New York Central in the boondocks

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Far from the Water Level Route, property markers along the Lake States Railway still proclaim that New York Central's empire extended into northern Michigan. Jeff Mast 
The view from the back platform of our business car didn’t look like the legendary Water Level Route. Thick stands of birch and pine hugged the single-track right of way, punctuated by the occasional marsh or small farm or the appearance of deer and great blue herons. Everything about the scene said “Northwoods” — not New York Central.

Appearances are deceiving. I was, indeed, riding along the former NYC a few weeks ago as the guest of the Lake States Railway, a successful regional that has done much to revive freight service across much of Michigan’s northeastern Lower Peninsula. The evidence was easy to see from the rear of the office car Jim George: sections of welded rail and resurfaced track, new yards and sidings, and brand-new customers, especially in the timber industry.

It’s good that this long stretch of railroad — formerly the Mackinaw Branch of NYC’s Michigan Central subsidiary — is enjoying a strong revival. Much of the railroad network that once reached up toward the Straits of Mackinac was lost, mostly in the wake of Conrail’s arrival in 1976. But blanket obituaries for railroading north of Interstate 96 were premature, thanks to Lake State, its neighboring regional Great Lakes Central, plus other lines owned by Genesee & Wyoming and Watco.

Meanwhile, reveling in Lake State’s progress aboard the Jim George, I couldn’t help but muse about this railroad’s NYC pedigree, which dates back at least to 1878 and the Vanderbilt interests’ control of Michigan Central. There’s even a town called Vanderbilt, at milepost 127.7 (from Detroit), established in 1880 when MCRR construction crews first arrived. The Vanderbilts owned property in the area. 

NYC's Northerner has a 4-8-2 in charge as it discharges passengers for the ferry Algoma II at Mackinaw City. Jim Scribbins
Although its end point of Mackinaw City was 919 miles from the bumping posts in Grand Central Terminal, the line was pure New York Central, visible in the concrete obelisks that even today poke through the weeds, informing trespassers that this is the “NYC RR Land Line.”

In mid-century, the Mackinaw Branch would have been something to see. Although it was primarily a 50 mph railroad linking small towns, it saw its share of J-class Hudsons and L-class Mohawks on passenger trains, as well as stout H-class 2-8-2s handling the timber, aggregates, and farm products that buttressed the local economy. Some of that freight made its way across the Straits in the belly of the old carferry Chief Wawatam

The passenger clientele was nothing to sneeze at. Undoubtedly sleepy much of the year, it picked up considerably in the summer months when wealthy homeowners flocked to their cottages at places like Mullet Lake, Topinabee, and Indian River, or when the especially blessed headed for a stay at Mackinac Island’s famous Grand Hotel, in which Michigan Central was an original investor.

Mikado 2041 departs southward with a freight train out of Cheboygan in August 1947. Cornelius Hauck
For a time, NYC passengers had a couple of name trains from which to choose, the Northerner as well as the seasonal Michigan Timberliner. The former was the premier train, offering daily service out of Detroit with coaches, a dining car, and usually a 10-section, 3-double-bedroom sleeper. My June 1954 Official Guide shows train 337 departing Michigan Central Station at 10:35 p.m. and arriving Mackinaw City, 301 miles later, at 9 the following morning, in time to make the Arnold Transit ferry to Mackinac Island at 9:45.

The savvy traveler out of New York might have booked passage on train 51, the Empire State Express, for the daylight dash to Detroit, arriving MC Station at 9:25 p.m., in plenty of time for the Northerner’s departure. 

Fate began closing in by the early 1960s. The Northerner’s frequency was reduced beginning in 1960, and the train was downgraded two years later to a Beeliner, as NYC called its RDCs. All passenger service to Mackinaw City ended in 1963, victimized by improved highways, including the gradual opening of Interstate 75 after 1960, commensurate with the completion of the Mackinac Bridge in 1958.

Behold the Beeliner: a lone Budd RDC3 constitutes NYC service at Mackinaw City in 1960. Jerry Pinkepank
Even in those fading days, Central still showed some style. In a memorable frontispiece published in Trains in May 1970, writer Jerry Pinkepank had a witty take on his photo of a Beeliner meeting a Morgan sports car at Mackinaw City. Pinkepank concluded that with its head end boldly striped and festooned with oscillating red lights, the RDC was every bit as sporty as the British roadster parked beside it. “Mackinaw City was a place for snazzy wheels,” wrote Pinkepank. 

Sporty or not, the Beeliner couldn’t last. What was left of the NYC stayed in place for a while after Penn Central and Conrail, but not for long. By 1990, freight service under new owner Detroit & Mackinac came to a stop north of Grayling; a shift to tissue production at a former Proctor & Gamble paper mill in Cheboygan, just 16 miles south of Mackinaw City, ended the need for rail service north of Gaylord.  

But good news came just two years later when Lake State acquired the entire D&M, and the situation has improved every year since. Currently, LSRC is investing approximately $17.3 million in its Mackinaw Subdivision, much of it a mix of state and federal funding. 

If you look hard enough, you can still see signs of the NYC along Lake State’s Mackinaw Sub. Depots at Wolverine and Topinabee are unmistakably of Central lineage. Then there are those seemingly indestructible property markers along the right of way, reminding the sharp-eyed observer that, once upon a time, this was as much the Water Level Route as the tracks that followed the Hudson River.

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