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Ann Arbor’s “Other” Railroad

Grace Shackman

Though it was overshadowed locally by the Michigan Central, the little Ann Arbor Railroad once carried the city’s name all across lower Michigan

A century ago, railroads were Ann Arbor’s lifeline. Just about everyone who came to the city, and virtually everything they needed to live here, arrived by train. Though most of those passengers and goods were carried by the Michigan Central Railroad, the route more closely identified with the city elsewhere in the state was its namesake, the little Ann Arbor Railroad.

The Michigan Central ran east-west, linking Ann Arbor to the big-city worlds of New York and Chicago. Known affectionately as “the Annie,” the Ann Arbor Railroad ran south to Toledo and northwest to Frankfort, Michigan, stopping along the way at small towns such as Whitmore Lake and Owosso.

Photograph of Ashley Street Station in 1896

Horse-drawn carriages met trains coming in to the station in this 1896 view. The Old West Side, discernable in the background, was still sparsely settled.

Ann Arbor’s two train stations, built just three years apart, testified to the Annie’s junior status. In 1886, the Michigan Central spent $33,000 to build a grand station on Depot Street. As the Gandy Dancer restaurant, the elaborate stone building remains an Ann Arbor landmark to this day. By comparison, the Ann Arbor Railroad spent only $4,400 to build its new station in 1889. Today, few people even realize that the Doughty-Law Montessori School at 416 South Ashley Street was once one of the gateways to the city.

Though modest, the Ashley Street station possessed a simple elegance. The waiting room had a fireplace, detailed woodwork, and pew-like wooden benches on wrought-iron frames. A telegraph operator and a stationmaster, both wearing green eyeshades, sat in a bay window overlooking the tracks, where they could see trains coming and going. Originally, a baggage shed stood to the south of the station, across an open stretch of platform; the two buildings were connected in the 1920s.

Until the station was built, Ashley Street was known as East Second Street. Even today many people are puzzled that Ann Arbor has Fourth and Fifth streets, on the Old West Side, and Fourth and Fifth avenues, downtown. But the original names were even more bewildering: the avenues were also called streets, and the only way to tell them apart was to specify “east” or “west.” The new name eliminated the confusion with West Second Street, just two blocks away, while simultaneously recognizing the Ann Arbor Railroad’s builder, “Big Jim” Ashley.

Born in 1822, Jim Ashley was a flamboyant character with strong opinions. He was described by Henry Riggs, a chief engineer of the Annie who went on to become dean of the U-M’s Engineering School, as “a very large man, probably six feet tall and very heavy. His abundant white hair was worn long, down nearly to his coat collar in the style affected by Henry Ward Beecher." Like Beecher, Ashley was a passionate abolitionist. He was elected to Congress from his home state of Ohio in 1858 and helped to guide the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery, through Congress in 1865.

After serving five terms, Ashley was defeated for reelection because he had supported the attempt to impeach president Andrew Johnson. Fortunately, he had ties to Ulysses Grant, who was elected president the same year. Grant appointed Ashley governor of the Montana Territory. He was known as “Governor Ashley” for the rest of his life, long after he retired from politics and returned to Toledo to invest in the burgeoning railroad industry.

Ashley’s inspiration to build a railroad north into Michigan came after he discovered that the only way he could visit his sons attending the U-M was to travel via Detroit. Even before the Civil War, some people in Ann Arbor had tried to create a north-south railroad that would compete with the Michigan Central, but the attempt had folded before any track was laid. Ashley bought up the stock in the defunct company, gaining control of the right-of-way it had acquired to the city. Then he turned around and resold stock to Ann Arbor business leaders to raise funds for construction.

The new railroad reached Ann Arbor at noon on May 16, 1878. After the workmen laid the track across South State Street, they were escorted by a band and a procession of citizens to Hill’s Opera House, where the Reform Club served them a temperance supper--Ashley, a deeply religious man, strongly opposed drinking. (During his tenure as president of the railroad, he also insisted that no trains run on Sundays.)

The railroad passed west of downtown along Allen’s Creek. Chosen because it was relatively flat, the route also turned out to be a good source of freight traffic because many factories had located along the creek to take advantage of its water. The tracks crossed the Michigan Central near Main Street, then spanned the Huron River on a wooden bridge (replaced twice since) and continued north toward Whitmore Lake.

Photograph of Ann Arbor Railroad crossing the Huron River

The Ann Arbor Railroad crosses the Huron River at Argo Dam.

Over the next decade, Ashley gradually kept building northwest, town by town. For all of his show of religious piety, Ashley was no more scrupulous than other capitalists of the freewheeling Gilded Age. He once hijacked a shipment of rails being transported on the Annie for his own use and was briefly jailed before he paid for them. Other lawsuits filed against his business to collect unpaid bills were fought out in the courts clear into the twentieth century. And he sometimes resorted to quasi-legal shenanigans to secure right-of-ways. In one case, when a property owner refused to sell, Ashley sent him a notice to appear in court in another city--then built the tracks while he was out of town.

In a talk given to the Washtenaw Historical Society, Dan McClary, who has done extensive research on the railroad, commented that “except for Ann Arbor, [Ashley] missed every major city in the state. The reason he did was Toledo was a major port. They shipped a lot of commodities down there and he was tapping into Michigan’s products, especially grain, produce, livestock and timber.”

