Belt lines, river industrials...

Early on, when a railroad built a new line into a town, the first consideration was building to the location of a passenger station. Early railroads built their own stations, but later consolidated some of them into "union" stations used by more than one line. This reduced costs and made transfers between lines convenient. In the case of Detroit, the original railroad stations were along the riverfront, because that is how passengers arrived in town.

The earliest railroads in Detroit settled their stations along the Detroit River, with the Michigan Central at 3rd street (the location of lake boat lines) and the Detroit & Milwaukee railroad at the Brush Street station.

As towns grew and the industrial age exploded, industries looked for more land and railroads established lines to serve them. Cities were usually small but dense, and industry needed larger parcels for industrial buildings. The smoke they created in the city core was also unhealthy. Industry often looked outside of downtown because the land was cheap and no one initially lived there. This introduced the freight-only "belt line" concept for railroads serving industry but usually not passengers. (Workers were often served by street car lines).

It is also obvious to anyone studying transportation and industrial history that business generation was along river fronts from day one for several reasons. First, rivers and lakes were a form of transportation of natural resources and goods which preceded railroads. Second, lake freighters were slower but could transport in bulk. This is why we have included Michigan's notable river industrial lines in our list below.

As always at our website, Michigan is our focus but we've also included a few important adjacent cities such as Toledo and Windsor. They are near our borders and played important roles in our transportation system.

Belt Line railroads

Bay City - Michigan Central Belt

Bay City - Pere Marquette Belt

Bay City - Hecla Belt Line

Detroit - Lake Shore line - Delray to Lake Shore Junction - When the Michigan Southern railroad built into Detroit from Monroe in the 1850's, it was encroaching on the Michigan Central's primary territory. It needed passenger station facilities and the Detroit & Milwaukee's Brush Street station was the best fit. To reach Brush Street station, the MS elected to go around the city and come in from the north, via Milwaukee Jct. This route took them northeast through Grand Junction to Beaubien Street, and then onto D&M tracks at what became known as Lake Shore Jct. It probably wasn't the railroad's objective at the time, but this created a belt line around the city and opened up land for industrial activities on a ring around Detroit. Later, around 1900, with the increase in manufacturing, Ford's Piquette Avenue plant was built along this line, which had been joined by the Wabash, Detroit & Bay City (later MC) and of course the Grand Trunk.

Detroit - MC Belt Line - the MC Belt Line extended from Belt Line Jct. (just east of Milwaukee Jct.) and then southeast and ultimately to Uniroyal tire on the Detroit riverfront just southwest of Belle Isle. The line was built by investors and sold to the Michigan Central. Some of this trackage continues to exist, accessed off the former Detroit Terminal trackage. This was Detroit's "2nd" belt line railroad.

Detroit - Detroit Terminal Railroad - The Detroit Terminal was a joint venture of the Michigan Central, the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern, and the Grand Trunk Western. It began first on the east side of Detroit from North Yard ( North Detroit) northeast to the Detroit river near what is now the Chrysler Jefferson North Assembly Plant and the Edison Conners Creek power plant. Then it was built west and southwest from the DT main yard and roundhouse (on what is currently the Detroit Detention Center) to Highland Park (near the Ford plant) and then following approximately Oakman Blvd. to Dearborn and the Ford Rouge Plant. This railroad was Detroit's 3rd belt line, farther out, which at the time was less populated and industrial plant sites less expensive. There were hundreds of industrial and manufacturing facilities along the DT, and the DT had yards spread along the line every 2-3 miles.

Detroit - Union Belt of Detroit - The Union Belt of Detroit was an operating organization for the Pennsylvania, Pere Marquette and Wabash railways. The owner railroads operated the UBD through a Board of Managers. The owner roads provided all motive power, track crews, police protection and split the costs. The first UBD line was from Delray to Fort Street Union Depot. Then the PRR built a belt line from Dearborn, northeast to the Ford Highland Park Plant, as well as a shorter branch line to steel suppliers near Schaffer and Hemlock streets in Dearborn. The Pere Marquette added their old main line from Oak southeast to West Detroit to the UBT.

