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.

The Hecla Belt line was known as a belt line from it's beginning, though it was actually a straight tangent which ran west-east in what was known as North Bay City, north of the Saginaw River. The railroad was built and operated by the Hecla Portland Cement Company which intended to bring marl from marl beds and coal from north and west of Bay City to their plant on Saginaw Bay. Calling it a "belt line", perhaps the company anticipated surrounding Bay City to reach coal mines. But within a few years, the cement plant failed and closed. The Hecla Belt Line railroad track was sold to the Michigan Central which used it to reach industry on the north side of the Saginaw River. The MC connection with the Hecla Belt was at Tower 12, just south of the MC's Wenona Yard. The Belt also crossed the D&M and the GT at an interlocking tower called North Bay City,

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 (later known as West Detroit) 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 as part of their Detroit & Bay City railroad. The Belt Line also connected with the Detroit Manufacturers Railroad, which the MC operated. For a time in the early 1900’s, the Belt Line ran local passenger trains between the MC Third Street station on the river and the Belt’s Beaufait station via Bay City Junction and Belt Line Junction. The Beaufait station was near Belle Isle.  Some of this trackage continues to exist today, 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 (25%), the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern (25%), and the Grand Trunk Western (50%). It began first on the east side of Detroit from North Yard (North Detroit) heading east 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 the route of Oakman Blvd. to east Dearborn and the Ford Rouge Plant. This railroad was Detroit's 3rd belt line, farther out, which at the time was less populated and had industrial plant sites which were

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 (UBD) 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 those costs. The first UBD line was from Delray to Fort Street Union Depot. Then the PRR built a second belt line from Dearborn, northeast to the Ford Highland Park Plant. They also built 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 complete the UBT trackage. 

Flint - Grand Trunk cut off. The GTW Flint cutoff was built to avoid congestion in downtown Flint. It ran parallel and south of the old main line from a point in Munday Township on the west to a location known as 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 changed to a location on the cutoff.

Flint - Pere Marquette Belt Line. The Pere Marquette Belt Line was also built to avoid congestion in downtown Flint. It ran parallel to and east of 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 in downtown Flint. Both lines served multiple industrial facilities, including Buick City.

Ironwood - C&NW / Wisconsin CentralThe C&NW and Soo Line (former Wisconsin Central) built numerous spurs to iron mines south of Ironwood from 1884 when the Gogebic range was first being developed. In 1918, all of those spurs were connected in a loop which was used by both railroads until around 1960 when the last mines closed. Mines serviced by the Ironwood Belt were numerous shafts of the Ashland, Norrie, and Aurora mines. This ore was generally shipped through ore docks at Ashland, WI but in later years was sent through Escanaba.

Jackson - Jackson Belt Line. The Michigan Central 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 the City of Jackson. This "Belt" was really not a true belt line but rather an industrial spur. It served a number of major industrial sites. This route may have been the original planned route for the "Air Line" railroad extension to go east to Pontiac, but north of town the GTW continued west 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 along the river. The NYC's Saginaw Yard was on this branch, as well as several large GM plants. Though most industry is now 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 at Fordney, it turned east, crossing the upper Saginaw River on a drawbridge, and then serving industry east of the river 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 Belt Line. Not to be confused with the Toledo Terminal, this W&LE belt ran north from JN tower (near Rossford), under the NYC main line, and then north to near Ironville (via the existing Seneca refinery plant).

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 on our list 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 as well as through freights. The TT had passenger station access near Cherry Street, but passenger trains were not the primary purpose of the line. About half of the Toledo Terminal continues to exist under CSXT control.

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 - Manufacturer’s railway

Detroit - MC Exposition Spuri

Detroit - MC riverfront near Third Street

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 Marsh track and steel mill railroads

Sarnia - GTW/PM Point Edwards line

Saginaw - East shore lines 

Saginaw - West shore lines between Fordney to Carrolton

Toledo - Wabash waterfront line to Middle Ground island

Toledo - B&O line along Maumee River near Rossford (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




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