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Chapter 9

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Road of the Century

Alvin F. Harlow

Creative Age Press, Inc.,
New York, 1947

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 11
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p213  Chapter X
The Pride of Michigan

Surely the most heroic promoters in America were those who procured from the Legislature of the Michigan Territory — where pioneers were beginning to hew a commonwealth out of mighty forests — the charter for the Detroit & Pontiac in 1830. Probably five-sixths of Michigan was then a wilderness. Its capital, the muddy little town of Detroit, though more than a century old — it had been founded as a French trading post by Cadillac in 1701 — was still a raw frontier village. Only seventeen or eighteen years earlier, it had been fought over by Americans and British in the War of 1812. It is doubtful that many of its inhabitants knew what a railroad was or had ever heard of one. Massachusetts was just chartering its first three railroad corporations that same year, and four other infant projects in the East had just tried out or were trying their first locomotives.

The Detroit & Pontiac promoters got nowhere with their project; it was a dream, the "baseless fabric of a vision." But in the village of Ann Arbor there was a far-seeing pioneer citizen named James Kingsley who considered the creation of an east-and‑west railroad through the second tier of counties a project of prime necessity and labored hard to bring it about. Emigration was streaming westward, and he saw the importance of keeping the settlers in touch with the East, especially through the territory of Michigan. He first tried in 1830 to induce Congress to cut a canal across the lower part of the state, and when he failed in that, he procured the incorporation in 1832 of the Detroit & St. Joseph Railroad, with a visionary capital of $1,500,000. This was the first charter that was really acted upon, and it was important in that it afterward by transformation became the Michigan Central. The charter demanded the beginning of construction within two years, but the time had to be extended. In September, 1834,  p214  at a meeting at Ann Arbor, a little more than $400 in cash was raised to help pay the expense of a survey of the line, which was to run from Detroit through Ann Arbor, Jackson, Battle Creek and Kalamazoo to St. Joseph on Lake Michigan; and the last-named town was to be connected by steamboat with the promising young port of Chicago.

After a brief flurry of enthusiasm, Detroit's interest in the project waned, but Kingsley and Ann Arbor, by dint of gong-beating and public meetings, kept the thing alive. That intelligent little city may well be described as the mother of the Michigan Central Railroad, and Kingsley as its father. Nevertheless, another year and more dragged by. In December, 1835, at another meeting at Ann Arbor, a stock-subscription committee was sent forth, which was to solicit local signatures on the promise that some of the corporation's offices be located in Ann Arbor and that construction be begun simultaneously there and at Detroit. By hard labor, $9,000 was raised in Ann Arbor, $70,000 in Detroit, and amazingly enough, $100,000 at an intervening hamlet with the curious name of Ypsilanti (named for a family of patriots in the Greek struggle for independence), which was really subscribed by Eastern capitalists who were promoting the town. It was guessed that this would build and equip the 36 miles between Detroit and Ann Arbor.

The Territorial Supreme Court had decided at its very outset that cities, towns and counties were incompetent to lend money to railroad companies, in which respect Michigan was unique among states; and that cramped all early projects fearfully. Work began on the D. & St. J., but proceeded slowly, and when Michigan was admitted to statehood on January 28, 1837, the grading had been done only from Detroit to Dearbornville (now Dearborn). On that and one locomotive, one passenger car, the wheels for some freight cars and enough strap rails and spikes to lay 30 miles of track, the company had expended $102,000. The public was irked by the slow progress of the work, and was clamoring for action.

It was at this time that Michigan Territory, following the lead of Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois, went slightly mad. It had been having a boom. The Erie Canal had for several years been pouring immigrants into and through it, most of them from New England and New York, with a sprinkling of foreigners — English, Irish, German. Some of the best steamboats in America now plied Lake Erie from Buffalo to Toledo and Detroit, a few even  p215 continuing the long detour through Lake Huron, the Straits of Mackinaw and Lake Michigan to Chicago. Money was coming into the territory; the difficulty was to produce enough goods to exchange for it. The young community had prospects, too; it was promised statehood soon. The national government had given it land for school purposes and public buildings, certain moneys to aid in public improvements, 500,000 acres of land to be sold to settlers or used in promoting transportation, and finally, a driblet of cash from a small surplus in the national treasury, which Washington had decided to parcel out among the states.

The Legislature of 1836, pondering these modest boons, hearing how Indiana and Illinois were bonding themselves to build canals and railroads whose income was expected to take care of all states and render taxation unnecessary, decided that Michigan must do likewise. Why should transportation go from Detroit to Chicago by that 700‑mile detour via Mackinaw, paying practically nothing to Michigan in the process?

Railroads across lower Michigan — instead of those bottomless mud roads — would cut the Detroit-Chicago journey to little more than a third of the lake route. Moreover, it would drain some business from the lake shipping through Michigan's ports, thereby increasing their importance and income. Watching the course of cocksure Indiana and Illinois, Michigan legislators — probably none of whom had ever heard the word "socialism" — thought the state should own all transportation. The new governor, Stephens T. Mason, who took his seat on that January day in 1837 when Michigan became a state, agreed with this; and so on March 20 Michigan embarked on the wildest adventure of all the midwestern states, bonding herself for $5,000,000 to build railroads and canals; this by a commonwealth with a population of little more than 100,000, the great majority of whom were still backwoodsmen living in log cabins, almost their only assets being strong hands and willing hearts.

The governor was authorized to invite proposals from every railroad company in the state — for several had now been chartered — for the sale of their charters and whatever start they had made towards construction; which, goodness knows, was very little, indeed. The charters and assets of those which wished to sell — which included the Detroit & St. Joseph — were picked up at bargain figures; the D. & St. J. gladly sold out for $116,902, but the state had to produce $22,800 more to settle claims against the company. A Board of Commissioners was appointed, $550,000  p216 was appropriated for surveys, and these were launched for the three railroads planned; the Northern, running from Port Huron — where the lake of that name sends its cold, green water rushing into the bottleneck of the St. Clair River — "to the navigable waters of the Grand River;" the Central, from Detroit to the mouth of the St. Joseph River over the route already planned by the Ann Arbor folk; and the Southern, from the navigable waters of the River Raisin (which flows into Lake Erie) to New Buffalo, in the extreme southwestern corner of the state. Some canals, too, were spoken of, but were never constructed.

By January 1, 1838, trains were running to Dearbornville and a station had been built at the Campus Martius, where later the Detroit City Hall was erected. Late in January, the rails crept into Ypsilanti; but by that time, nearly $300,000 had been expended, it was estimated that $1,400,000 more would be required to carry the track to St. Joseph, 153 miles away, and official brows were beginning to be furrowed. But for the moment care must be forgotten in the celebration of what had been accomplished. The D. & St. J. had just turned over to the state two "elegant" passenger cars, of 24‑seat capacity each, and in these the governor, Legislature and other distinguished guests were somehow to make the trip to Ypsilanti. But wait a minute! The Legislature, with the all-too‑common ineptitude of legislators of those days (correction: strike out "of those days") decreed the eastern terminus of the Southern road to be "the navigable waters of the River Raisin," instead of carrying it on a few miles to the port of Monroe, at the mouth of the Raisin. Accordingly a company was chartered, the River Raisin & Lake Erie (on some of the shinplaster currency which it issued, it reversed its name to Lake Erie & River Raisin), to build a line from the terminus of the Southern road to the port. The company had had two passenger cars built in Troy, N. Y., to its specifications, the president had inspected them while they were building, and paid transportation charges on them to Monroe;​1 but shortly after this "an agent for the Detroit & St. Joseph succeeded in purchasing of the manufacturers these same cars for his road." Why this was permitted to take place is not explained.

[image ALT: missingALT.]

Early Station: Detroit.

