The Ann Arbor Railroad: A Journey Through Time



The Ann Arbor Railroad's history is a tale of ambition, innovation, and adaptation, reflecting the broader narrative of the American railroad industry. The company's inception dates back to the late 19th century, with its roots intertwined with the development of Michigan's transportation infrastructure.

The Early Years

The story begins with the Toledo, Ann Arbor & Cadillac Railway, incorporated on June 17, 1886, with the purpose of constructing a line between Mt. Pleasant and Cadillac, Michigan. The oldest part of what would become the Ann Arbor Railroad was initially built and owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad, which had stepped in to assist the financially struggling Mansfield, Coldwater & Lake Michigan company. By 1878, the first section of the line between Toledo and Ann Arbor was completed.

Expansion and Development

James M. Ashley, a former governor and congressman, played a pivotal role in the railroad's expansion. He acquired the defunct Toledo, Ann Arbor & Northern Railroad and reorganized it as the Toledo & Ann Arbor Railroad, opening the corridor between Toledo and Ann Arbor by 1877. Ashley's vision extended the railroad northward, reaching Owosso and St. Louis by 1885, and eventually to the port town of Frankfort in 1888.

Reorganization and Growth

Following financial difficulties, including the Panic of 1893 and a company strike, the railroad underwent reorganization. On September 21, 1895, the Ann Arbor Railroad was chartered as the successor to the Toledo, Ann Arbor and North Michigan Railway. Despite challenges, the railroad expanded its operations, including the acquisition of the Manistique & Lake Superior Railroad in 1911, which added timber-based traffic and additional car ferry routes.

Mid-20th Century Challenges

The Ann Arbor Railroad faced significant challenges in the mid-20th century, with competition from other transportation modes leading to financial struggles. The company was as much a steamship line as a railroad, with car ferries playing a crucial role in its operations. However, the railroad served none of the state's major industrial centers, relying heavily on "through traffic" freight cars.

The Decline and End of the Original Ann Arbor Railroad

The Eastern mergers of the 1960s, particularly the planning for Penn Central and the Norfolk & Western's merger with other railroads, led to the Ann Arbor being transferred to the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton Railway (DTI). Despite efforts to modernize and improve operations, the Ann Arbor Railroad defaulted on loans and filed for bankruptcy in 1973, leading to its inclusion in the Regional Rail Reorganization Act of 1973 that resulted in Conrail. The state of Michigan intervened to preserve the line, and the Ann Arbor Railroad ceased to exist when Conrail began on April 1, 1976.

Legacy and Revival

The legacy of the Ann Arbor Railroad continued with Michigan Interstate Railway running the line from 1977 to 1982, followed by other operators. Today, a new Ann Arbor Railroad, owned by Watco, operates between Toledo and Ann Arbor, maintaining service over the original main line and reflecting the foresight of the state of Michigan in preserving this historic route.

The Ann Arbor Railroad's history encapsulates the rise, decline, and transformation of the railroad industry in Michigan and the United States, from its early days of timber transport to its modern role as a freight service industry.

Clarke Historical Library
Trains Magazine

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.