After the Depot was built in 1903, the railroad’s presence and needs in Durand grew rapidly. Additional railroad buildings and facilities were required to meet the demands of the site railroaders now called “The Hub.” One such structure was the roundhouse, a locomotive maintenance shop with a large turntable to rotate engines into each bay for repairs. At the turn of the century, Durand had two roundhouses belonging to the Grand Trunk and Ann Arbor Railroads. The Grand Trunk’s was too small, and the Ann Arbor quickly moved to Owosso. An enormous 42-stall roundhouse was built by the Grand Trunk in 1908.
The new roundhouse was the second fully 360-degree structure in North America after Canadian National’s in Montreal. It was accompanied by a massive coal tower, a water tower, and holding stocks for cattle. Cows destined for the meatpacking district in Chicago would stop in Durand for as much water as they could drink, as the additional weight allowed cattle companies to charge more upon arrival.
The Grand Trunk transitioned from steam engines to diesel locomotives in 1961. Rather than perform costly updates to the roundhouse, the railroad assigned its employees to the shops in Port Huron and Battle Creek and demolished the structure. The railroad neglected to tell the roundhouse employees of this plan, who reported to work one morning to discover a pile of rubble.
The coal tower, however, stands to this day. When railroad demolition crews hit it with a wrecking ball, the iron ball simply bounced off of it! Rather than go through the process of tearing down such a remarkably strong structure, they removed the rail underneath it and left it where it stood on railroad property, far from the general public.
The Ann Arbor Railroad
The City of Ann Arbor had the railroad as early as the 1830s when the Michigan Central made its westward push from Detroit. With the growth of both the railroad and the University of Michigan in the coming decades, an opportunity for competition presented itself. A line between Toledo and Ann Arbor was constructed in 1878 with aspirations of running ferries across Lake Michigan. By 1885, the railroad extended north to Durand. By 1890, it had reached the port at Frankfort.
The new line served to relieve congestion along the route to Chicago. At the time, freight trains in Ann Arbor could be delayed by up to 12 hours. With the new line, freight moved much quicker at a lower cost. In its rush to build as much rail as possible, quality was severely lacking. Henry Earle Riggs, upon hiring in as their chief engineer, described it as a quote-unquote “jerkwater railroad.” Once ownership had passed to Wellington Burt in 1893, the line underwent vast improvements.
The Ann Arbor and Grand Trunk built a shared depot in Durand in 1903, which replaced much smaller depots along their lines. Feeling squeezed by the ample traffic, the Ann Arbor quickly moved its operations north to Owosso in 1908 and left the majority of Durand Union Station to its larger neighbor. It continued to use Durand as a station along its line northward.
Business was fantastic for the Ann Arbor at the turn of the century. Between 1912 and 1916, a million passengers a year rode their rails. Like other railroads, the rise of the automobile devastated the Ann Arbor’s passenger service. Despite this, the Ann Arbor held onto passenger service until 1950 before transitioning to freight-only business. Freight and carferry business continued to work for the Ann Arbor until the 1960s, when the railroad industry in general was in decline. By 1973, it was crippled and unable to support itself financially.
The Many Owners of the Ann Arbor
The Ann Arbor existed in theory as early as 1869, without any rail to show for it. Ownership changed hands twice before James Ashley secured enough financial backing to become the first to complete track in 1877. By 1893, a recession, a strike, and poor finances led to Ashley being forced out and Wellington Burt taking over as owner. Burt sold the railroad to the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton in 1905. The DT&I promptly went bankrupt and sold to a group of investors headed by Joseph Ramsey. The Ann Arbor would operate as an independent company for the next 15 years.
During their time as a self-owned railroad, the Ann Arbor enjoyed the boom and post-war periods of profitability. This success led to the Wabash Railroad purchasing the railroad in 1925. This ownership would continue for the next 40 years.
As the railroad industry declined, major rail lines formed huge mergers around the country. The New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroads merged to become Penn Central. The Wabash, Nickel Plate, and Norfolk & Western merged, but left the Ann Arbor out of the deal. The DT&I, owned by Penn Central and itself a former owner of the Ann Arbor, purchased them for 3 million dollars in 1961.
By 1973 the Penn Central, the DT&I, and the Ann Arbor were all broke. The Penn Central collapsed, and its lines fell under the control of newly formed Conrail. The DT&I separated itself from the Ann Arbor, which filed for bankruptcy. In 1976, The Ann Arbor sold its facilities in Owosso and tracks from Durand to Ashley to the Grand Trunk Western. The State of Michigan purchased most of the remaining trackage, the rolling stock, and the car ferries. The remainder of its assets transferred to Conrail. The Ann Arbor was finished as a rail operator, but continued to run ferries across the lake under state ownership until 1982.
Much of the existing track north of Ann Arbor came into the ownership of the Tuscola and Saginaw Bay, formed in 1977 to operate rail abandoned by the Penn Central. The “Tisby” is known today as the Great Lakes Central and interchanges with Canadian National at Durand. Conrail operated until 1999, when it was purchased and split up by CSX and Norfolk Southern.
