A summary of the History of the Railroad in Topinabee, Michigan



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A Summary of the History of the Railroad in Topinabee, Michigan

By Paul Chapoton

Long before roads were built in the "tip of the mitt" of Michigan's lower peninsula people relied first on the water and then the railroads to meet their transportation needs. Topinabee is located on the former railroad mainline that connected Mackinaw City with Detroit. Four railroads operated on this line
(Michigan Central, New York Central, Penn Central and the Detroit & Mackinac).

In the late 1870's during Michigan's lumber era the Michigan Central and the Detroit & Mackinac had a race to see which company could reach Mackinaw City first. The Michigan Central chose a route from Bay City north through the center of Michigan's prime white pine forests and the D & M chose a route


from Bay City along the Lake Huron coast. The Michigan Central won and reached Cheboygan and then Mackinaw City in 1881. The D & M, coming from Alpena and Onaway, ended in Cheboygan in 1904. The Michigan Central was later joined in Mackinaw City by the Grand Rapids & Indiana R.R. (called the
'fishing line") from Petoskey. Later the G.R.& I. and the Michigan Central built the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.

Topinabee's current station was built in 1882. Many people traveled on the train to Topinabee to stay at the hotels located here to vacation and get relief from hay fever. The station also received freight and had a large boat dock where freight was taken from the trains and loaded on to boats that traveled the


Inland Waterway. The railroad also had some sidings in Topinabee (across from the Breakers Bar) where bottled water labeled "Sanitas Springs" was shipped out to be used on the New York Central's passenger trains.

At one time eight steam passenger trains a day (four in each direction) went through our village as well as freight trains. The most famous trains were known as the "Timberliner" and the "Northerner". As the years went on the highways and automobiles improved and the passenger trains dwindled until only the


"Beeliner" (a powered rail diesel car) made the trip once a day. The railroad eventually lost the contract to carry the U.S. Mail and all passenger service ended in 1963.

From 1963 to 1990 only freight trains used the line with the exception of the occasional rail fan excursion train. The closing of the Proctor& Gamble paper plant in Cheboygan spelled doom for the freight business north of Gaylord and the line was abandoned. The Lake State Railway operates trains today over the old main line from Bay City to Gaylord. From Bay City to Detroit most of the old main line has been abandoned.

While Topinabee exists today because of the railroad and Mr. Pike (who insisted a station be put here)
no trains will ever return. The old mainline from Gaylord to Mackinaw City is now the North Central Trail and is owned by the Michigan DNR. However the Topinabee train station is still here in its original location and has been restored and houses the Topinabee Library.

Below is a timeline:


Topinabee has been serviced by 4 railroad companies. Michigan Central, New York Central, Penn Central and the Detroit& Mackinac. The latter two railroads had only freight service.

1877-Indian River depot built

1878-Vanderbilt acquires the Mich. Cent.

1881-The Michigan Central RR reached Mac City from Bay City. Depot built in Cheboygan

1882-New depots built in Topinabee, Grayling and Mac City

1883-Northern Hay Fever Assoc. establishes a resort along the MCRR in Topinabee

1887-Grand Hotel Opens on Mac Island (built by MCRR,GR&I RR and Cleveland Shipping)

1896-Mullett Lake depot built

1904-Detroit&Mackinac reaches Cheboygan from Onaway

1911-Railroad car ferry Chief Wawatam starts service across the Straits (not the first but the most famous of the RR car ferries)

1906-New Wolverine depot built (current)

!926- MCRR is leased to New York Central

1960- The Northerner between Detroit and Mac City is reduced to one trip each way Mon. thru Fri. and the Timberliner runs summer weekends only.

1962-NYC eliminates all passenger trains on the Mackinac Division and starts the Beeliner(except for Timberliner which continues for one more summer)

1963-Timberliner ends Sept.3 and Beeliner ends

1968-PennCentral takes over the line

1976-Penn Central stops operations and the State of Michigan leases the line to the Detroit & Mackinac

1984-The Chief Wawatam stops operating



1990-The last train thru Topinabee (9/29) after the P&G plant closed in Cheboygan in March

For many years the line from Detroit to Mac City had 8 passenger trains a day as well as freight trains. The line was important to people in the UP because during the mining boom era they would take the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic from the Houghton and Marquette areas to St.Ignace and then cross the straits on the car ferries and then board the train again in Mac City for the trip to Detroit. Also a tremendous amount of fish and ice in the winter was shipped out of Mackinaw. The fish was sent to the big cities and ice was used for refrigerated box cars for the railroads. After the lumber era the main source of income for the railroad was passenger service and they tried to promote the "UP North" area much like cruise ships promote themselves today. Many resorts were built in northern Michigan to help the railroad business.


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