Pere Marquette Rail Trail History


At a Glance

Name: Pere Marquette Rail Trail
Length: 30.1 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Fishing, Wheelchair Accessible, Horseback Riding, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Clare, Isabella, Midland
Surfaces: Asphalt
State: Michigan

A Brief History

The Pere Marquette Rail-Trail offers the chance to hike a section of what was once Michigan’s largest independent railroad—the Pere Marquette Railway (PM). The trail runs between Midland (west of Bay City) and Baldwin and lies along the PM’s main line, which connected Detroit to Ludington. For many years, this port town was an important location for car ferry operations; here freight cars were transported across Lake Michigan to points in Wisconsin. The original purpose of a railroad in the region was to tap the lucrative virgin timberlands once widespread throughout most of Michigan. As the state and its cities grew, the line sustained itself on other various types of freight traffic. Today’s trail was projected as early as the 1980s and finally became reality in 1993. The corridor spans just over 87 miles and provides for relatively easing hiking over mostly flat, wooded countryside that crosses creeks and streams while also passing several small lakes and bogs.

The history of the Pere Marquette Railway officially began on November 1, 1899, when the company was chartered as the Pere Marquette Railroad (the system began actual service under this name on January 1, 1900), merging three separate railroads into one: the Flint & Pere Marquette (F&PM); Detroit, Grand Rapids & Western (DGR&W); and the Chicago & West Michigan (C&WM). The DGR&W was formed through reorganization of the bankrupt Detroit, Lansing & Lake Michigan in December 1876. The system went on to make up much of the PM’s central lines connecting Detroit to Howard City via Lansing, with a short branch connecting Ionia and Stanton. The second component was the C&WM, created on October 1, 1881, from four smaller railroads that composed most of the PM’s western lines situated along or near Lake Michigan and connecting such towns as Holland, Muskegon, Grand Rapids, Big Rapids and Pentwater.

Today’s Pere Marquette Rail-Trail was built by the Flint & Pere Marquette, the third railroad to make up the later PM. Thanks to a federal land grant, the F&PM was incorporated on January 22, 1857, as the Flint & Pere Marquette Railwayto lay down a new corridor through central Michigan, which was planned to begin at Flint and run westward to Lake Michigan at the port of Pere Marquette (present-day Ludington). Service over the new route first opened on January 20, 1862, between East Saginaw and Mount Morris. The 87.3-mile section of right-of-way that now makes up the trail was completed in stages over a four year period. In November 1870, the line reached Clare; a year later, service to Reed City was established about 18 miles east of Baldwin. Three more years had passed before the route was finished to then-Ludington on December 1, 1874 (the city had been renamed from Pere Marquette in 1873).

Reaching this port town was important to the F&PM for a few reasons; not only did it provide lucrative car ferry movements across the lake but was also the location of a major sawmill and large grain elevator. At first, Ludington offered steamship service to Sheboygan, Wisconsin, that began in the spring of 1875. However, as ferry movements became more profitable after 1895, the town saw shipping lanes connecting Kewaunee, Manitowoc, and Milwaukee that interchanged with the Wisconsin Central Railway (later Soo Line), Chicago & North Western, and Green Bay & Western. During summer 1879, the F&PM fell into receivership and emerged as the Flint & Pere Marquette Railroad in September 1880.

By the time that the Pere Marquette Railroad was formed at the turn of the 20th century, timber traffic was in steep decline, although other types of freight filled the void, such as agriculture, coal, various merchandise, and the car ferry business. By this time, the PM connected all of Michigan’s most prominent cities: Detroit, Port Huron, Lansing, Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Bay City, and as far north as Petoskey. It also reached Toledo (Ohio), La Crosse (Indiana), and St. Thomas (Ontario), as well as Buffalo and Chicago via trackage rights. The purpose of the consolidation was an attempt by the three predecessors to run a more efficient operation as a wholly combined system. Unfortunately, the new consolidated PM also struggled to maintain profitability. The company again fell into receivership in 1905, escaping in 1907. Finally, a third bankruptcy hit the railroad roughly a decade later when it emerged on March 12, 1917, as the Pere Marquette Railway.

In 1924, the PM came under the control of Oris P. and Mantis J. Van Sweringen, otherwise known as the Van Sweringen brothers. These two individuals quickly gained a reputation for turning around moribund railroads, and the Pere Marquette was no different. During the peak of their empire just before the Great Depression, the brothers owned three large systems aside from the PM, including the Chesapeake & Ohio, Hocking Valley Railway (later purchased by the C&O), and Erie Railroad, totaling more than 30,000 miles of trackage. Their intentions were to merge all interests into one combined railroad, but the oncoming Depression resulted in their losing control of their holdings and ending the dream. Finally on June 6, 1947, the C&O itself acquired full ownership of the PM system and slowly merged it into its network that stretched from Newport News, Virginia, through Ohio, Indiana, and parts of Kentucky as well as connecting Chicago.

Under C&O control, the PM was slowly abandoned over the years. The section between Midland and Baldwin was taken up during the 1980s after remaining car ferry service ended. Soon after the tracks were removed, plans were already being devised to convert the property into a trail. By June 1993, this vision became reality with the opening of the Pere Marquette Rail-Trail, named after the railroad that had operated for so many years in the Wolverine State.

Only a few hours away from the trail you can find the Old Road Dinner Train in Charlotte; Clinton Northern Railway Center in St. Johns; Coopersville & Marne Railway in Coopersville; Huckleberry Railroad in Flint; Adrian & Blissfield Rail Road in Blissfield; Saginaw Railway Museum in Saginaw; Southern Michigan Railroad in Clinton; S.S. City of Milwaukee in Manistee (a preserved Great Lakes car ferry); Steam Railroading Institute in Owosso (owners of the operational Pere Marquette 4-8-4 steam locomotive #1225 used in the 2004 motion picture “The Polar Express”), Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn; and the Tri-Cities Historical Museum in Grand Haven.

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