The Ann Arbor name was resurrected in 1988 by the Watco Corporation to operate a Class 3 short line between Toledo and Ann Arbor. Despite the original tracks and name, this new Ann Arbor Railroad is a completely separate entity from the original.
Michigan is a state surrounded by water. How did railroad companies like the Ann Arbor and Grand Trunk deal with this? They built ferries for train cars that would sail across the lakes and rivers! The first car ferry in the state was built by the Great Western Railway of Canada in 1867 to cross the Detroit River between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. The first ferry to cross the Straits of Mackinac was a joint operation of the Michigan Central, Grand Rapids and Indiana, and Detroit, Mackinac, and Marquette in 1888.
Due to the amount of nation-wide traffic in Chicago, trains could be stopped in the city for up to two weeks. Railroads often looked to avoid the city if possible. The Ann Arbor begun shipping freight cars over Lake Michigan to ports in Wisconsin, bypassing Chicago entirely. They were the first to run a railroad ferry across open water anywhere in the world, starting in 1892. The Flint and Pere Marquette was established to run ferries at what is now called Ludington in 1897. The origins of Durand as a railroad city started with the Detroit, Grand Haven, and Milwaukee placing a stop in town along its path to the port cities on the western shores of the state in 1856. Their successor, the Grand Trunk, began ferry service between Grand Haven and Milwaukee in 1903.
Car ferries came with unique dangers. Wooden ferries burned often, and companies adopted steel ships as early as 1897. The weight of the cars had to be balanced perfectly to ensure the ferry would not capsize, as Ann Arbor Car Ferry No. 4 did in Manistique in 1909 and 1923. Weather was also a challenge the railroad did not have to ordinarily consider. Ships caught in bad storms were in danger of losing its weight balance and sinking, as Pere Marquette No. 18 did in 1910, killing 30. The same year, Ann Arbor No. 5 was launched with a sea gate to keep high waves out. The Grand Trunk lost a ferry named Milwaukee in 1929 in a violent storm. All 42 men on board died, making it the worst ferry disaster to ever happen on the Great Lakes.
The Canadian Grand Trunk Railway
The history of the Grand Trunk is a multi-faceted one that has its origins in Canada. The Grand Trunk Railway of Canada was established in 1852 to build and operate a rail line between Montreal and Toronto. By 1859, the line had reached Sarnia and had its eye on Chicago.
Initially, the Canadians had worked with the Michigan Central Railroad to move its trains west, but the agreement broke down when William Henry Vanderbilt’s New York Central bought the Michigan Central in 1878. As a result, an American subsidiary was established from a collection of smaller lines that was named the Chicago and Grand Trunk Railway in 1880. It was during this time that the C & GT arrived at Durand, intersecting the line already built there by the Detroit, Grand Haven and Milwaukee in the 1850s. The Grand Trunk then purchased the Great Western Railway in 1882, owning both lines that crossed at Durand.
By 1900, the Canadian Grand Trunk had so many lines in Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois that they merged them into a single subsidiary company they named the Grand Trunk Western Railway, representing the western wing of Grand Trunk’s total operation. The GTW entered Ohio in 1902 by purchasing a share of the Detroit and Toledo Shore Line Railroad.
The Canadian Grand Trunk, faced with financial problems, was absorbed into Canadian National Railway in 1923. This meant all of its subsidiaries also became part of the government-owned company. Five years later, the formal merger of all of its Americans lines was re-incorporated as the Grand Trunk Western Railroad. Canadian lines tend to be named railways, while American ones are called railroads.
The “American” Grand Trunk Railroad
The consolidated Grand Trunk Western then became a powerhouse in the upper midwest, operating the main freight line between Ontario and Chicago through the golden period of railroading until it’s decline in the 1970s. During this time, Canadian National re-incorporated the Grand Trunk Western as the Grand Trunk Corporation based out of Detroit to shift its responsibilities from Montreal. For tax purposes, the Central Vermont and Duluth, Winnipeg, and Pacific were included as part of the new Grand Trunk. This did not change the overall ownership of the railroad, which remained with Canadian National, but instead separated financial responsibilities between the two countries.
Since its inception, locomotives were purchased in bulk by Canadian National and then effectively sold to itself as ownership and registration changed to the American side of the company. This explains why certain locomotive types were so popular in the upper midwest and eastern Canada. The 4-8-4 Northern, for instance, was initially designed for Canada but found popularity as a workhorse in Michigan.
The 70s and 80s were a period of consolidation and downsizing for the Grand Trunk, abandoning lines across the state and selling off others to become a profitable, efficient company. In 1991, Canadian National restructured its properties under a single brand: CN North America. As a result, all of its lines, engines, and cars were repainted to match the Canadian National style. Grand Trunk Western still exists as a railroad on paper and is the holding company of CN’s American properties, but is effectively a defunct railroad in the modern day. CN presently refers to its operations in the US as the quote-unquote “former Grand Trunk Western territory.”