1961 : Michigan’s Last Summer-Only Passenger Train Ceases Operations

September 4, 2018 all-day

Michigan’s last summer-only passenger train, “the Northern Arrow of the Pennsylvania Railroad, made its final trip to Mackinac City.

Source: September/October 2014 Michigan History magazine.

The rest of the story:

Rail lines brought travelers and workers north to Grand Hotel, which is depicted in this 1902 postcard.

In the mid-1880s, the completed Grand Rapids & Indiana main line reached the peak of its working life. The GR & I’s fellow lines in the Pennsylvania system served most of the cities of the American Northeast and Midwest, including Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C. Many of the men and women of these cities had begun looking for places to spend summer vacations, and the GR & I began a nationwide campaign to serve them. Renaming itself “The Fishing Line,” the GR & I launched a publicity campaign to encourage travel to Cadillac, Traverse City, Petoskey, Harbor Springs, Mackinaw City, and Mackinac Island.

The GR & I’s support for Northern Michigan tourism reached its height in 1886-87, when the railroad paid a one-third share to construct Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel. The island’s largest summer hotel was a joint venture between the GR & I, its competitor the Michigan Central, and the Detroit & Cleveland steamboat company. Soon the GR & I was carrying not only tourists, but also Grand Hotel workers north. On July 11, 1887, the Grand Rapids Eagle reported that 18 newly hired African-American waiters had taken the “Fishing Line” north to help open Grand Hotel’s first dining-room season.

Michigan’s railroads, unlike the trains in many other states, were not segregated, and black travelers on the GR & I would not have had to ride in separate cars. If these men had tried to ride on the Pennsylvania System south to Washington, D.C., however, they would have had to undergo the humiliating ritual of separation just south of Philadelphia.

Starting in 1887, travelers to Grand Hotel and other Mackinac Island locations traveled on “Fishing Line” trains such as the “Northern Arrow” and “Northland Limited.” In 1904, the GR & I ran three trains from Grand Rapids to Mackinaw City, which took nine to nine and one-half hours to complete the journey, often at night; on two of the three trains, sleeping-car service was offered. The state asked the Michigan Railroad Commission to inspect Michigan’s passenger railroads in 1909, and the commission concluded: “The general condition of this property was found to be first class.”

As the GR & I continued to be affiliated with the Pennsylvania, passengers could board trains in Mackinaw City and head south to destinations as distant as Cincinnati and St. Louis. In 1903, this long-distance connection service reached its height. Starting that summer, in an intricate ballet that was typical of the “golden age” of American railroading, “Northland Limited” sleeping cars started every summer day at synchronized times from stations in Chicago, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Louisville, and St. Louis, and all these cars coupled themselves together, one after the other, on the GR & I and headed north from Grand Rapids toward the Straits of Mackinac.

The GR & I officially leased itself to the Pennsylvania Railroad in February 1921 for a period of 999 years, thereby reducing itself to the status of a corporate shell. The GR & I’s name and corporate symbol, a trout, disappeared and were replaced by the Pennsylvania’s logo, a burnt-sienna keystone emblazoned with the letters “P.R.R.”

The former GR & I branch line, from Walton on the main line to Traverse City, was the scene in September 1948 of one of the most bizarre accidents in the history of Michigan railroading. Two heavily laden coal cars were being shunted onto a siding in Kingsley, on a slope leading down into the Boardman River valley, when they suddenly broke loose. With no one on board and no engine controlling them, the two runaway cars careened down into the valley, heading north toward Traverse City. Railroad men frantically telephoned warnings up the line as the uncontrolled cars hammered their way down toward Lake Michigan. The roaring coal cars, traveling at a speed later estimated at 100 miles per hour, finally reached the end of the line at Traverse City and demolished themselves in downtown Clinch Park. A witness reported that “they smashed into the parking lot at the end of the track and spewed coal all over it.” Incredibly, no one was killed or seriously injured in the mishap.

As the railroad industry declined in the 1950s, the once sterling standards of passenger service on the “Pennsylvania” entered a long, sad decline. I once interviewed Joseph “Little Joe” Menard, a Ste. Genevieve, Missouri man who had served as head steward on the GR & I/Pennsylvania’s “Northern Arrow” during its final years. He recalled a crisis in Mackinaw City when an autumn train, loaded with passengers, was preparing to roll southward. Suddenly it was discovered there was no food in the dining car. “We called up the grocery store,” Mr. Menard recalled, “and asked them to sell us everything they had. They were sold out of a lot of things, because it was hunting season … But we got some bread and other stuff, and we ate sandwiches all the way back to St. Louis.”

The “Northern Arrow” left Mackinaw City for the last time in September 1961 and the line’s new corporate parent, Penn Central, abandoned the line altogether shortly after going bankrupt in 1970. The northern segment of the GR & I returned to short-line status, operated briefly by a scrappy new entrant, the Michigan Northern Railway. For a few final years in the 1970s and ‘80s, the sounds of the railroad whistle were once again heard along the “Fishing Line,” and in 1985, the MN even briefly reinstated passenger service from Mackinaw City to Petoskey.

Nothing could stop the hollowing-out of railroad service to the Straits of Mackinac. The tourist-oriented short line did not pay; in 1989, the Chief Wawatam , which had connected the GR & I tracks to the Upper Peninsula, became a barge; the GR & I’s yard wound up as the site of a major destination shopping mall, Mackinaw Crossings; and much of the GR & I’s trackage wound up as a snowmobile and bike trail. The section from Grand Rapids to Cadillac is the White Pines Trail State Park, while the section from Petoskey to Mackinaw City is part of the Little Traverse Bay Wheelway System.

Frank Straus, “‘Northern Arrow’ and Other Trains Served Mackinac Island : A Look at History Northbound Trains“, Mackinac Island Town Crier, June 25, 2005.

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