Railroad:  Detroit & Pontiac Railroad

Michigan's Internet Railroad History Museum


From the

History of Wayne County and the City of Detroit

Michigan.  Clarence M. and M. Agnes Burton, Editors.  1930




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     The Detroit & Pontiac Railroad, with its successors and extensions, passed through pretty much every range of experience that has fallen to the lot of pioneer enterprises, including raw experimentation, bankruptcy, reorganization and litigation.  It was planned first to connect Detroit with the rich agricultural region of Oakland County, and the flouring mills, which were already operating in that section.  Its charter bore the date of July 31, 1830, and this was the first railroad incorporated within the limits of the Northwest Territory.  It was also the first to actually lay rails and to use a locomotive for the operating power.  The charter stipulated that the road should be completed to Pontiac within five years, but the incorporators failed in some of their plans.  The charter was abrogated, and in 1834 another was granted to the Detroit & Pontiac Railroad Company, an entirely new corporation, which was subsequently authorized to establish the Bank of Pontiac.  The principal promoters and stockholders of both institutions were Sherman Stevens and Alfred Williams, the latter commonly known also as "Salt" Williams on account of his once having broken a corner in that commodity.  He and his associate seem to have had a genius for high finance.  They not only succeeded in borrowing $100,000 from the State of Michigan, but a like sum from the State of Indiana.  That commonwealth happened to have idle money in the treasury, but it must have required an enticing persuasiveness to induce the officials to invest the funds in an unbuilt railroad backed only be a wildcat bank in another state.

     Actual construction had to wait on finance, and even after work was commenced progress was slow.  It was not until April, 1836, that the contract was let for grubbing the first fifteen miles, and then a swamp with a few deep sink holes near Royal Oak delayed progress.  In 1837, while the internal improvement fever was on, the state was authorized to purchase what there was of the road, but no action was taken under this authority.  Instead of that, the state loaned the company $100,000 and in the end had neither the money nor the road.  In July, 1838, the road was opened to Royal Oak, and August 16, 1839, to Birmingham.  Up to this time the cars had been drawn by horses, but now a locomotive was purchased.  It was built by Baldwin of Philadelphia, founder of the Baldwin Locomotive Works, which to this day are the largest works of the kind in the country.  The engine was first named the "Sherman Stevens" and afterwards the "Pontiac".  It was evidently of superior workmanship, for it was in use as a switch engine nearly forty years later.

     In 1840, parties in Syracuse having claims upon the road, procured its sale under an execution.  It was bid in by the late Gurdon Williams, of this city [Detroit], and Giles Williams and Dean Richmond, of Albany, New York, but soon after transferred to other parties in Syracuse.  It was finally completed to Pontiac in 1843, and the event was duly celebrated on the 4th of July of that year, Governor Barry, Attorney General Henry N. Walker, and others participating.  The road was soon after leased by the Syracuse owners for ten years to Gurdon Williams, who was to pay a graduated amount of rental, averaging about $10,000 a year.

     The track and equipment of this pioneer road were very primitive.  The track was a strap rail spiked to wooden stringers.  Nothing was easier than for the spike, after a little wear, to come out of the end of the rail, which would then stick up from three inches to six feet.  In one instance one of these rails pierced the car and came up through a barrel of flour, the end protruding twelve inches above the head of the barrel, the car coming into Detroit in that plight.  Instead of the conductor carrying a machine with which to punch tickets, he was only equipped with a hammer for nailing down "snakeheads."

     The first passenger coaches were divided into three rooms, the passengers entered at the side and the seats were arranged lengthwise.  The only brake was on the tender and was worked by the fireman.  The maximum speed was fifteen miles an hour. The time between Detroit and Pontiac was indefinite. The train was very accommodating.  It would stop anywhere to take on or drop a passenger.  On one recorded occasion the engineer took his gun along, and after a good shot, stopped the train long enough to get off and pick up his game.  "Salt" Williams himself, principal promoter of the road, usually, when on business, drove in from Pontiac, on the ground that he could make better time that way, and he "wouldn't ride on such a railroad as that, anyhow."

     The legislature of the state in 1837, taking their cue from the British Parliament in reference to "the safety of passengers conveyed by steam on roads partly constructed of iron," summoned a number of gentlemen connected with the different projected roads of the state, before a special committee.  The questions propounded were eighty in number.  One of the witnesses being no other than "Salt" Williams, was asked question No. 79, "How many, if any, accidents endangering life have occurred during the past year?"  The witness, after carefully considering the importance of the question ,and satisfying himself that he duly comprehended its nature, replied that "no accidents of any consequence had occurred except one, and that was to a middle-aged couple who left Detroit for Birmingham, and died of old age before they reached that delightful rural village!"

     The first line of the road in Detroit was down Dequindre Street at grade to Larned Street, where the depot was established.  The company proposed to cross Jefferson Avenue and so reach the river, but could not obtain consent.  It therefore, in 1843, with permission of the common council, turned down Gratiot to Farmer Street.  this new roadway was laid in the mud on wooden stringers.  The construction of the track showed a disregard for the rights of owners of wagons and other vehicles, and after a moderate rainfall the street could not be traversed by anything on wheels.  the people became exasperated and the storekeepers and property owners were furious.  The common council was bombarded with petitions, demanding a change, but the company did nothing to allay the storm.  After some delay the common council pronounced this part of the track a nuisance and ordered its removal.  The company ignored the order and people along the line took the law into their own hands.  On the evening of December 12, 1849, a party of citizens reported to be "from sixty to one hundred in number," gathered on Gratiot Street near what was then the head of Beaubien Street, and proceeded to tear up the tracks.  They pried off the strap rails with crowbars, sledge hammers and hand spikes, rooted out the stringers, and cast them on one side of the highway.  In all about 400 feet of track was torn up.  Arrests were made of a number of leading citizens for participation in this act, but no jury would convict them and they escaped penalty.

     For several weeks the cars stopped at the corner of Gratiot and Dequindre; then the track was repaired, but it was again torn up.  After some vicissitudes, permission was finally given the company to cross Jefferson Avenue, the Gratiot Street track was abandoned, and in 18522 cars commenced running into the Brush Street depot, and for the first time on T-rails.  [HWC]

Dale J. Berry and contributing photographers, all rights reserved.