Michigan Central Railroad

The Michigan Central Railroad operated in the states of Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois in the United States, and the province of Ontario in Canada. It was a predecessor of the New York Central Railroad, which later became part of Penn Central and then Conrail. With the 1998 Conrail breakup, Norfolk Southern now owns much of the former Michigan Central trackage.

Passenger Service

The Michigan Central Railroad operated passenger trains between Chicago and Detroit mostly. These trains were anywhere from locals to the crack Wolverine. Some trains were forwarded over the Canada Southern to Buffalo and New York City. While Michigan Central was an independent subsidiary of the New York Central System, passenger trains were staged from Illinois Central's Central Station as a tenant. When MC was formally merged into NYC in the 1950s, trains were re-deployed to NYC's LaSalle Street Station home, where other NYC trains such as the 20th Century Limited were staged. IC sued for breach of contract and won because the MC had a lease that ran for a few more years. The MC route to Porter, Indiana, is now mostly gone. The Kensington Interchange, shared with the South Shore Line, was cut out. These tracks now belong to Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad, and are wooded stub tracks. Amtrak trains serving the Michigan Central Detroit line now use the former NYC to Porter, where they turn north on Michigan Central.

Freight Service

Prior to the automobile, Michigan Central was mostly a carrier of natural resources. Michigan had extensive reserves of timber at the time, and the Michigan Central owned lines from east to west of the state and north to south, tapping all resources available. After the advent of the automobile as one of the most dominant forces of commerce ever seen by the world, with Detroit at the epicenter, the Michigan Central became a carrier of autos and auto-related parts. The Michigan Central was one of the few Michigan railroads with a direct line into Chicago, meaning it did not have to operate cross-lake ferries like the Pere Marquette, Pennsylvania, Grand Trunk, or Ann Arbor Railroads - basically, any other railroad operating in Michigan. Michigan Central was part-owner of the ferry service operated to the upper-peninsula as well as cross-river ferry service to Ontario, but these routes did not exist to circumvent Chicago.

Service to Canada

The Michigan Central and then parent New York Central owned the Canada Southern Railroad across Ontario from Windsor to Niagara Falls. The railroad operated a car-float service over the Detroit River, a tunnel below the Detroit River, and a bridge at Niagara Falls. The tunnel was originally electrified at 600vDC, similar to parent New York Central's Grand Central electrification. With the advent of diesels, the electrification was dropped. Control of Canada Southern passed from MC to NYC, then Penn Central, then Conrail. During the first decade of Conrail, both the Detroit River tunnels and Canadad Southern were sold to Canadian Pacific. These tunnels have been enlarged to allow loads through that were previously floated over. The car float operation is no longer in service.

Railroad Ferry and Car Float Service

All major Michigan railroads operated a ferry service across Lake Michigan except the Michigan Central. This can be attributed to MC's most direct route across Southern Michigan from Detroit to Chicago. The Michigan Central also had the best access to Chicago of any Michigan railroad. The Michigan Central did own part of Mackinaw Transportation Company, which operated the Chief Wawatam until 1984. The Chief Wawatam was a front-loading, coal-fired, hand-fed steamer. It was the last hand-fired steamer in the free world at retirement in 1984 and was long overdue a retirement. The Chief Wawatam still exists, cut down to a barge. The engine has been removed and is under restoration. Car floats also ran across the Detroit River to Windsor, Ontario for high and wide loads that could not fit through the tunnels.


The major competitors of the Michigan Central were:

  • Grand Trunk Western, controlled by Canadian National (formally merged with and now operated as CN)
  • Pere Marquette, controlled by C&O (formally merged in 1947 and now owned by CSX)
  • Ann Arbor (controlled by Wabash, then DT&I; now owned by various railroads)
  • Pennsylvania Railroad (merged into Penn Central with MC/NYC, then into Conrail; owned by various railroads)

Stations and Structures

Michigan Central was the owner of Michigan Central Station in Detroit. This grand old station still stands, abandoned and crumbling. At the last visit by this writer, there were virtually no windows intact of the thousands originally built. The Niles, Michigan, station is also a famous station. It has been in movies and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Michigan Central also built and operated a swing bridge over Trail Creek at Michigan City, Indiana. This swing bridge is similar to the moving span at Spuyten Duyvil owned by parent New York Central, but has no approach spans. It is still in operation and owned by Amtrak.

Joliet Line

The Joliet Line, diverging at Porter, Indiana, from the main and running through Dyer, Indiana; Chicago Heights, Illinois; and to Joliet is now cut back and little used. It terminates at State Street in Chicago Heights, Illinois, between the Union Pacific yard and Elgin, Joliet, and Eastern main tracks.

ed cities, entirely within Ulster County, a total of 27.8 miles.

Michigan Central Railroad

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