Finally, in 1892, at the age of seventy, Ashley purchased a small local line that connected the Ann Arbor Railroad to Lake Michigan at Frankfort. Such a move wasn’t the dead end it seemed. The resourceful Ashley had picked Frankfort for its excellent harbor, and he had already cut deals with railroads across the lake in Wisconsin and in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He launched the world’s first open-water rail ferry service, hauling loaded freight cars back and forth across the lake. To attract even more traffic to Frankfort, he built a large tourist hotel, the Royal Frontenac, which drew vacationers from as far away as southern Ohio and Chicago.

Closer to home, Ann Arborites often took the Annie to Whitmore Lake to spend the day at the beach, or to attend dances at the town’s two major hotels. Families who owned summer places in the area could get off at Whitmore Lake or Lakeland (near Zukey Lake, which connects to the Huron River chain of lakes) and transfer to a commercial launch that would take them right to their cottages. Vacation traffic was so heavy that in the summer, the railroad scheduled eight trains a day between Ann Arbor and Whitmore Lake, dubbing the run the “Ping-Pong Special.”

Passengers also rode the train south to Ohio. George Koch remembers as a boy taking the train to Toledo, back when “you really were traveling when you’d go fifty or sixty miles from home.” People often came by train when they were referred to University Hospital for complex medical problems--it was fairly common to see patients taken off the train on a stretcher. And as Ashley had hoped, U-M students from Ohio used the Annie to get to school. Football Saturdays were an especially busy time for the railroad; when Michigan played Ohio State, the line carried fans from all over the Midwest.

Football fans--and everybody else--began to drive their own cars in the 1910s and 1920s. But while passenger traffic on the railroad gradually declined, freight service took up the slack. In Ann Arbor, the track was lined with businesses that relied on it for deliveries of coal (from West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee), lumber (from up north), or block ice (from the same lakes where people vacationed). Other firms used the railroad to ship their finished products, including organs, furniture, and flour.

The busiest shippers had their own rail sidings, where freight cars could be parked off the main track for loading and unloading. Cars bound for these sidings would be delivered to the railroad’s roundhouse behind Ferry Field, then delivered by a small switch engine the next day. All other cars were dropped at the freight house at William and First streets (now a parking lot) to be unloaded.

To get the best price on shipping, George Koch remembers that several construction companies would order building supplies together. Paul Lohr recalls that farm implement companies would send a single shipment destined for retail outlets in several towns; the owners would all go down together and help one another load their trucks. The late Frank Braatz recalled that he once ordered a Sears kit house that was delivered to the freight house on several cars; he went down with a horse-drawn wagon to pick it up.

One of Ashley’s original goals had been to make Toledo more of a rival to Detroit, and to some extent, he succeeded. Enough Ann Arborites were interested in what was happening in Toledo to provide a customer base for the Toledo Blade. In the late 1920s, Sam Schlecht used to meet the train from Toledo to pick up bundles of the paper, which he then delivered to the Ann Arbor drugstores and cigar stores that sold them. Before Prohibition, the Annie also delivered two Toledo-brewed beers, Buckeye and Green Seal. Distributor Fred Dupper would go down to the freight house with his horse and wagon to pick up the beer, along with the ice to keep it cold.
In the 1940s, the Annie carried oranges from Florida. A group of local investors owned an orange grove there and would sell their crop from a boxcar parked near the Ann Arbor Implement Company on First Street. They built a little orange-painted shed near the tracks to store leftover fruit for later sale.

The railroad also had spin-off effects on the local economy. For instance, train engineers provided jeweler John Eibler with extra business by coming in at regular intervals to have their watches cleaned and calibrated. Eibler’s grandson, also John Eibler, worked at the store and remembers the watches as “big, heavy things.” He explains, “By law they had to be cleaned regularly, whether they needed it or not, like airplanes today.”

Photograph of Ashley Street Station in 1997 as the Doughty-Law Montessori School

The station in 1997 as the Doughty-Law Montessori School.

Passenger service enjoyed a reprieve during World War II, when railroads were used extensively to transport troops. The Annie’s last passenger train ran in 1950. Freight traffic also declined after the war, as more and more shippers switched to trucks.

America’s railroads went through a wave of bankruptcies and reorganizations in the 1960s and 1970s. The former Michigan Central eventually emerged as part of Conrail, the government-backed freight line; Amtrak also uses the east-west track to carry six daily passenger trains between Detroit and Chicago.

The Ann Arbor Railroad ended up in the hands of the state government. The state still owns the northern section, which now runs only as far as Yuma, near Cadillac. In the 1980s, however, a private company bought the track from Ann Arbor to Toledo. The reconstituted Ann Arbor Railroad currently runs two daily freight trains carrying auto parts, finished autos, sand, cement, grain, lumber, produce, and agricultural products. By 1997, the only Ann Arbor stops were at Fingerle Lumber and Burt Forest Products, on Felch Street.

When passenger service ended, the Ashley Street station stood empty for a few years, then was used for short periods by various businesses: a beer distributor, a teenage nightclub, a counter shop. None lasted very long. In 1984, teacher Lyn Law bought the building for her Montessori school. Law did a sensitive remodeling, keeping the best parts of the waiting room and also restoring the original bay window. The school is now owned by Sherry Doughty, who operates under the name Doughty-Law. Doughty has done more work on the building, carefully preserving the original look.

Not all of the Annie stations fared as well. Don Wilson, of the Ann Arbor Technical and Historical Association, says at one time every town along the route had a station, but that today there are only a handful left. A few others also have found new uses: the one at Shepherd is now a museum, while Mount Pleasant’s is a microbrewery and restaurant. The advantages of saving an old building are apparent at the Doughty-Law Montessori School, where the children enjoy the railroad motif inside, while outside they climb on a slide made from an old caboose.

Rights Held By
Grace Shackman