Michigan is home to one of the highest concentrations of rail trails found anywhere in the country. The North Central State Trail is one of them, and as its name implies, the corridor is located in the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula, running from Gaylord to Mackinaw City along the Straits of Mackinac, a distance of 62 miles. The history of this trail can be traced back to the 1850s, although the route to Mackinaw City was not opened until the early 1880s. Before this, however, the railroad was already under the direction of the Michigan Central (MC), which grew to become one of the state’s largest systems. The most valuable section of the MC proved to be its Detroit–Chicago main line, which did not go unnoticed by larger carriers and was later acquired by the New York Central (NYC) in the early 20th century. The NYC went on to form part of the Penn Central in the 1960s, from which, after the latter failed in 1970, Conrail was formed. The line north of Linwood was purchased by the state and short line Detroit & Mackinac. Lack of traffic forced the corridor into abandonment during the 1980s, setting up today’s North Central State Trail.

Following the opening of the Erie Canal in the early 1830s, settlers were drawn to the Territory of Michigan, looking for land opportunities and also hoping to tap the region’s rich natural resources of timber, iron, and copper (the latter was primarily located in the Upper Peninsula). The first railroads soon appeared, starting with the Detroit & St. Joseph (D&StJ) in 1832. At this time, most were attempting to push west through central or southern Michigan and link Detroit with larger markets, notably Chicago. This included the Michigan Central (MC), formed on September 25, 1846, which was acquired by a group of investors from the state (formerly the property of the D&StJ).

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In 1852, the MC had a direct rail connection from Chicago to Detroit then set its sights on expanding the system northward. This growth came primarily through purchasing smaller companies, one of which was the Jackson, Lansing & Saginaw (JL&S), whose lines now make up the North Central State Trail. This railroad can trace its roots back to the Amboy, Lansing & Traverse Bay (AL&TB), chartered in 1857 with intentions of connecting most of the state’s Lower Peninsula. Funding was one of many issues that curtailed such ambitions. But by 1861, the company had opened 22.7 miles from Lansing north to Owosso. On February 23, 1865, it was renamed the Jackson, Lansing & Saginaw and would eventually push south to Jackson (36.9 miles), where a connection with would what become the Grand Trunk Western was established. The town also became an important terminal as part of the New York Central, with lines radiating in every direction.

Under the JL&S, the railroad saw its greatest expansion, opening a line from Lansing to Bay City via Saginaw (78.4 miles); by July 1873, it had reached Gaylord, 118.5 miles northwest of Bay City. By this time, the company was already under the control of the Michigan Central (MC), which began leasing the JL&S in August 1871. Growth continued, and by the end of 1881, the railroad was opened all the way to Mackinaw City via Gaylord, adding an additional 63.1 miles to its network. In all, the JL&S stretched 296.9 miles. Under MC ownership, it became part of its Northern Division and was the farthest north the railroad would reach. Branches would be built to tap the region’s natural resources (primarily timber) that connected such locations as Midland (via Bay City), Gladwin (via Pinconning), Lewiston (via Grayling), and a myriad of other small outposts and hamlets. At Mackinaw City freight was interchanged with the Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad (later Pennsylvania Railroad) and Detroit & Mackinac. Here, beginning in 1881, the GR&I, D&M, and Michigan Central worked with the Detroit, Mackinac & Marquette located across the straits at St. Ignace, Michigan, on the Upper Peninsula to provide car ferry service via the Mackinac Transportation Company.

The MC had been under some type of influence of the New York Central since 1869 (when it was then known as the New York Central & Hudson River), although the NYC did not formally lease the railroad until 1930. For many years, the car ferry service provided all four roads significant interchange freight. That changed in 1957 with the opening of the Mackinac Bridge spanning the straits. While this was a boon for vehicular traffic, it proved to be problematic for continued rail service, which rapidly declined over the next two decades. One of the most famous ferries to operate the route was the S.S. Chief Wawatam, a 338-foot, coal-fired boatthat could carry 26 cars via three tracks and was put into service in 1911. She faithfully plied the waters of the straits until all railroad operations finally ended in 1984. By then, only one railroad served Mackinaw City, the Detroit & Mackinac.

In 1968, the NYC and PRR merged to form the doomed Penn Central conglomerate, which went bankrupt in just two years and forced the government to create the Consolidate Rail Corporation, or Conrail (beginning service April 1, 1976). Almost immediately Conrail sold or mothballed all of the former MC lines in northern Michigan. At about the same time, the D&M purchased most of the former MC route from Bay City to Mackinaw City except for the section between Kawkawlin and Sallings, which was acquired by the state and leased to the railroad. The D&M hoped the purchase would open new freight opportunities, which had been in severe decline for years. Unfortunately, this was not the case, and traffic continued to slide to the point that the D&M left the business altogether in 1992.

Railroad attractions include the Junction Valley Railroad in Bridgeport; Michigan AuSable Valley Railroad in Fairview (quarter-scale train rides); Saginaw Railway Museum in Saginaw; and the S.S. City of Milwaukee in Manistee, a restored railroad car ferry.