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The Ferry Yard Turntable

Grace Shackman

When trains hauled everything from freight to football fans

"I just thought you'd like to know about a fun place to go," John William Scott-Railton, age nine, wrote the Observer. "It's a train's round table." Using John's directions, we walked south from Hoover Street along the Ann Arbor Railroad tracks until we came to a metal shed, welded shut, with a faded "Ferry" sign on the side facing the tracks, and eight tracks fanning out from the main track. Following the outside track into an overgrown area, we came to a crumbling poured concrete circle crossed by a section of track mounted on a rusting steel frame.

Later, talking to train buffs and retired railroad personnel, we learned that John William had stumbled across Ferry Yard. It was once the center of the Ann Arbor Railroad's local freight operation, and on home football days it was a crowded passenger terminus, too. The shed was the yard agent's office, the sidings were to store freight cars and special football passenger trains, and the turntable allowed crews to reverse the direction of engines and freight cars.

The turntable used what trainmen jokingly called the "armstrong method": it was turned by the power of their strong arms. None of the train buffs we talked to knew how old the turntable was (their guesses for date of construction ran from 1878 to the 1920's). Finally, attorney Dan McClary, whose job on the railroad in the summer of 1969 turned him into a lifelong student of trains, found the date by looking at Ann Arbor Railroad annual reports. The original turntable was installed in 1911, the same year the railroad introduced McKeen motor cars to compete with the interurban trolleys. In 1939, the annual report says, "a second hand turntable was purchased and installed at Ferry Field," probably because heavier engines were being used.

Started in 1878, the Ann Arbor Rail≠road originally ran from Toledo to Frankfort, where it crossed Lake Michigan by ferry. Ann Arbor passengers ordinarily used the depot on Ashley--now the Law Montessori School--for trains bound south (the Toledo Torpedo) or north (the Frankfort Fireball). But Ferry Yard was the arrival and departure point of all the freight trains coming through town. All Ann Arbor-bound freight cars were dropped off at Ferry Yard, where the yard conductor would take over, directing crews to deliver the cars to their final destinations: the mills, lumberyards, coal yards, furniture factories, ice companies, and warehouses that lined the railroad's route along Allen's Creek through the Old West Side. In the 1930's and 1940's, according to retired yard conductor Ford Ferguson, a crew of three using a switch engine would move from twenty to fifty cars a day. The switch engine was also used as a pusher to help the bigger trains get over the Plymouth Road hill north of town.

In the 1950's, the Ann Arbor Railroad replaced its steam engines with diesels designed to run in either direction. After that, the turntable was used mainly to turn freight cars around so they could be unloaded from the same side they had been loaded from. McClary says that by 1969 they were moving only six or eight cars a day, the biggest customers being Fingerle Lumber and the Rhode brick yard. On slow days the crew would retire to the caboose to play cards until the shift was over at 7:00 p.m.

The 1920's, 1930's, and 1940's, the heyday of freight service to Ferry Yard, were also the heyday of football trains, specially scheduled runs bringing fans to games. They would come, not only from the away team's hometown, but from anywhere around the Midwest where U-M alumni were numerous enough to organize excursions. The biggest gathering was always for the Ohio State game, where trains would originate in Columbus and go north through Ohio picking up passengers all along the way. With no worry about driving, fans could sing the fight song at the top of their lungs and generally concentrate on having a good time, probably making present-day tailgaters look tame. And of course the winners would celebrate extra hard on the way home.

Ferry Yard, located between Ferry Field, where the football games were played from 1906 to 1927, and the present stadium, was the logical place to drop off passengers. According to Ferguson, the more popular games, such as Ohio State, might bring in as many as fifteen trains. Some of them were so long that they required more powerful freight engines instead of passenger engines; to add capacity, companies even borrowed passenger cars from other lines.

While the football fans were enjoying the game, the railroad employees would work frantically, cleaning up the debris left by the arriving parties, watering and refueling, and turning the engines around on the turntable for the trip home.

Football trains stopped running in the late 1960's, and the turntable stopped being used in the 1970's. Today the Ann Arbor Railroad is divided in two; the section from Ann Arbor to Toledo retains the name and is still privately owned, while what is left of the northern part is operated for the state by the Tuscola and Saginaw Bay Railroad., Although eight to ten freight trains a day still use the southern portion, Ferry Yard is no longer used at all.

[Photo caption from the original print edition]: (Left) Steam engine on the Ferry Yard turntable, November 24, 1951--the last time a steam engine pulled a football train. While the passengers watched the game, yard crews turned the engines around for the trip home. (Below) John William Scott-Railton and Robby Young (in white sweatshirt) investigate their discovery: the Ann Arbor Railroad freight office and turntable.