Anyhow, when the state took over the D. & St. J. and brought those cars out to Detroit to haul the governor, Legislature and  p217 distinguished guests over to Ypsilanti for the big celebration, a felt-hatted sheriff from Monroe County appeared with a writ of replevin and seized the cars as the property of the River Raisin & Lake Erie. We are told that one car was put on a sled and started towards the wharves, but stuck in the mud, the horses balked, and it had to be left there until morning. Next morning, with some more horses, the driver started again, and "after some resistance" by Detroit partisans, the car reached a wharf. Here a counter-writ was flourished by the Detroit party, but there was a flaw in the instrument, it seems, so the car was loaded on a schooner and removed to the Canadian side of the river.

As it appeared pretty doubtful that the Monroe contingent would be able to take their other car away from the Detroit stalwarts, a compromise was effected; the River Raisin Company was to have the car it had seized, but was to permit Detroit to retain the other car until after the celebration. At this the schooner for some reason came trustfully back to the Detroit side, whereupon the local bully-boys promptly repudiated their agreement and rallied to recapture the car. While eyes were being blacked on the wharf, someone cut the mooring-rope, the schooner managed to push off again and reach midstream, where she anchored until a steamer came along, took off the car and delivered it triumphantly at Monroe.

With only one car available for the celebration, that affair had to be postponed until local artisans could knock together another car, this one seating 36. It was christened Governor Mason, and as the road's only locomotive had also been named for the governor, that gentleman must have been a bit self-conscious as he took his seat in the car on that February day. In addition to the two cars whose presence we can account for, several more were required for legislators and so on, and though the current account is modestly vague about them, one suspects that they were freight cars with benches in them. Laboring hard, the engine limped into Ypsilanti in three hours; then, after much oratory and eating, it started back. But en route, it began to wheeze and groan, and at Dearbornville, it gave out completely. Some of the higher dignitaries waited for horses to be brought, to draw the cars into Detroit, while others walked the remaining nine miles.

There must have been some pretty gloomy conversation among those pedestrians as they trudged through the winter night. No more than two and a half millions had been realized from the state's loan when the panic of 1837 threw bond-buyers into bankruptcy  p218 and blighted the grandiose schemes of all the midwestern states, though they could not be made to believe it for years thereafter. In Michigan, the Northern Railroad had been graded a few miles out of Port Huron — and that was the end of that. On the Southern, 68 miles of track had actually been built. The Central seemed the best bet of the three, and the state, halting work on its other projects, put all its eggs into this one basket.

But even there, progress was discouraging. Twenty months were required to complete the eight miles from Ypsilanti to Ann Arbor. By superhuman effort the track was pushed to Jackson, 39 miles farther, by January, 1842; to Battle Creek in November, '45 and to Kalamazoo in January, '46 — and there the string ran out. The state had so little money (and no credit) to put into it that as the head crawled forward, the tail was falling apart. It was laid with strap rail, of course, some one-half inch thick, some three-quarter inch; and the first 30 miles had been based on undersills of oak, elm, anything that was near the right of way, regardless of qualification. It had almost no repairing facilities, few real depots or other buildings, and scanty, ramshackle equipment. It was at the moment about the sorriest looking railroad property in the world.

But Young Lochinvar — this one came out of the East instead of the West, as did the original — was already on the spot, eager to rescue it. In Steelways of New England we have told in part the story of John W. Brooks. A bouncing youngster of twenty-six, native of Massachusetts with railroad experience, he had found the East too slow for him and gone west, looking for something more exciting. One glance at the decrepit Michigan railroad, and he knew he had found his job. He went back to Boston, as fast as one could go by lake boat, primitive railroad and stagecoach, to try raising money to buy the railroad. But he had practically no acquaintance among financiers, and his boyish, pink-cheeked face and his naivete in going about, asking strangers for two or three millions to buy a broken-down railroad out in the wilderness, got him nowhere at all.

But Brooks was not easily discouraged. Failing in Boston, he went down to New York and talked to officials of the Farmers Bank and Trust Company, remorseful buyer of a large quantity of those defaulted Michigan bonds, which by that time had begun to smell pretty badly. The bank was quite naturally eager to see someone buy the railroad and restore the state's credit, and was willing to give aid. Brooks now had something to talk  p219 about. He returned to Detroit and consulted a lawyer whom he had met there, one James F. Joy, native of New Hampshire, who had emigrated to the new state and was building up as good a practice as one could expect in a town of about 14,000 population. Brooks and Joy conferred with state officials and legislators, who were willing to sell and give them a charter, but being mostly Yankee-born themselves, drove a sharp bargain. They asked $2,000,000 for the tottering, 143‑mile railroad and specified that the buyer must complete it to Lake Michigan in three years and lay it with 60‑pound T‑rails from end of the end; which meant that the whole structure must rebuilt from the ground up. Brooks and Joy accepted the stipulations, the Michigan Central Railroad was chartered, and six months was allowed for the formation of the company, acceptance of the charter and payment of $500,000 on the purchase price.

Brooks now hurried back to Boston, and this time, with his charter and his powerful New York backing, he made a dent on the granite conservatism of State Street. John Murray Forbes, friend of Emerson and one of the finest types of New England business man, was his first and greatest catch; then by hard labor he enlisted John E. Thayer, of a noted Boston banking family, Captain David A. Neal of Salem, head of the Eastern Railroad; Thomas H. Perkins and Josiah Quincy, prominent New England railroad men, Erastus Corning, president of the Utica & Schenectady, and others. He barely got under the wire within his six months' allowance for organization. Forbes was elected president and Brooks superintendent. Thayer was the chief financial man, and the principal office of the company was in Boston.

Brooks labored with whirlwind energy, and despite his wealthy collaborators, with straitened means, to complete his task within the prescribed time. The road's total receipts in December- p220 January-February, 1846‑7, were only $53,000. One should not neglect to say that Brooks had able assistance from Attorney Joy, who was on his way towards becoming one of the nation's greatest railroad executives. The first annual report, that for 1847, shows that only thirteen miles had been located west of Kalamazoo, but after that, progress was better.

The railhead reached Niles in October, 1848, and on April 23, 1849, it pushed into the terminus which the promoters had taken away from the Southern railway, the hamlet of New Buffalo in the extreme corner of the state, 218½ miles from Detroit and about as far as they could go on a Michigan charter. Meanwhile, as Brooks and Joy had been shrewd enough to insert in their charter a provision that the company might operate steamboats, they built a boat, the Mayflower, which went into service between Buffalo and Detroit in the spring of '49, and chartered another one to assist her. It was their opinion that other lake boats had been gouging the public unmercifully, all of them, by agreement amongst themselves, charging $6 for cabin passage between Buffalo and Detroit, and $3 steerage. The appearance of the Michigan Central's packets now brought a terrific break in rates.

[image ALT: A naïve woodcut of an early railroad passenger car, showing 14 identical compartments, disix of them tenanted by men or women, all wearing hats; at either end of the car, standing in the open air on the platform between cars, a man leaning on the platform rail.]

Michigan Central passenger car about 1848

However, by 1849 Brooks had succeeded in re-laying only 45 miles of the original line with the heavy T‑rail; but many bridges had been rebuilt, and the state was lenient in the matter, being only too glad to have such improvement as had been achieved. But Forbes wrote to Joshua F. Bates (August 17, 1850) that it would be economy to replace all the strap with T‑rail, as it would not only save wear and tear on equipment, but would enable them to make two hours better time between Detroit and New Buffalo — which conveys a faint idea of what a drawback the strap rail was. So this change was presently carried out.

'Forty-nine had been rather a bad year, as Forbes informed Bates:

We began this year with our Road just completed, but with only two Boats on Lake Erie to do the work of three. Our route was almost unknown to the travelling public, who were accustomed to go round through the Upper Lakes, 700 miles, and we had to compete with some fifteen or twenty Upper Lake Boats, who had little employment open to them except to run against us.

