James M. Ashley: Ann Arbor Railroad President From 1877 - 1890


Image Courtesy of Library of Congress

James M. Ashley was a significant figure in the history of the Ann Arbor Railroad, his involvement with the railroad began after he moved to Ann Arbor while two of his sons were enrolled at the University of Michigan Law School. Ashley's vision for the railroad was to create a direct line from Toledo, Ohio, to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then further into northern Michigan, with a port on Lake Michigan as the northern terminal.

Ashley was a former congressman from Ohio and had also served as the territorial governor of Montana before returning to Toledo and entering the railroad business. He was known for his ambitious and sometimes unorthodox methods of securing right-of-ways and funding for the railroad's construction. Despite financial and legal challenges, Ashley and his sons managed to extend the railroad's reach, town by town, into new undeveloped territories.

Under Ashley's leadership, the Ann Arbor Railroad was built in a frugal manner, often with borrowed money. The earnings of the railroad were used to pay interest charges and maintain Ashley's credit, allowing for further expansion. Ashley's approach to building the railroad was pragmatic and opportunistic, taking advantage of circumstances as they arose to push the railroad's development forward.

James M. Ashley's tenure as president of the Ann Arbor Railroad was marked by his strong opinions and flamboyant character. He was deeply religious and opposed drinking, insisting that no trains run on Sundays. He was also a passionate abolitionist, having been elected to Congress from Ohio in 1858 and helping to guide the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, through Congress in 1865.

Ashley's influence on the Ann Arbor Railroad and the broader railroad industry in Michigan was significant. He was instrumental in establishing Toledo as a major rail hub and in tapping into Michigan's products, such as grain, produce, livestock, and timber, for transport. His efforts contributed to the growth and development of the region's transportation infrastructure during the late 19th century.


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