Flint - Grand Trunk cut off. The GTW Flint cutoff was built to avoid downtown Flint. It ran parallel to the old main line from Munday Township on the west to Belsay on the east. Unlike many belt lines, this cutoff became the "main" line and the old main line served industry downtown along the Flint River. The GTW depot was moved to the cutoff.

Flint - Pere Marquette Belt Line. The Pere Marquette Belt Line was also built to avoid downtown Flint. It ran parallel to the old main line from Atwood Junction south of Flint, to McGrew Yard north of downtown. Unlike the GTW, the PM passenger station remained on the original line downtown. Both lines served multiple industrial facilities, including Buick City.

Ironwood - C&NW / Wisconsin Central

Jackson - Jackson Belt Line. The Jackson Belt was constructed from Jackson Junction (east of Elm Street) north to a point just north of Michigan Avenue on the east side of Jackson. This "Belt" was really not a true belt line but rather than industrial spur. It served a number of industrial sites. This route may have been the original planned route for the "Air Line" railroad extension to go east to Pontiac, but the GTW continued west north of town and came to downtown along the Grand River.

Lansing - Manufacturers Belt Line. The Manufacturers Belt Line railroad extended from North Lansing counter-clockwise around the north and west side of Lansing. It was an extension of the NYC Lansing Branch. It ran parallel to the PM from North Lansing to approximately Ensel Yard, then turning in a southerly direction and connecting with the Grand Trunk main line. The NYC's Saginaw Yard was on this branch, as well as several large GM plants. Though most industry is gone, the line is now served by the Jackson and Lansing railroad.

Muskegon - Muskegon Railway & Navigation

Pontiac - GTW Pontiac Belt Line

Saginaw - Pere Marquette Belt. The PM Saginaw Belt Line ran south from their Ludington main line west of Mershon, to the Fordney area. After crossing the joint PM/ NYC branch lines, it turned east, crossing the upper Saginaw River on a drawbridge, and then serving industry in South Saginaw. The line ended at the PM main line south of Hoyt. In addition to serving many industries, the PM ran passenger service on the belt line at the turn of the 20th century.

Toledo - Toledo Terminal railroad. The Toledo Terminal was built around 1907 and was owned by about a dozen railroads, including Michigan lines such as the Michigan Central and Pere Marquette. This was the only belt line which was mostly double-tracked, with the clockwise track labeled Direction A and the counter-clockwise direction (inside) labeled Direction B. The company's main yard and roundhouse was located in the northeast segment between Manhattan Avenue and Hallett Tower. Owner railroads used the TT for puller freight service between yards around the region. The TT had passenger station access near Cherry Street, but passenger trains were not the primary purpose of the line.

Windsor - Essex Terminal railroad


River industrials

Bay City - Michigan Central  / PM South Water Street spur

Bay City - Michigan Central / PM North Water Street spur

Bay City - GTW branch to Oa-At-Ka beach

Detroit - Manufactures railway

Detroit - MC Belt Line

Detroit - MC riverfront

Detroit - Delray Connecting railroad

Escanaba - C&NW coal docks

Marquette - DSS&A iron ore/coal docks

Marysville - Port Huron & Detroit railroad

Muskegon - PM river line

Port Huron - GTW Fort Gratiot line

Presque Isle - LS&I iron ore/coal docks

River Rouge - DT&I / MC and steel mill railroads

Sarnia - GTW/ PM Point Edwards line

Saginaw - East shore lines 

Saginaw - West shore lines Fordney to Carrolton

Toledo - Wabash waterfront line to Middle Ground island

Toledo - B&O line along Maumee River (Ford Glass)

Toledo (Oregon) - C&O Presque Isle coal dock

Toledo (Oregon) - T&OC Lakefront coal dock

Windsor - Essex Terminal railroad

Wyandotte - Wyandotte Terminal railroad

Wyandotte - Wyandotte Southern railroad