To meet this competition, we carried passengers on the Steamer from Buffalo to Detroit, 270 miles, thence by R R to New Buffalo, 218½ miles, and again by Boat to Chicago 40 miles, in  p221 all 533½ miles, for five dollars, while the Boats carried them round the Lakes 270 miles to Detroit, thence 700 miles in all 970 miles, for the same price or less, including Beds and Board for four or five days. Added to this was the Cholera, which cut off all pleasure travel to the West and checked all business — and to crown the whole, the Wheat crop was the smallest one for three years. With such drawbacks, our receipts were all we had a right to expect.

The Michigan Central could whisk passengers from Detroit to Chicago in from 33 to 36 hours, and we find it hard to understand why so many travelers preferred the long detour which required four or five and sometimes six days. No doubt many considered that long ride with bed and board at around a dollar a day too good a bargain to miss; and in that more leisurely age, they probably weren't in any great hurry, anyhow. But there was another reason; as Forbes remarked acidly in the annual report, the competition of those boats "cannot be permanently maintained, and is only sustained at present by a system of deception which, in a little time, will react with power in our favor."

Brooks and Joy were not satisfied with the terminus at New Buffalo, but thought the rails should push on at least 9½ miles further, to Michigan City, and Forbes fell in with the idea. He wrote in the annual report for 1849:

It is obviously expedient to have our western terminus upon a line where we can avail of the Railroads which will eventually be built around the head of Lake Michigan to Chicago and South through Indiana towards the Ohio, by the Companies which now hold Charters or by some others.

The railroad which he had in mind as a southbound connection was the New Albany & Salem (now a part of the Monon) which was to connect the lake at Michigan City with the Ohio opposite Louisville, running via La­fayette. But before the Michigan Central railhead had reached Michigan City on October 30, 1850, new vistas, new complications beckoned it on.

The state's Southern road had been bought by private interests, combined with a little concern in northern Indiana, and as the Michigan Southern & Northern Indiana, was nosing on towards Chicago. Brooks had long since begun to insist that his own road must also attaint the goal; after all, it was only 56 miles beyond Michigan City. But before they would grant charters and rights  p222 of way, Indiana and Illinois politicians did a little horse-trading. The Michigan Central was a millionaire outfit from Boston and New York; why shouldn't it help local enterprise a little? So, if the MC would buy nice blocks of the securities of the New Albany & Salem and the Illinois Central (about to be built from Chicago southward with the aid of a 2,500,000‑acre land grant), they might have anything they wished. The MC accordingly advanced $50,000 to the N. A. & S. to enable it to get started, and promised more later.

Captain Mackinnon, R. N.,​2 traveled over the Michigan Central in 1851 and considered it "a well conducted and highly creditable affair. With a uniform speed of eighteen miles an hour, it is punctual and safe." But he said Europeans would find it difficult to realize the fact of so good a railway through primeval forests, which he found "extremely dreary;" dark, dank woods, occasional partly cleared fields, dotted with blackened, rotting stumps. Even the "neat and thriving villages" along the way were "half smothered in luxuriant foliage." Wild turkeys, quail, wild pigeons and other game were seen as the train threaded the "dismal solitude." He said that on stopping at one station, such loud cackling and squawking were heard in a carful of cooped chickens that a door was opened, when out darted a fox. It "must have jumped in at the last station without being perceived," and was too frightened to break into the chicken coops.

At first the four-wheeled freight cars, each about fifteen feet long, had no brakes. Freight trains had no conductors, the engineers carrying the bills of lading. Passenger trains had schedules, but freight trains ran wild, which, according to old-timers, was true all over the Middle West. In the old files at Detroit the author found a letter of 1853 to the superintendent from an engineer who was much annoyed by another engine that kept getting in his way:


I have found the Rein Deer​3 running on my time twice, drawing timber from Decatur west. I should like to know if I have  p223 got to look out for her when I am behind time, or not. Some pretend to say that I have.

Yours, &c.

H. Cole

One passenger engine ran out of water one night in a sleet storm. The ground was covered with snow, and the engineer and fireman shoveled this into the tank, but made slow progress, and finally used their last stick of wood. After a considerable tramp, they routed a farmer out of bed, and with much difficulty persuaded him to pull the locomotive into town a mile and a half away with his team. There they found wood and water, returned to the train and drew it into town, where the passengers got breakfast and replenished the car stoves after having spent a miserable night in almost heatless cars. Fortunately, Captain Mackinnon did his tour in summer and encountered no such experiences.

There was a time when the Michigan Central was definitely not the pride of the entire population of the state, there being a considerable sector in opposition. It had not been in operation long when it ran into a clash with its rural neighbors that is unique in railroad history.

It is impossible at the present time to distribute the blame fairly, or to comprehend the reasoning of those days, when the country was still in pioneer condition, when railroad rights of way were still unfenced, when cattle ran at large and the question whether the owner or the railroad was responsible for their safety was still unsettled. But it appears to us that Brooks, continually under financial strain, may have been a little too uncompromising with farmers who demanded pay for cattle killed by the trains.  p224 Other executives found it wiser not to refuse payment entirely, even though they haggled over the figures. The result in Michigan was a growing resentment which, fomented by turbulent characters, became in effect an insurrection. A secret organization was formed — they called themselves "Pioneers" — with the purpose of wrecking trains, shooting into cars, burning depots and other property until the railroad was either brought to terms or put out of business.

During 1849‑50 trains were stoned and shot at, stacks of engine firewood, lumber and ties were burned, obstructions were placed on the track and several locomotives and cars were derailed. For safety's sake, trains were forced to run more slowly, but still had trouble. On one occasion when an engine ran over a timber placed on the track with several of its wheels, but did not leave the rails, a group standing in full view near by, observing the performance, told the engineer frankly, "By God, you can never run your trains safely over this road until you pay up for cattle." When the engineer said that the company might put on armed guards, one Abel Fitch, a farmer, retorted, "Come on, I've got guns and men to use 'em. I'll fight the whole damned company." Fitch and Ammi Filley, a saloonkeeper, were two of the ringleaders, and it was testified at their trials that trains were stoned from their gardens, which lay alongside the track.

In November, 1850, the company's big freight house in Detroit was burned with a loss of $160,000. There was a low tower on it, and the public were freely admitted to this for what was considered a fine view of the town and the river. Someone planted a slow match up there, which flared up in the night and destroyed the building, together with ten freight cars, 15,000 barrels of flour, 25,000 bushels of wheat, 2,000 bushels of corn and much miscellaneous freight.

Meanwhile a company agent, Darius Clark, had joined the conspirators' organization, taken the oaths and attended all meetings, procuring evidence which landed 38 men, among them some fairly well-to‑do and influential farmers, in jail in April, 1851. After a hard-fought trial, twelve of the accused were given prison terms. Clark's life was threatened, and the company removed him to safety, making him its agent in New York. The grudge-holders, however, were not yet satisfied. The company's shops were burned after the trials, and three years later the Detroit passenger station was mysteriously destroyed by fire. There were still bucolic grievances. In 1853, at Parma, for example,  p225 horses were being frightened by a windmill belonging to the railroad, and their owners, claiming that the company was liable, were demanding damages for injuries to their wagons and themselves.

The Great Western, the Canadian railroad which was building a line from Niagara Falls to Windsor, opposite Detroit, but needed money, was another concern which the Michigan Central would have liked to aid, but the Legislature would not permit the company to buy stock in a foreign corporation. So the directors urged their stockholders to do so, and as we have seen, Brooks headed a delegation which persuaded some of the railroads between Albany and Buffalo to subscribe to Great Western stock, and thus aid in completing a vital link between their two systems, and obviating the disastrous winter stoppages. To appreciate its necessity, said the MC directors in their report in June, 1852, it was only necessary to glance at their tables of winter earnings for some years back:

The moment Lake Erie closes, Michigan becomes isolated from the seaboard, and our Railroad traffic is instantly reduced to about half the amount of our operating expenses, and sometimes even lower, until the melting ice sets us free again.

