Article: Jackson's Evolution as a Rail Center

by Dale Berry

Jackson, Michigan, 76 miles west of the Detroit river, played an important role as a railroad center for over 100 years, between 1858 and the 1966 merger of the New York Central into the ill-fated Penn Central system.

The "central" railroad first reached Jackson (then known as Jacksonburgh) on December 29, 1841, when the town was twelve years old. Jackson was founded in July, 1827 by Horace Blackman, who built a log cabin there. [MPL]   The Territorial Road was located through Jacksonburgh shortly thereafter. The Central road was one of three railroads created by the legislature of Michigan for the purpose of improving travel and transportation of goods throughout the southern half of the lower peninsula.  

The city served as the western terminal of the Central line for three years between 1841 and 1844, after which the road was extended to Marshall. During this time, the city served as a prominent passenger and hotel center.  Westbound passengers transferred to stage coach lines here which went to the St. Joseph River and north to Lansing. Wheat and other grains were also loaded in Jackson for transport east. According to Santer [HGJ] a limited number of railroad car repair and track gangs became headquartered in Jackson after 1841, but most were moved to Marshall when the western terminus of the line moved there in 1844. From that time on, it appears that there were about forty years of competition between the towns of Jackson and Marshall about who would be Michigan's mid-state rail center. In fact, that issue was unknowingly determined just 2 years later.

In 1858, Jackson gained a major competitive advantage as a result of circumstances dictated by the State Legislature, a decade earlier. When the three state-owned lines failed in 1846, the Legislature acted to regain financial stability and sold those railroads, including the central line and the "southern" line, to private interests. The southern line had been directed to build from Monroe to west Michigan through the southern tier of counties along the Michigan border. As a part of the sale, the state required that the new owners of the southern road finish building its branch line from Palmyra to Jackson, which had stopped at Tecumseh in 1838. In 1858, the Michigan Southern Railroad (successor to the Southern line) completed their construction of the Jackson branch, and it terminated a block from the Michigan Central tracks in downtown Jackson (see map below).

For the next 10+ years, Jackson was the only interior Michigan city which had two major competing railroads. The competition conducted between the two great rival lines (prior to Vanderbilt control of both roads) resulted in substantial savings in freight and passenger costs for Jackson passengers and shippers, and the town prospered. Santer points out that in 1870, well after the Michigan Southern had reached Chicago and built other branch lines, Jackson had become the Michigan Southern's second-ranking depot in gross receipts (second only to Adrian).

Between 1858 and the end of the Civil War in 1865 there was little rail expansion in Jackson. But when town leaders returned from the war, four more railroads were quickly and successfully developed which spanned out from Jackson like spokes of a bicycle tire.  They were:

These roads were all originally built and led by Jackson residents [HGJ], and completed by about 1870.  Much of the financing was provided by the Michigan Central and MCRR financiers. The exception was the Fort Wayne, Jackson and Saginaw which appears to be financed by on-line interests. [Meints] In 1871, the Michigan Central decided to establish car repair and manufacturing shops, which sealed the city's designation as a powerful rail center for the next one hundred years.

Jackson's Rail Depots...

Jackson had four separate railroad depots prior to the construction of Union Station in 1873-1874. 

All of Jackson's railroads, except for the north section of the  Michigan Air Line (north of Jackson), ultimately ended up in the hands of Vanderbilt  interests (New York Central) in New York. The GRV and south division of the MAL came under MCRR control in 1870, and the JL&S in 1871. Each of these roads began using the Union Station at some point after it was built in 1873. The MAL (from Pontiac) continued to use its own depot at Trail Street. The Ft. Wayne, Jackson & Saginaw remained independent until 1882 when it was leased to the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern. [Meints]

A Successful Rail Center...

Jackson became a very accessible community which was attractive to industry because of competitive rail shipping rates. The City also became a successful convention center for similar reasons according to Santer. In 1870, there were thirty arrivals or departures of trains from the city each day, and Jackson had developed into the State's number one passenger station on the Michigan Central - even greater than Detroit! For freight, Jackson was second in tons shipped out, exceeded only by Detroit

Later Roads...

The north end of the Michigan Air Line, between Jackson and Pontiac was built to Jackson in1883 by the Grand Trunk Western. It appears that the original grade which was intended for this road came south on what is now the Jackson Belt Line. Perhaps it was supposed to cross the MCRR main line near Jackson Jct., and then curve southwest on the southern portion of the Air Line to Three Rivers and Niles. But the Michigan Air Line was dismantled by its investors before the north end could be built with the south end being leased to Vanderbilt's MCRR. The route of the northeast leg to Pontiac was then apparently moved west to cross the JL&S/GV at M.A.L. Junction (north of the map, just north of what is now the I-94 expressway) and then south along the Grand River to a depot and roundhouse near Trail Street.

The final road to Jackson was the Cincinnati Northern which came up through Waldron, Hudson, and Cement City from Ohio. The road connected with the LS&MS Jackson branch near High Street (south of town) and through a wye at OD Tower it made its connection Jackson Yard. The CN was built in 1896.

An odd narrow gauge road in Jackson which bears no more than a footnote, was the Jackson and Northern. The J&N was a 24" narrow gauge industrial road that went north from the area of North Street, parallel to and crossing the JL&S at M.A.L. Junction and traveling for a few miles northeast. The line was abandoned and removed in 1929 and was never more than an industrial road.

Reasons for Jackson's Success...

There were at least 5 reasons why Jackson was perhaps mid-Michigan's most successful railroad center:

Jackson Time Line...

1929.  Community was established.  Later became county seat, village, then city.

1838.  The Jacksonburgh & Palmyra Railroad reaches Tecumseh.

1841.  The Central Railroad reaches Dexter. (July)

1841.  The Central Railroad reaches Jackson. (December)

1844.  The Central Railroad is extended from Jackson to Marshall, via Albion.

1857.  The Michigan Southern Railroad is opened from Tecumseh to Jackson. (July)

1866.  The Jackson, Lansing and Saginaw reaches Jackson from Lansing.

1868.  The Grand River Valley Railroad opens a line from Rives Jct. to Eaton Rapids and later Grand Rapids.  It uses J&LS right of way to reach Jackson.

1869.  The Fort Wayne, Jackson and Saginaw opens a line from Fort Wayne to Jackson.

1871.  The Michigan Airline is opened from Jackson to Niles and is immediately leased to the MCRR.

1873.  Union Station is built, replacing four other depots.  Only GTW operated out of their own depot (when built after 1883).

1877.  Vanderbilt interests acquire control of the Michigan Central.  They also control the Lake Shore.

1883.  The Grand Trunk Western builds southwest from Pontiac to Jackson and opens their line.

1896.  The Cincinnati, Jackson and Mackinaw Ry. arrives in Jackson from Ohio.  It is later controlled by the Big Four, a Vanderbilt railroad.


The author wishes to acknowledge three reference sources which were used to prepare this article: