Today’s Betsie Valley Trail lies along the northern-most section of the legendary Ann Arbor Railroad (AA), roughly 22 miles long, and is one of Michigan’s most well-known lines. The company, affectionately referred to as the “Annie,” was created in the late 19th century and operated a singular main line across the state that was nearly 292 miles. The railroad was envisioned as a type of bridge route relying on the once-lucrative car ferry movements across Lake Michigan that were so common during the first half of the 20th century. For many years, this business sustained the road but slowly began drying up after World War II. The company passed through a handful of different owners before Conrail shed it following the company’s startup in spring 1976. Most of the original Ann Arbor right-of-way is still used by various short lines, although some sections were later abandoned—including what is now the Betsie Valley Trail.
The early years of the Ann Arbor are somewhat confusing because of the sheer number of name changes and takeovers during that time. The vision for what became the Annie, however, is credited to James A. Ashley. He believed that a profitable railroad could be built across the Wolverine State, moving interchange traffic from Toledo to Lake Michigan then transporting the freight across the water via car ferry to points in Wisconsin. Ashley also thought that such a railroad could be a faster bypass around busy Chicago, which became the central convergence hub of major eastern and western railroads. Ashley began his venture in 1876 by acquiring the defunct Toledo, Ann Arbor & Northern Railroad, a system chartered but never built, between Alexis, Ohio (Toledo), and Ann Arbor. Soon after, he reorganized as the Toledo & Ann Arbor Railroad and completed the 45.2 miles between those two cities.
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In 1884, the company was renamed the Toledo, Ann Arbor & North Railroad (TAA&N) and had reached as far north as St. Louis the following year. Despite Ashley’s forward thinking, he did have some rather eccentric ideas when it came to planning his railroad. For instance, while Michigan primarily comprises flat timberland dotted with lakes, streams, rivers, and bogs, Ashley often either chose the worst, swampiest land for a right-of-way or he built the line with needless sharp curves. The latter resulted in the stretch of main line around St. Louis to be relaid, just a few after it initially opened, with a straighter alignment between Ithaca and Alma.
A poorly built railroad mattered less to Ashley than the feat of completing his line to Lake Michigan and opening his planned ferry gateway. In 1885, the Toledo, Ann Arbor & Cadillac Railroad was incorporated to build a route between Mt. Pleasant and Cadillac, a distance of more than 60 miles. It opened the following year and was soon incorporated into the TAA&N. Right after this project was completed, the Toledo, Ann Arbor & Lake Michigan (TAA&LM) was organized to finish the route to the lake between Cadillac and the port town of Frankfort. This section, now the Betsie Valley Trail, opened in 1888 and was absorbed into the TAA&N system.
Ashley had seen his dream realized as the railroad stretched from Toledo, Ohio, to Frankfort along the banks of the lake. Overall the TAA&N was nearly 300 miles long. Unfortunately, Ashley’s ownership of the now-completed railroad ended just a few years later as a result of the financial panic of 1893, poor financial decisions, and a company strike. During the road’s receivership, further upgrades to the physical plant happened by straightening alignments and bypassing small towns that offered no strategic advantage. This maneuver vastly improved operations, and the company’s rolling stock also was largely replaced. After the project was finished, around the turn of the 20th century, the railroad’s timetable showed its main line from Toledo to Frankfort consisting of 290.7 miles.
On September 21, 1895, the Ann Arbor Railroad was incorporated to take over the bankrupt property of the TAA&N. While car ferry operations did prove to be somewhat profitable for many years, the AA struggled in the 20th century to find a sufficient level of other freight to sustain the company; there simply was not enough local traffic. Its shipping lanes out of Frankfort connected to Menominee, Michigan, as well as Kewaunee and Manitowoc, Wisconsin, where car ferry services were interchanged with the Chicago & North Western, Green Bay & Western, Soo Line, and the Chicago Milwaukee St. Paul & Pacific (Milwaukee Road). During April 1911, in an attempt to boost its freight volume, the Annie acquired the Manistique & Lake Superior Railroad (M&LS) in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a system stretching from Manistique along Lake Superior to near Munising, where it connected with the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railway (later purchased by the Soo Line). Interestingly, Ashley had always wanted to continue his railroad into the region. The M&LS was roughly 40 miles and provided the AA with mostly timber-based traffic, which added an additional car ferry service to Manistique.
In 1925, the railroad was acquired by Wabash, a much larger Midwestern system that stretched from Kansas City, Omaha, St. Louis, and Chicago to Toledo, Detroit, and Buffalo. Even by this date, passenger traffic made up only a small portion of the AA’s revenue, and it was eliminated altogether on July 19, 1950. The Great Depression had also been hard on the company, forcing it into bankruptcy in 1939; after which it emerged as the Ann Arbor Railway. With declining freight traffic, the Wabash sold the AA to the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton Railroad in 1963, a relatively small line itself running from Detroit to Ironton, Ohio. It was also a subsidiary of the massive Pennsylvania Railroad. Interestingly, the DT&I had also owned the Annie in 1905 but lost control in 1908 following bankruptcy.
By 1968, the Ann Arbor’s M&LS subsidiary provided only negligible freight, aside from pulpwood, resulting in the abandonment of the operation and cessation of car ferry service between Manistique and Frankfort. With traffic continuing to slide as car ferry service slumped, the AA filed for bankruptcy in 1973. On April 1, 1976, Conrail took over, along with most other railroads in the Northeast, notably the doomed Penn Central. The new owners mothballed most northern sections of the AA. To retain rail service over the line, the state of Michigan purchased the right-of-way and the Michigan Interstate Railway began operating on October 1, 1977. Today, the original Annie system is operated by the reborn Ann Arbor Railroad between Ann Arbor and Toledo, while the Great Lakes Central Railroad owns the route between Ann Arbor and Yuma. North of Yuma, to Frankfort, the original route was abandoned during the early 1990s, creating the 22-mile Betsie Valley Trail.
If you enjoy railroad history, or simply like to travel the rails, you’ll find a handful of attractions only a few hours’ drive from the trail, including the Clinton Northern Railway Center in St. Johns; Coopersville & Marne Railway in Coopersville; Saginaw Railway Museum in Saginaw; Southern Michigan Railroad in Clinton; S.S. City of Milwaukee (a preserved car ferry); and the Tri-Cities Historical Museum in Grand Haven.