To be sure, they added, some of this was caused by the "execrable winter highways" across the Illinois prairies, but when both obstructions were removed by the completion of railroads then under way, "we shall commence an entirely new era in our winter business." They hoped that the Great Western would be completed before the winter of 1853‑54, "thus leaving us shut up but one more winter." An additional reason for impatience was that one of their Lake Erie steamboats had been destroyed with considerable loss, and with a rail connection just around the corner, they were not keen about building any more boats.

At the other end of the line, the company was having a bitter fight to get into Chicago or even the state of Illinois. It had won some friends in Indiana by aiding the New Albany & Salem, incidentally urging that company to obtain many local subscriptions to its stock, even if only for one share, as this "will give us strength in the Indiana Legislature." But it still had to battle against the Michigan Southern & Northern Indiana Railroad, the Illinois Legislature and the city of Chicago. George B. Upton, the treasurer, wrote to Brooks in 1851, "What I suppose we desire is to get our foot in, so that we shall have the exclusive right  p226 of bringing passengers or freight away from Chicago, that are to come east." Which shows how unrealistic the thinking of a New Yorker in his ivory tower could be. It was lucky to get into Illinois at all. The Michigan Southern tried to obstruct its right of way and its aid of that NA & S through the courts, proceedings which the Central directors characterized as "of a vexatious and frivolous character . . . which have uniformly been instituted by them, and thus far, as uniformly decided in our favor." By way of retort, the Central tried to have the Michigan Southern thrown out of Michigan.

The grades of both the Central and the Southern had reached the Illinois state line by the end of 1850, and there they halted, glaring at everyone, while opposition to their entrance into that state volleyed and thundered from premises which appear utterly incredible to us now. Chicago, suffering from an inferiority complex, was convinced that the railroads were trying to do her wrong. Early in 1851 it was rumored — and widely believed in Chicago that the Michigan Southern might run directly west from Michigan City to a connection with the Rock Island at Joliet, thus by-passing Chicago. As for the Michigan Central, its buying of some stock in the Illinois Central and hoping to use the IC's track for twelve or fourteen miles, from Calumet or Kensington into the city gave rise to the report that these roads, too, were preparing a "cut-off" — a through route from Detroit to Cairo which would leave Chicago "far off the line to the north" — twelve miles off! Each road had not only a cult of bitter opponents in Chicago but one of partisans; and many of the opponents belonged to a third group who opposed both railroads on the ground that they would injure the retail business of the city! Anyone who has swallowed whole the thesis that the voice of the people represents the highest wisdom of the nation has only to study the record to blush for his error.

The Chicago Democrat, which had preserved its balance and inveighed against "the useless quarrels of last winter, when our citizens paired off between the two Michigan companies, and by defeating both, compelled them to resort to indirect means to get here," remarked on October 20, 1851, that "The cut-off humbug has exploded. . . . Upon what subject the agitators and busybodies in our city will go off half-cocked next remains to be seen." But despite the "explosion," hordes of people still believed in the cutoff story. As late as March, 1852, after the Legislature and the Council had yielded, and Michigan Central rails were approaching  p227 Calumet, a mass meeting — with parades — was held, to lay plans for fighting the junction of the two roads and so leaving Chicago out in the cold.

But they were too late. The Council had made a deal, greatly to its own advantage, with the IC; in fact, it had really been tough with that company — giving it permission to run along the lake front and establish a terminal there only on condition that it protect the city from the incursions of the lake, which had recently destroyed bulkheads and bitten into downtown streets. To build a permanent barrier against the turbulent lake meant enormous expense to the railroad, and not only did the IC hesitate, but the Michigan Central threatened to withdraw from the joint track arrangement. But after some pondering, it accepted the situation, and thereafter through the years shared with the Illinois Central the millions of expense required for the purpose.

And so the two roads drove their iron into Chicago in the spring of 1852, with stages carrying the mails from the railheads into the city in shorter and shorter time, and men betting on the progress as on a horse race. The Southern beat the Central by a few weeks. On May 20, the first Michigan Central trains entered a temporary station at Thirteenth Street. The tracks from there up the lake front to Randolph Street were later constructed on piles driven into the water's edge. This was the only structure until the city's great fire of 1871, when the track was ballasted and protected on the lake side with broken brick and stone from the ruined buildings.4

The effects of the new lines were so different from the gloomy prophecies of recent months as to make the obstructionists look silly. Those two railroads connecting it with the East gave Chicago just about the greatest sudden boost in its history. Enormous jumps in realty values were reported; a corner lot sold for $16,000, a twenty-foot front for $3,000. A man bought ten acres in the outskirts of the city for $950 in 1849 and sold the tract in '52 for $10,000. The city's population, only 39,000 in 1850, was figured at 60,000 by the end of '52. Late that year the Sherman House reported being compelled to turn away as many as 60 would‑be guests in a day. There was an acute housing shortage. The Michigan Central directors spoke as true prophets in their report for 1852 when they called Chicago "a city destined to be the converging point of the passengers from the whole northwest  p228 and from a large portion of the west." They might have added from the East and the South, too. It was the railroads rather than the lake that made Chicago what it is; the nation's second city, as well as the greatest railroad center on the globe.

In 1854 the New Albany & Salem went into service, and in '55 the Cincinnati Express began running from Chicago over the Michigan Central to Michigan City, thence via N. A. & S. to La­fayette, and beyond that, by other roads to Indianapolis and Cincinnati. And in 1854, with enormous fanfare, the Great Western was opened, and the Central's link with New York thus completed. Forbes, retiring from the presidency in '55, wrote that when the company took over the road nine years before, Detroit was three days' travel from the seaboard in summon and five or six days in winter. Now it could be reached in 27 hours, while from New York to Chicago required only 36 hours; remarkable time, considering the ferries necessary at Albany, Niagara, and Detroit. (The Niagara bridge, completed that year, eliminated one of the ferries.)

The last of the strap rail had not been removed from the line until the year the road entered Chicago, and thereafter it became a speedway; in the latter 1850's it was running some of the fastest trains on the continent. In 1855 it began stringing telegraph wires, to be used in the operation of trains, far in advance of the railroads of New England or many others in the East, and in 1860 the directors reported warmly that four years' experience with the telegraph had "settled the question of its great importance in operating the road."

In 1846 Detroit and Chicago had only 14,000 population apiece; nine years later Detroit claimed 55,000 and Chicago 80,000 — both exaggerated, we suspect, but it seemed likely that Detroit had at least trebled and Chicago quintupled its population in that decade, and transportation had largely been responsible.

In 1846, said Forbes, the road as then existing might with good management have produced a gross income of $400,000 yearly. In '55 the 269‑mile line was doing a $2,500,000 business; and as proof that it was keeping the line hot, it was using from 95 to 100 locomotives. When it first reached Chicago, the competition with the Michigan Southern & Northern Indiana and its connecting lines eastward was terrific; solicitors and advertisers were skittering all over the East, delegating travelers with literature. One of these, Orson Brooks, wrote to the home office in July, 1852:

 p229  The fact is, Sir, that whole line of road (N. Y. & Erie) is a one-sided concern, and all belonging to it, all for the Southern Road to a man; told me I could go by that route 8 or ten hours quicker to Chicago than by the Central route, &c. &c. I made it my business to scatter bills of the Central at all the points from Cleveland by land to Conneaut and then from Dunkirk through & returned by way of Canandaigua, Rochester & Buffalo You in every instance had to pay regular fare! One man there, Mr. Clark, is doing all that can be done, and is doing some good, too, scattering Bills on Western trains & letting travelers know there is such a Rail Road in America as the Michigan Central.​5

Such competition was too wearing, and by November, 1857, we find the Central and Southern in a pooling arrangement under which all passenger receipts between Chicago and the East were divided equally, as well as all freight business above 58 percent done by the Central and 42 percent by the Michigan Southern. Both companies withdrew their steamers from Lake Erie and depended upon rails alone for their eastern connections.

John W. Brooks, who, more than any other one man, had made the Michigan Central the success it was, succeeded Forbes as president in 1855. He started out conservatively. The stockholders' meeting in June, 1856, heard "with satisfaction" that there would be no considerable construction during the year, and urged the directors not to undertake any thereafter to the extent of more than one percent of the capital stock, or without asking the approval of the stockholders. But there was no need for concern; the company's trunk-line building days were over. Thereafter, it confined itself to aiding feeder lines, some of which later became its appendages. The first road it aided in this way was the Amboy, Lansing & Traverse Bay, incorporated in 1857 and popularly known as the "Ram's Horn Road." Newspapers nearly always referred to it thus, and the muezzin's call of the bus driver at the benton House in Lansing was "All abo‑o‑ard! Owosso and Detroit train over the Ram's Horn leaves the station in 55 minutes. Bus goin' right down." It had such a hard time getting into Lansing that the State Republican in April, 1862, urged citizens to go out in person and help complete the grading — which some of them did.

In 1862, the Michigan Central arranged with the New Albany & Salem (or Louisville, New Albany & Chicago, as it began to be called) to operate the northern division of that road between  p230 Michigan City and La­fayette, 91 miles. By agreement with the railroads between La­fayette and Cincinnati, the Central supplied the cars for two through trains between Chicago and Cincinnati, though they had to travel a roundabout course below Indianapolis. The imminent completion of the Indianapolis Cincinnati Railroad was expected to increase this business greatly. But in June, 1865, the Central stockholders were much alarmed because "the traffic of the Chicago and Cincinnati line via our road to Michigan City is in great danger of being destroyed by the opening of a shorter line between those cities" (the La­fayette and Chicago line). They asked the directors to consider the question of building a 22‑mile cutoff to the New Albany road, thus "forever fixing this as the best line between Chicago and Cincinnati." What naivete is in that word, "forever!" The cutoff was not constructed.

Brooks gave up the presidency in 1867 and went east to damage his reputation and whiten his hair by trying to complete that bête noire, the Hoosac Tunnel. James F. Joy, the transplanted Yankee, by that time one of the nation's noted rail executives, succeeded him. The directorate re-elected that year is interesting and significant. Besides Joy there were Nathaniel Thayer of Boston, vice-president; Isaac Livermore of Boston, treasurer; three other directors, Brooks, Forbes and Sidney Bartlett of Boston; Erastus Corning of Albany, and George F. Johnson and Moses Taylor New York. Five years later the roster was practically the same. For nearly thirty years the main offices of the company remained in Boston.

Joy came in at a stirring and precarious time in rail history. A post-war boom was on, and railroads were being built like mad in all directions, including Michigan. As Joy said, none too cheerfully, in 1870, "The extraordinary ease with which money is obtained for railway enterprises, stimulated also by aid from municipalities, has started into life many new railroad companies in Michigan as well as elsewhere." Seeing these projects spring up all around it, the Michigan Central assisted several which appeared likely to be valuable feeders for it, buying their bonds in exchange for promises of business. One of these was the Jackson, Lansing & Saginaw, which had been organized in 1865 with a land grant of 348,433 acres, to take over the Ram's Horn Road. The Central began operating it by agreement in 1871, and extended it to Mackinaw in 1882.

Joy thought it advisable to gather in a number of these in the  p231 early years of his incumbency, for most of them were just pining for some great big, strong fellow to propose to them, and there was increasing danger that the Lake Shore might be the gatherer, and thus cut in on the Central's territory; in fact, it did take the Kalamazoo, Allegan & Grand Rapids and the Detroit, Hillsdale & Indiana from right under the Central's nose. But the Central assisted the Grand River Valley — chartered in 1846 to run from Jackson to Grand Rapids — and began to operate it in 1870.

And then there was the Michigan Air Line, a piratical scheme boosted as the shortest line between Buffalo and Chicago, crossing the St. Clair River north of Detroit and shooting down athwart the state, missing practically all the important towns. An annoying rival of the MC, of course; but Joy had the philosophy of that elderly Alabama Senator of a few decades ago towards a hostile faction, "If you can't lick 'em, jine 'em!" So he aided the Air Line — though not too much, of course — and then took over all it had succeeded in building or ever would build, the track from Jackson through Three Rivers to South Bend, Indiana. The Detroit & Bay City was another one given the helping hand, then gathered into the family.

Railroad building in Michigan and northern Indiana had at times a weird, maddening problem to deal with, what they call in those parts a sink-hole. You may read and hear some amazing reports on them in the engineering offices, especially in Detroit. In Kentucky a sink-hole is a pit, usually funnel-shaped, leading to a vertical cave through rock, made by the action of water. But up north it means a pot or funnel in the soil, sometimes extensive, often 80 to 100 feet deep, filled with soupy marl or muck, almost defying filling — a sort of land-maelstrom. There was one on the Ram's Horn in the very outskirts of Lansing which gave months of trouble. In another place, where the track was to cross a small, marshy ravine, a floor of logs was laid, and on it a fill 18 feet high was built; and between a Saturday night and Monday morning the whole thing had disappeared in the ooze. It is asserted that twelve acres of timber surrounding this place were cut and thrown into the sink before they could get a firm foundation.

Into two adjacent sink-holes far up the Michigan peninsula a line-builder reported that 2,000 cars of ballast and thousands of feet of timber were dumped before they could build a dependable track. Thinking they had one of them licked, they left six cars of ballast on it one evening, and next morning they were  p232 gone, track and all. In the bottom of one hole up towards Mackinaw railroaders say that a locomotive and tender has been sleeping its last sleep for sixty years. In another near Sedan, Indiana, 80,000 old cross-ties were sunk, as well as some acres of fresh-cut timber. For two years the track was detoured around the place, but at last it was conquered, and fast New York-Chicago trains now thunder across it without a tremor. As may be imagined, the Kankakee swamp (Gene Stratton Porter's Limberlost) in northern Indiana was a difficult monster to cope with.

It is not generally remembered today what that wise old Mr. Dooley used to call the "Mitchigan Cinthral" was one of the great innovators of the nineteenth century, usually a step ahead of its competitors in improvements and new devices. Under the dynamic Brooks, even before the Civil War and for years thereafter, it operated some of the fastest trains on the continent. His adoption of the telegraph in 1855 has been mentioned, and it was in his regime that the MC pioneered in the improvement of sleeping car service. The directors in 1860 reported that one "first-class sleeping car," with seats convertible into beds, also three "drovers' sleeping cars," had been built in the company's shops during the year. The cooperation between the MC and the Great Western of Canada became closer, but the GW was built on the favorite Canadian broad gauge, so through trains could not be operated. But in 1866 the GW installed a third rail to create a standard gauge track, and as the MC directors said, "is now changing a portion of its rolling stock to conform to the gauge of our road and its allies."

Mr. Pullman's greatly improved sleepers now ran through over the two roads between Chicago and Buffalo, and at times even to Albany and New York. The Great Western installed a big car ferry at Detroit which could carry a whole train across the river, and halted not for ice or blizzard. Pullman that same year installed on this route three of his experimental "hotel cars," the President, Viceroy, and Western World, in which the first dining on wheels was done. The cars were remarkable productions for their day — 75 feet long, with a small kitchen at one end, a chef and two waiters in addition to the porter. They served fried oysters, steaks, chops, fried potatoes, cold cuts, cheese, tea and coffee. Joel Munsell, who saw the Western World at Albany, declared that it had a wine cellar too, which might have been true. Meals were served in the sections, after the berths had been stowed for the day.

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Two dining car menu headings of the 1870's.

 p233  On April 8, 1867, the Western World left Chicago with an excursion party and continued through Buffalo over the New York Central. Great crowds were assembled at Rochester, Syracuse and Utica to marvel at the luxury. Erastus Corning was so taken with it that he wired Commodore Vanderbilt, who had it brought to New York. There it was promptly chartered by T. C. Durant, one of the builders of the Union Pacific, to take a party out to his project. At first the MC ran hotel cars only once a week, but predicted a daily line soon, when a passenger might ride from Chicago to New York without having to leave his car; and that would have been a boon indeed in the days before trains were vestibuled.

