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Building the Ann Arbor

The Ann Arbor was built because of a specific problem: the "Chicago Bottleneck."So many railroads converged on Chicago that freight cars could become lost for days in the city's many rail yards. The Ann Arbor used rail and water transportation to route freight through Michigan to ports north of Chicago


Begun in 1877, the first section of the line, between Toledo and Ann Arbor, was completed in 1878. Between 1878 and 1888 track slowly moved north from Ann Arbor to Copemish. In 1889 the Frankfort and Southeastern Railroad (F&SE) also reached Copemish. The F&SE was purchased by the Ann Arbor in early 1892. Ferry service across Lake Michigan from Frankfort's sister city of Elberta began shortly after the purchase.


Communities Served

The Ann Arbor served communities along a line beginning inHowell Station Toledo, Ohio and running northwest until it reached Frankfort and Elberta. Through its extensive system of ferries the railroad established a water link from Elberta to many ports in Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The Ann Arbor primarily served Michigan communities by moving freight south to Toledo or westward across Lake Michigan.


Because it was a freight line passenger service became a matter of secondary concern. This was not always the case. In 1913, 1.1 million passenger tickets were sold by the Ann Arbor. Whether because of poor service or due to the competition from automobiles, or both, the Annie's passenger business rapidly declined. In the years after World War II less than 50,000 passengers annually rode the rails. By this time it was common to put passenger trains on a siding to allow the more profitable freight trains to keep to their schedule.


Much of this freight consisted of "through traffic,"freight cars that originated somewhere to the west of Lake Michigan and were bound for railroad stations somewhere to the east of Toledo. Through traffic was essential to the line's health because the railroad served none of the state's major industrial centers. As H.A. McBride marveled in 1953, "It would therefore seem fairly difficult to have laboriously put together a railroad clear across the state without touching a single jackpot [a major industrial community] but that is about what happened to the Ann Arbor. It winds northwestward 292 miles from Toledo to Frankfurt and succeeds in avoiding every big city all along the way by at least 15 or 20 miles – quite a feat!"The Ann Arbor Railroad lived, and died, by the perceived need of shippers to avoid the massive freight yards of Chicago.


Maintaining the Railroad

Vernon Passenger TrainThe Ann Arbor was originally built as inexpensively as possible; "on wind,"in the words of the James Ashley, the line's president. As a result, in 1890 the firm's chief engineer, Henry Riggs, described it as a "jerkwater line."Oddly, the bankruptcy of the line in 1893 led to major improvements, as the receivers sought to make the property they controlled more marketable. By 1900 the railroad was in far better physical shape and was capable of serving a first-rate, steam-powered railroad.


The railroads daily operations were often routine activities. Many of these activities involved inspection and preventative maintenance. Engines, rolling stock, track, and the ferries, were all regularly inspected. Small repairs often avoided larger problems and, perhaps, major accidents. Rules and regulations also played an important role in the safe operation of the line. In some cases the rules were self-created. Other regulations were imposed by government.


For many people, the end of the steam engine marked the end of the great era of railroading. The economic advantages of diesel engines were, decisive. Diesel engines could pull larger trains, did not need the elaborate infra-structure of water stations required for steam power, and could be run by smaller crews. In 1950, the Ann Arbor replaced its steam engines with diesel powered units.


Decline and Restructuring

Box CarsAfter 1945 railroads became increasingly unprofitable. "We've got more folks in the crew than we generally carry on the train,"said an Ann Arbor conductor. On July 19, 1950 the Ann Arbor's regularly scheduled passenger trains completed their last runs. Two decades later, freight traffic also declined. Fewer and fewer shippers saw the need to bypass Chicago, decreasing the line's all important through traffic. In 1973 the railroad declared bankruptcy. . Despite various efforts to save the entire line, in 1982 the ferries were permanently docked and operations ceased on all track north of the city of Ann Arbor. Today the Ann Arbor Railroad hauls freight between Ann Arbor and Toledo. Much of the northern track is operated by the Tuscola and Saginaw Bay Railroad.