High Bridge, northern Michigan

How the Railroads Raised Traverse City

Postcard: The High Bridge, over the Pere Marquette River, northern Michigan.

As we look to reestablish passenger rail service to Traverse City, examining the present and past of the railroad here provides helpful and fascinating perspectives into the possibilities for the future. While the original passenger service—in existence since 1872—ended in 1966, freight trains still carry various products to and from customers around the Greater Traverse area today under the operation of the Great Lakes Central Railroad. 

Let’s take a look back at the 1800s, when trains first rolled into downtown. Traverse City, then little more than a settlement, had only been officially named with the opening of a post office in 1852. Across the state, massive infrastructure projects were being conceived and constructed; one of which was the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad. Originally formed in 1854, the company would complete a rail line from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Little Traverse Bay, near Petoskey—via Grand Rapids—by 1870.

Looking west down Front Street, Traverse City, in an era when rail ruled.

A group of enterprising businessmen in Traverse City led by Perry Hannah, co-owner of the largest company and logging operation in the area, felt there would be major benefits to connecting the city to this main line. At this point in time, the vast majority of outbound freight, inbound goods, and bidirectional individuals traveled by boat to and/or from Traverse City and Northern Michigan. The most reliably scheduled form of transport was a steamboat operated by Perry Hannah’s company, Hannah, Lay, and Co., which made regular trips to Chicago.

Hannah, Lay & Co.’s main grist mill, a key part of Traverse City’s early industrial makeup that kept rails busy.

In 1871, Hannah led the group in forming the Traverse City Railroad Company and raising the necessary funds to begin constructing their vision. The line was completed the next year, stretching 26 miles from the heart of the developing business district to the existing Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad line. Passenger and freight service would begin on November 15th, 1872, and Traverse City was suddenly connected with the rest of the state—and by extension, country—like it never had been before. It was easier than ever to set up a business, given the quicker, more reliable transportation the railroad offered, and a good number of people began to make the move north. Just nine years after the establishment of rail service in Traverse City, in 1881, it had grown enough in population and significance to officially be incorporated into a village. 

The thickest black lines represent early railroads in Grand Traverse County; to the right is the Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad main line, and branching off to the left is the Traverse City Railroad.