But a staff of four was expensive, and the 60‑ton cars were too great a burden to be added to trains drawn by the light locomotives then in service; so after a time the luxurious vehicles were discarded, and passengers began gobbling their ham and oysters and pie at wayside eating houses again. The Michigan Central was not satisfied, however, to give up so easily. It put on lighter sleepers without kitchens — a poster of 1870 shows that both Pullmans and Wagners were passing over it between New York and Chicago — and in 1875 it installed modern diners, which had first appeared on the Chicago & Alton. Other midwestern roads followed suit, but the New York Central did not use diners for several years thereafter.

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The Michigan Central directors remarked innocently in 1863 that the business of the country through which the East-West trunk lines had increased so greatly that there was traffic for all, "making unnecessary the fierce competition formerly prevailing;" which is quite delightful in view of the fierce competition that prevailed time and again thereafter. "During the last six months of 1871," for example, to quote a Lake Shore report of the following year, "a ruinous competition existed on westward-bound freights between the trunk lines (Pennsylvania, Erie and New York Central and Hudson River) in the course of which the price of freight transportation were reduced to a point almost without precedent." The connecting rails, Michigan Central and Lake Shore, were of course drawn into the fight and had to share in the cuts to aid their cooperators. However, "We have reason to hope," the Lake Shore report went on, "that better counsels will prevail and that our eastward trunk line connections will be slow to renew the warfare which worked such disastrous results in 1871."

 p234  Joy, quoting this, adds for the MC directors, "This language is applicable to our road as well as theirs, with the exception of the statement . . . that it has reason to hope that better counsels will prevail. . . . This warfare, in one form or another, seems to become chronic between those companies, and we have little hope of increased wisdom on that question." The war of the past year, he said, had been worse than that of the year before, "destroying totally the whole value of westbound business for six months of the best season of the year." Furthermore, he added gloomily, "The rapid multiplication of railroads and the intense competition created thereby is affecting seriously the value of the entire railroad property of the country."

He had just cause for pessimism. The panic of 1873 was just around the corner. The Baltimore & Ohio was pushing a railhead furiously towards Chicago (which it reached in 1876), so was the Erie, and a new competitor had arisen in Canada. The Erie & Niagara Extension Railway, incorporated in Ontario in 1868, had changed its name to Canada Southern in '69, with intent to build from Niagara to Detroit. But its promoter, Thompson, hawking his hopes about the market, could find no backing in Detroit or Windsor, its neighbor across the river (Terminus of the Great Western), so he planned a through line from Buffalo to Chicago, crossing the Detroit River at Grosse Isle, some fifteen miles below the city. Before he had gotten far with his line in Canada, he leaped across the boundary, procured a charter in Michigan and began in 1872‑73 to build his Chicago extension from the Detroit River southwestward. It reached Fayette, Ohio, where the crash of '73 halted its advance forever. That track was to cross Grosse Isle separated from the mainland by a mere narrow bayou of the Detroit River​6 — then bridge another channel to a little eyot called Stony Island, from which a ferry was to cross the main channel of the river to the Canadian shore just above Amherstburg.

To make matters still worse, the Grand Trunk, a powerful competitor coming from Portland and Montreal, was building parallel to the Great Western and proposed crossing into Michigan up at  p235 Sarnia, at the outlet of Lake Huron, where the swift current kept the river freer of ice than farther down. Joy had worried long over that river crossing problem at Detroit. The ferry, good as it was, was not good enough in the face of mounting competition. In 1871, in conjunction with the Great Western, he organized a tunnel company, procuring charters from Michigan and Ontario. Among the directors one finds the now-familiar names of Nathaniel Thayer of Boston and Morris K. Jesup of New York. Shafts were sunk on both sides of the river and the tunnel bore begun. But the diggers encountered such pockets of quicksand and sulphur streams emitting noxious gases which killed two workmen and felled many others that the project was given up after $200,000 had been spent. Joy now determined to make a try for a bridge, though he knew he would have to fight all the shipping interests on the lakes. He first obtained authority from the Dominion Government, which was not so susceptible to "influences" as that of the United States has always been. But when he reached Washington, he found Great Lakes shipping owners and underwriters there in force against him, and he could not prevail. It was one of his few defeats.

With the economic collapse of 1873, the proud Michigan Central, whose stock had sold as high as 130, now had to pass dividends, and saw its shares fall below par in the market. But a new force was gathering strength behind it. As usually stated, it was Commodore Vanderbilt who, in behalf of New York Central, began buying its stock about 1869, when its seemed doubtful whether he or the Erie would gain possession of the Lake Shore. His son William urged his purchases in both roads. The aging Commodore had settled into provincialism in his thinking, and at first saw no reason for owning lines west of Buffalo. "If we take hold of roads running all the way to Chicago," he retorted to William, "we might as well go on to San Francisco or even to China." But William, strongly seconded by Horace Clark, recognized the growing importance of Chicago as a national solar plexus, and the necessity of not merely fragile traffic agreements with carriers west of Buffalo, but actual control of them; and old Cornelius was wise enough not only to yield to their counsels, but to enter into the plan with enthusiasm.

Here let us pause to say that while Cornelius Vanderbilt was one of the greatest entrepreneurs in all railroad history, his colorful, two-fisted personality added not a little in giving him his firmly established place in American memories. But ask certain  p236 veteran railroaders and students of the history of the business, and they may tell you that not only first-hand observers' reports, handed down from generation to generation, but a careful analysis of the known facts point to the probability that William Henry Vanderbilt was a greater railroad genius than his father. His reign as absolute monarch of the Central and its dependencies lasted less than nine years, but he exercised an increasingly strong influence over the acts of his dynamic parent for another decade before that.

The handwriting on the wall was seen by the Chicago Tribune, which said editorially on September 22, 1875:

It is learned that the contract recently made between the Michigan Central Railroad and Wagner's Palace Car Company has been confirmed by the directors of the road who met in New York a few days ago. Mr. Pullman was present at the meeting, and endeavored to convince the directors that it would be to the interest of the road to continue his cars. He offered to give the company far better terms than those given by Wagner's line. And although both President Joy and General Superintendent Strong​7 favored Pullman's cars, yet the influence of Vanderbilt was too strong on the Board, and Wagner's line, which is virtually owned by Vanderbilt, got the contract. There is hardly any doubt that the reports about Vanderbilt having secured a controlling interest in the line are correct. . . . The election of Mr. Sloan to the directory, the substitution of Wagner's sleeping cars in place of Pullman's, and the removal of the headquarters of the road from Boston to New York prove that Vanderbilt is handling the reins. Owing to the fact that Michigan Central had to pass its dividends during the past few years, it is rumored that Vanderbilt is also negotiating for the purchase of the Canada Southern Railroad, which at the present time can be had very cheap. It is believed that Vanderbilt has long had an eye on these lines so as to control all the Northwestern business, and prevent Boston from making use of the Hoosac Tunnel as a direct route to the West.

The Vanderbilts had invested some money in Great Western stock, but a dominant English interest in that company was difficult  p237 to get along with, so the Commodore turned to the Canada Southern. That concern in 1876 was bankrupt, owing its employees four months' pay and trying to settle with depreciated paper. In June, the road fell into the Commodore's lap — his last earthly triumph — for a mere guarantee of 5 percent interest on its bonds. Now only some hooking up at each end, including a short branch from Essex to Windsor, was needed to give the MC a fine, low-grade line from Buffalo or Niagara to Detroit, and they could forget about the Great Western, which, by the way, was  p238 deplorably hard up itself, and soon passed into the hands of the Grand Trunk.

