The Leelanau Trail is located near the banks of Lake Michigan along the upper reaches of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. During the corridor’s history, it served as the northernmost branch of the Manistee & North Eastern Railroad (M&NE), a short line carrier created in the late 19th century that relied predominantly on forest products. In this role, the system was profitable for nearly 40 years until timber tracts began playing out in the area. The railroad was later acquired by the larger Pere Marquette Railway, which itself was taken over by the Chesapeake & Ohio a decade later. The former M&NE lines carried on under the C&O, and later CSX, until the 1980s when what remained was abandoned. The section that now makes up the trail carried on for a few years, hosting excursion trains until the 1990s when the right-of-way was sold for recreational use.
During the 19th century, Michigan became prized for its rich, old-growth forests that businessman looked upon to exploit. With the coming of the railroad, this new form of transportation became the logical choice to ship the commodity. Most of these systems, both large and small, were built during the second half of the century, and the Manistee & North Eastern was no different. Around 1880, Edward Buckley and William Douglas began working together by purchasing large tracts of land for logging and then sent those logs to sawmills located in nearby Manistee. In 1886, they decided to begin manufacturing lumber themselves by purchasing a mill at Manistee through the newly established Buckley & Douglas Lumber Company. A year later, on January 7, 1887, the Manistee & North Eastern Railroad was incorporated to move raw logs to the mill.
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The M&NE’s charter was to see it connect Manistee and Grand Traverse Bay (Traverse City). Completing the original route of 70 miles took five years and was not opened until 1892, mostly owing to the circuitous route chosen, snaking its way northward following the most abundant tracts of timber. Additionally, a number of branch lines were constructed, which reached Provemont via Solon (otherwise known as the Provemont Branch), Northport via Traverse City (a section of which now is the Leelanau Trail), Onenama via Onenama Junction (near Douglas), and Grayling via River Branch Junction (near Kaleva, a.k.a., the Manistee River Branch). During peak operations, the M&NE operated a sizeable system stretching some 181 miles.
The branch to Northport that is now the trail started out as the Traverse City, Leelanau & Manistique Railway, incorporated on November 25, 1901, to build from a connection with the M&NE at Hatch’s Siding (near Traverse City) to Northport. The railroad was opened for service on June 28, 1903, at a distance of roughly 24 miles and originally operated by the Grand Rapids & Indiana (later a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania Railroad). It transported everything from timber to agricultural and until 1908 intermittently operated car ferry service across Lake Michigan to Manistique on the Upper Peninsula. On April 17, 1907, it fell into bankruptcy and was reorganized on September 18, 1908, as the Traverse City, Leelanau & Manistique Railroad. A few years later, the GR&I lost interest in the property, and it was reorganized on May 23, 1919, as the Leelanau Transit Company and subsequently leased by the M&NE.
Naturally, the Manistee & North Eastern’s primary freight consisted of forest products as it moved logs to the mills and shipped out finished lumber, shingles, and related freight. However, it did move other traffic, such as agricultural (potatoes, wheat, rye, oats, and some fruit), as well as salt and various types of general less-than-carload (LCL) freight—basically anything shipped by rail that did not fill an entire freight car. By the turn of the 20th century, the M&NE was moving several thousand carloads annually and saw passenger ticket sales peak in 1915 at 190,000. The railroad also had several interchange connections with other lines, including the Ann Arbor at Copemish, Empire & South Eastern at Honor, Michigan Central (New York Central) at Grayling, Pennsylvania at Traverse City, and the Pere Marquette at four different locations (Traverse City, Honor, Manistee, and Copemish).
At this time it was a profitable, well-managed, and well-maintained standard-gauge (4 feet, 8 ½ inches) operation, particularly for a railroad originally designed to haul only logs. However, that all changed by 1920. On July 20th, the Buckley & Douglas mill burned, and despite being insured, the owners elected not to rebuild it because of declining timber reserves. After this time, the M&NE attempted to survive on the transportation of agriculture and salt. In 1924, the Manistee River Branch to Grayling was abandoned, and in 1931, the Pere Marquette (PM) acquired controlling interest in the railroad. Since the PM had its own line between Traverse City and Interlochen, this section of the M&NE was also taken up that same year (1931).
The 1940s witnessed several changes to the property. In 1944, all remaining passenger service was discontinued; in 1948, all remaining steam locomotives were retired in favor of three diesels: General Electric 44-ton switcher #1 (acquired in 1946) and a pair of Electro-Motive NW2 switchers (#2 and #3). All three locomotives wore an attractive blue and yellow paint scheme similar to the PM’s. A year earlier, the Pere Marquette was taken over by the Chesapeake & Ohio on June 6, 1947. The PM was a large, regional railroad that served nearly all of Michigan’s biggest cities and even reached Buffalo, New York, via trackage rights. The C&O was a much larger system that served much of Virginia, West Virginia, and most of Ohio, with lines also reaching into Kentucky, Illinois, and a route to the all-important hub of Chicago.
The M&NE existed on paper until November 30, 1955, when the C&O dissolved its corporate name. The remaining sections of the railroad continued to operate until the 1980s, when most remaining trackage was abandoned. In 1989, a group of railroad enthusiasts started the Leelanau Scenic Railroad, using the former branch between Greilicksville (near Traverse City) and Sutton’s Bay (about 15 miles), using former M&NE NW2 #3 and an original C&O SW9. The operation was somewhat popular, but during 1995, the corridor was sold by CSX Transportation to the Leelanau Trails Association to establish today’s Leelanau Trail.
Railroad attractions near the trail include the Michigan AuSable Valley Railroad in Fairview; Saginaw Railway Museum in Saginaw; the restored car ferry S.S. City of Milwaukee in Manistee; the Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso (home to operating Pere Marquette 2-8-4 #1225 featured in the movie “The Polar Express”); and the Tri-Cities Historical Museum in Grand Haven.