4. Attend sporting events: Railroads provided a convenient way for people to attend sporting events in other cities, like football, baseball, and horse races. Michigan is famous for its football games and legions of fans, so it should come as no surprise that railroads were instrumental in bringing people to games. The Ann Arbor Railroad built a ferry yard right next to the University of Michigan’s stadium and deposited thousands of fans on game day. 

(Original Caption) Chicago: Gas-Driven Rail Coach. Made of aluminum, with part rubber wheels and driven by a gasoline engine, the new 60-foot streamlined combination locomotive and coach is pictured on its arrival at the Illinois Central Station in Chicago, from Battle Creek, Michigan, where it was built. It carries 40 passengers.

 5. Visit Michigan Central Station: The Michigan Central Railroad’s Detroit station, built in 1913, is a historic landmark that still stands today and is known for its grand architecture and Beaux-Arts style. Even those not taking trains could find themselves with plenty to do at the station, which included a restaurant, lunch counter, barber shop, florist, and other amenities. 

6. Go on Vacation: Railroads made it easier for people to travel to Michigan’s many vacation destinations, such as Mackinac Island, Traverse City, and the Upper Peninsula. Many of these now-popular destinations grew rapidly after railroad service was established. For example, the first train to then-remote Mackinac Island was established in 1881, and several competing lines in subsequent years started to bring the island its now typical throngs of vacationers. The Mackinac Transportation Company eventually formed to build a rail ferry that could also break ice, allowing even more people to reach the island. 

Pere Marquette Railroad Parlor Car no. 25, Interior View, USA, circa 1910. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)


7. Enjoy Fine Dining: Many trains in Michigan used to offer luxurious dining experiences, complete with white tablecloths and fine china. The Pere Marquette Railroad’s “Super Chief” was particularly known for its fine dining. The service could include caviar, filet mignon, lamb chops, and champagne. 

8. Take the Interurban: The Michigan Interurban Railway, which operated from the late 19th century until the mid-1920s, offered electric train service between cities and towns across the state. These trains came more frequently than steam trains, and were significantly cheaper. One of their most popular uses was transporting men and women between their respective colleges so they could socialize on weekends.

9: See the Great Lakes: Some train lines operated with the express purpose of taking their riders on scenic trips around the state. One of the primary locations for this was Michigan’s famous lakes. The Chicago Kalamazoo & Saginaw Railroad Company promoted a “Great Inland Lake Route” that existed to send people along a lake tour just to take in the beautiful scenery, rather than to get anywhere specific. 

10: Attend state and local fairs: Trains enabled Michiganders to travel further than they might have otherwise been able  to attend state and local fairs. For example, the town of Thompsonville was one of the first in the country to have electric power and held a fair to celebrate this and other features of the community. The Ann Arbor and Pere Marquette railroads both offered special cars for people looking to attend fairs.


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