[image ALT: An engraved allegorical cartoon showing two locomotives steaming in parallel toward the right foreground. The one on the left, identified as the Grand Trunk R. R. and ridden by a giant burly engine in workingmen's clothes, is marked with the motto 'Honesty is the best Policy' on the funnel, and rides on rails labeled 'Respect of Contracts' and 'Fair Play Uniform [Rates]', and the front tie is labeled 'The Straight Road'. The locomotive on the right, identified as the New York Central, is ridden by a somehwat smaller but still giant man dressed as a jockey, and is labeled 'Bound to Regain Trade by any Means' and rides on a rail labeled 'Undercut Rates'. Between the two is a black space prominently labeled 'Gulf of Dishonor'. It is a cartoon against the New York Central's competition with Canadian railroads in 1876.]

Canada didn't like the Commodore's methods in 1876.
Cartoon from the Canadian Illustrated News.

Early in 1877, it was known that Joy would leave the presidency at the June meeting; and as the Commodore had passed from the scene in January, a committee of stockholders, including Russell Sage, Vermilye & Company, D. P. Morgan, Delafield & Fitch and other prominent individuals and firms signed a letter to William H. Vanderbilt, offering him their proxies and in effect, urging him to take over the management of the road. He replied that he did not crave any more managerial duties, but if tendered the proxies, he would use them for what he considered the best interests of the company. His wishes were expressed in the placing of the durable Samuel Sloan, who was all over the map sooner or later, in as president; he had been vice-president for a year past. Thayer was now the only Bostonian left on the directorate, which had taken on a strong New York coloring.

Sloan held the presidency only a year, and then William H. took over. The new owner­ship had revived the talk of a better crossing at Detroit. General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.William Sooy Smith in January, 1877, had proposed a tunnel whose roof should project slightly above the river bed, which Joy and others denounced as folly. Joy also ridiculed Sooy Smith's estimate of $300,000 for a test tunnel, saying it was far too low. From sad experience, the old man had become very pessimistic regarding a tunnel. In '79 Sooy Smith tried again to revive the project, but found Detroit cold. The bridge alternative was brought up again that year — a very high bridge this time, to give shipping clearance under it (a drawbridge had been discussed in '73). "Meanwhile," raged the Detroit Free Press, "the citizens of Detroit, with utter lack of public spirit, looked on with supreme indifference and seemed to think the affair rather amusing, a sort of show gotten up for their benefit, with no charge for admission."

But Detroit awoke with a jolt and its nerves tensed when it heard gossip that Vanderbilt proposed to bypass the city, to use the Canada Southern track as it was, tunnel under the river at Grosse Isle and join the Michigan Central main line at Ypsilanti or thereabouts. Resolutions were now drawn up, petitions were sent to Vanderbilt, editors wrote reams of copy; nevertheless, ground for the tunnel was broken at Amherstburg on April 23, 1880, with great ceremony and the whole Vanderbilt tribe present. The Free Press described the personal appearances of all of them:

 p239  William H. Vanderbilt, a placid and benign looking gentleman of 55, well preserved, well clad, well fed and looking altogether well satisfied with himself . . . Cornelius Vanderbilt, aged 27 or thereabouts, of solid and substantial build, not conspicuously different in any particular, so far as appearances go, from the average business man of his age; William K., about 22, a rather nobby young man, but not unprepossessing, with a sort of air about him, that he prove a good fellow on acquaintance; Capt. J. H. Vanderbilt, brother of the old Commodore, who has reached his full three score and ten, and whose voice turning again to childish treble, pipes into the falsetto, and who came along with the boys for the sake of the trip. Augustus Schell, a venerable man of no trifling avoirdupois, whose face betokens strength of character and will . . . Webster Wagner, the sleeping car man, a white-haired, white-whiskered but fresh and vigorous man . . . E. D. Worcester, Treasurer of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern . . . J. Tillinghast, President of the Canada Southern; John Newell, general manager of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern. . . .

The Canada Southern must have been a well-built road, for they were doing some fast running, even in those days. Engineer Macomber's feat of covering 111 miles in 109 minutes in 1877 won for him the job of carrying the Vanderbilt party back eastward. He didn't quite equal his former record, but he did run the 229 miles from Amherstburg to the Niagara River at an overall rate of 55 miles an hour.

In the midst of all the turmoil, a party of Grand Trunk dignitaries, headed by Sir Henry Tyler, the president, and another knight, rolled into Detroit and announced that as they had been unable to come to any satisfactory terms with Vanderbilt, they were going to build their own line from Port Huron across to Chicago. (They later tunneled under the river from Sarnia to Port Huron.) And the Wabash, which was already in Toledo, now thrust out — through a subsidiary company under the presidency of the old lion, James F. Joy, whose deceptively benevolent, bearded countenance might easily have been mistaken for that of a Methodist bishop — a tentacle into Detroit, so that it, too, had a line from Detroit to Chicago. The Vanderbilt lines were now also deprived of the business of the Burlington and other Joy lines west of Chicago, Mr. Joy having become an ill-wisher. Detroit, too, had no kindly feelings for the great hierarchy. In the Free Press, in those little one-line squibs which newspapers  p240 sprinkled down a column in those days, one might read two such items as these in juxtaposition:

Matinees at all the theatres this afternoon.

"Blank Vanderbilt!" is the sentiment hereabout.

But when Vanderbilt's diggers found the going too tough at Grosse Isle, or for some other reason abandoned the job there, Detroit's ire was soothed. A 22‑mile offshoot of the Canada Southern was quickly built from Essex to Windsor and became a part of the main line, the portion between Essex and Amherstburg relapsing into the quietude of an unimportant branch. For a quarter century more the question of the river crossing at Detroit flared up from time to time and subsided again. A "winter bridge" was proposed in 1883, a high-level bridge in 1896 and again in 1904, each time fought by the shipping interests. At long last, the tunnel now in use was built and opened for service in 1910.

The Michigan Central report for 1879 shows that there was still terrific competition between lake boats and railroads for heavy freight, two major items of which were coal and salt. The iron ore business of northern Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota was still mostly held by the boats. Emigrant travel over the road had been double the volume of '78, and 165 percent greater than that of '77. There had been a great immigration from Europe — German and Scandinavian, mostly — headed for the Northwest. Also, there had been a heavy movement from eastern Canada to Manitoba, and incredibly enough, most of it came over the Michigan Central. It seems a discouraging detour, but the Canadian Pacific had not yet been constructed, and the MC was the nearest way by rail.

In 1882, the Canada Southern was formally leased by the Michigan Central for 21 years. Car ferries were installed at Detroit, the road was double-tracked from end to end and new equipment ordered, including 125 locomotives and two new dining cars (meals 75 cents flat) before ever the New York Central had such conveniences. The new rolling stock was lettered, "Michigan Central — Canada Southern Division;" but this gave offense at Ottawa, where the authorities requested that it be changed to read, "Canada Southern Ry., operated by the Michigan Central R.R.," and though it was an expensive job, William H., with his usual tact, good-naturedly made the change. But it  p241 wasn't long until the short lease had been replaced by one running 999 years, which seemed to be conclusive, and within a few years the "Canada Southern" could be quietly erased without further objection.

With the breaking of relations with the Great Western, the Grand Trunk, which had taken over that tottering concern, sought to retaliate by threatening to stop the Central's use of its Suspension Bridge at Niagara Falls. Vanderbilt's rejoinder to this was to throw across the gorge quite near it the great cantilever bridge which, with its 500‑foot span, was the engineering wonder of the age. Rather than ferry across the river at Buffalo (where there was as yet no bridge) he continued to run all trains over the detour via Niagara. In fact, the railroad boasted of it; a never-absent line in its advertising was, "All trains run via Niagara Falls." Not only that, but even the fastest trains passing by in daylight stopped for five minutes at Falls View or Inspiration Point to give the passengers a long look at the great cataract; and in that more placid age, when people did not imagine themselves so pressed for time, thousands took that route in preference to others for that very reason.​8 The practice was kept up until the International Bridge was built at Buffalo, and for some trains long after that.

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For decades, all Michigan Central trains stopped at Falls View, or Inspiration Point, to give the passengers a look at Niagara.

Detroit was still sniping at the New York control of the road. When the New York Central train shed at Buffalo fell in early in 1881 — causing only four deaths, by the way — the Free Press foresaw a dread analogy. On February 9 it remarked:

 p242  The fate of the depot at Buffalo should warn the railroad authorities that the Michigan Central station in Detroit is a disgrace to a civilized community, and what prevents it from falling in, the Lord only knows. . . . We trust Mr. Vanderbilt will not have to face the responsibility of such a horror in Detroit as that which has just occurred in Buffalo. . . .

The Madison Square Garden which fell in and crushed a score of people in New York City nearly a year ago was an old depot. They seem peculiarly susceptible to such calamities.

The first Madison Square Garden, it may be remarked, was the old New York & Harlaem station at Twenty-sixth Street and Fourth Avenue. Detroit was granted a new depot in course of time, and finally, in 1914, the present great station and office building which is one of the city's landmarks.

With the resignation of William H. Vanderbilt in 1883, there came to the head of the Michigan Central one of the most able and colorful of railroad executives — Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Henry B. Ledyard, who had long been general manager, who now held the presidency for 22 years, and then continued as chairman of the board until his death. Crotchety, peppery, as explosive as nitro-glycerine, un-self‑conscious and absorbed in his job almost to the point of monomania, he was like a character from fiction, a great executive who has become almost a legendary figure. A thousand stories are told of his eccentricities; of the silver water-pitcher and goblet kept on a table in his office for his own use and of the frowsy messenger boy who delivered a telegram to him, and while he was signing for it, poured himself a goblet of water and drank it, the discovery of which, in the very act, practically threw the boss into apoplexy; of his visit to New York to confer with Theodore Shonts, the elevated and subway magnate, and how he poked a Canadian quarter (common currency then in Detroit) into an el window to be changed, and when the functionary refused to accept it, blew up like an atomic bomb, stormed down to Shont's office and wanted the man fired; of how he once had his office building plastered with signs, "Positively no Smoking in this Building," and having seen with great contentment the last sign put in place, returned to his own office, lit a big, black cigar, threw the match into the waste-basket, set it afire, and the Fire Department had to be called to save his half-gutted room.

There was human kindness in him, but he hated to expose it. Another story is that of a faithful railroad employee left with some  p244 small children and a little home not yet paid for, who went to him and asked if the company could not do something for her. There were no precedents for such a case, and Ledyard was gruff with her, telling her there was nothing he could do, but as a final thought, suggested that she might try another official — let us call him Mr. Jones; and when she had left his office, discouraged and in tears, he called Jones before she could reach that gentleman and ordered him to pay off the balance on the mortgage and give her a check for $500. He didn't want to be suspected of such weakness.

In 1916, the Michigan Central cleared up a few odds and ends by absorbing several of its dependencies since the early 1870's — the Jackson, Lansing & Saginaw, Michigan Air Line, Detroit & Bay City, Kalamazoo & South Haven and others. Of the MC's capital stock, 99.4 percent is owned by the New York Central; the old name long ago disappeared from all the rolling stock and stationery, and the road became just a principality of 466 Lexington Avenue. But to Detroit and Michigan all these are but formalities — slightly disagreeable, it is true, but superficial, ignorable. To them it is still the Michigan Central Railroad. Street cars and buses in Detroit run, not to the New York Central station, but to the Michigan Central. One may even hear among some of the railroad veterans slightly fleering references to the "goose egg," the oval trademark of the NYC. One suspects, however, that this is not malignant, but in the main nostalgic.

Michigan, bless it, even believes that it created the Michigan Central, single-handed. In some histories of Detroit and of Michigan written before 1900 you will have difficulty in finding the names of the Bostonians and New Yorkers who supplied the means and built the railroad; in fact, some of them just are not there. But it must be admitted that most Michigan-written histories, especially those compiled in later years, are more accurate. One cannot but admire and love this loyalty of the state to its great railroad. Working hand in hand, they have done much to make each other what they are.

[image ALT: A railroad map of Michigan, western Ontario, and the northernmo slivers of Indiana, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania The map extends as far west as Chicago and includes all of Lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie, and the western half of Lake Huron; it is crisscorssed by many rail lines, with all the stops shown: the most prominent of these lines is an East-West line from Buffalo to Chicago and a line running north-by-north-west from Detroit to Mackinaw. It is a map of the Michigan Central Railroad system in 1890.]

Michigan Central
"The Niagara Falls Route" in 1890

[A larger, fully readable version opens here (5.6 MB).]

The Author's Notes:

1 According to Talcott E. Wing and Charles R. Wing, whose History of Monroe County, Michigan, supplies us with most of the material relating to this episode.

2 Atlantic and Transatlantic, New York, 1852.

3 The most colorful list of locomotive names in railroad history is that of the Michigan Central. They were mostly in series or categories. Among the ninety-eight engines in 1858 were the Ranger, Rover, Rambler, Rattler, Racer and Rusher; Bald Eagle, White Eagle, Grey Eagle, Black Eagle, American Eagle, and Golden Eagle; White Cloud, Flying Cloud; North Wind, East Wind, South Wind, West Wind, Trade Wind, Whirlwind; Greyhound, Staghound, Foxhound, Wolfhound; Grizzly Bear, Brown Bear, Black Bear, White Bear; Arab, Mameluke, Circassian, Corsair, Egyptian, Persian, Saxon, Stranger, Foreigner; Storm, Torrent, Hurricane, Cataract; Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic, Baltic, North Sea, South Sea, Red Sea, Caspian Sea, Black Sea, White Sea and many classical names.

Not a few of these had been built at the Detroit Locomotive Works, and were good performers. Others came mostly from New England — Manchester (twenty-eight), Boston, Lowell, Hinkley & Drury and Globe — with sixteen from the Michigan Central's own shops, three from Rogers and three from Schenectady.

Interesting items in the superintendent's report for 1865 are, "I have also one mongrel engine burning coal . . . and also have an engine which has been blown up; this I shall build into a coal-burner the coming year. . . ."

4 The directors' report of 1861 tells of installing a windmill at Chicago to pump water for the locomotives.

5 Letter in Detroit archives.

6 Grosse Isle, now a large, beautifully wooded, rustic residence area for Detroiters, still has relics of this long-ago rail service; its small passenger depot, for example, which has become a public comfort station, while in the river you may see the piers of the bridge which once led to Stony Island, and the now green-clothed cutting through the rock of that little knoll to the ferry landing.

7 William Barstow Strong, who later, as president of the Santa Fé, became one of the greatest of rail builders, adding more than 4,700 miles of track to that system and pushing its eastern terminus into Chicago.

8 A pretty story is told of the beginning of Falls View Station. Back in the 1870's, Cornelius Sheehy, then superintendent of the Canada Southern, was at Niagara with a photographer, seeking some publicity pictures. His eye fell upon Loretto Academy, a Catholic girls' school, on high ground above the railroad, and he decided that a cupola on the building would be a good place from which to photograph the falls.

"Go up there," said he to the photographer, "and ask the nuns to let you take pictures from that cupola."

The other man, in awe of the nuns, squirmed and made excuses. "All right," said Sheehy, "I'll ask 'em." The permission was readily granted; in fact, the sisters were so gracious about it that upon leaving, the superintendent said to their superior, "My mother graduated from this school; and though I'm not a Catholic, I have a little girl whom I'm entering right now for attendance here when she's twelve years old. And furthermore," he added as an afterthought, "I'm going to make a stop for local trains right down here in front of your building." As the story goes, the higher ups soon saw the advertising value of Falls View and began stopping all day trains there.

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Page updated: 25 Feb 13