When Europeans started to arrive in Michigan in substantial numbers after the Erie Canal made the state accessible, the Thumb area was forested with very large pine trees. By the late 1830s, timbering started in that area. The logs had to be floated or skidded to the lake shore where they could be shipped to mills. I believe the first saw mill in the Thumb opened in the 1850s in Port Hope. In the Civil War decade and immediately thereafter the timber industry boomed in the Thumb. Quite a few who had accumulated wealth by timbering in New England realized there were few trees left there but many in Michigan.
In 1871, a substantial forest fire destroyed many of the remaining trees in the Thumb. And another and much more substantial fire in 1881 pretty much put an end to lumbering in the Thumb. Farmers, however, found the deforested land very fertile and began growing crops there, a practice that continues to the present.
In the late 1870s, businessmen and investors in Port Huron understood that the Thumb was becoming a productive agricultural area, but was one of the few areas of Michigan lacking rail lines. Agricultural products grown there had to be taken to a port and then shipped to where consumers lived. They decided to build the Port Huron and Northwestern line from Port Huron north across the Thumb to Port Austin. I believe their major aim was to get farmers in the area to ship their products through Port Huron and to get those same farmers to buy from Port Huron merchants who would use the rail line to serve their customers.
Similar to many other railroad entrepreneurs, the Port Huron group lacked access to all the capital they would need to build their railroad. At this time almost all the railroads in the United States and Canada used the 4 foot 8 and one-half inch gauge—the so-called standard gauge. However, it was much cheaper to build a line with a narrower gauge. You could use lighter weight bridges and purchase engines and cars for a much lower cost. One major drawback was the traffic could not readily be interchanged with standard gauge railroads. The investors in the new railroad in the Thumb opted to save money by constructing a narrow gauge line: a three foot wide railroad. The city of Marlette or its residents apparently invested $15,000 in the firm to make sure their line came through their city.
They started building the line in 1879 from Port Huron and reached Marlette in 1881. The investors intended to build to Port Austin at the tip of the Thumb but, after they reached Palms, Michigan they decided to put down their tracks across the base of Thumb to reach Saginaw. The line constructed one branch north from Palms to Harbor Beach and another north from Bad Axe to Pointe Aux Barques but the railroad never got to Port Austin.
The station you see here was probably not the first one. The tracks arrived in 1881 but this structure dates from 1890. It was built by a Flint contractor, Mr. Stewart, in 1890 and is quite an impressive building with a double waiting room, a baggage room, an office and the traditional bay window facing the tracks so that the agent could see approaching trains.
The Port Huron and Northwestern Railroad eventually operated 215 miles of track in the Thumb and was, by far, the most extensive narrow gauge railroad built in Michigan but certainly not as long as some in Colorado. The line was purchased for 2.3 million dollars in 1899, by the Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad, a line that originally aimed to connect the two cities in its name. However, the Lake Michigan port that was once Pere Marquette is now known as Ludington. The Flint and Pere Marquette gradually spent 1.2 million to convert the Port Huron and Northwestern to a standard width railroad, a process that was completed by about 1899. The Flint and Pere Marquette expanded in several directions and, in 1899, merged with several other Michigan railroads to form the Pere Marquette Railroad that offered through service from Buffalo, across Ontario and Michigan into Chicago with an extensive network of branch lines throughout the Lower Peninsula and southern Ontario. In 1926, the Pere Marquette Railroad was purchased by the Chesapeake and Ohio and, nineteen years later, they disappeared into that large railroad. The Chesapeake and Ohio subsequently became, in July, 1986, CSX. By the 1980s, many large railroads sought to sell their lightly used branch lines since they were often not profitable. In 1986, a short line, the Huron and Eastern was established to operate much or most of the trackage in the Thumb once operated by the Pere Marquette Railroad and its numerous predecessors. In 1910, two passenger trains in each direction stopped in Marlette on their journeys between Port Huron and Saginaw. A Marlette resident bound for Detroit could travel east to Port Huron and then take a Grand Trunk train to Detroit. Or that passenger could travel west to Saginaw and connect with a different Pere Marquette train headed to Detroit.
The first settlers in this area arrived in 1854 and by 1866, there was a grist mill here and, the next year, a sawmill. Two of the early Irish settlers were married to women with the maiden name, Marlett. They had carved this surname on a prominent tree. When the railroad arrived in 1881, a post office was established. Apparently the postmaster, Mr. Rudd, suggested the name Marlette.
In 1999, the Marlette Historical Society acquired this beautiful old depot and restored it to its original glory for use as a local museum. The Huron and Eastern provides rail service on the tracks that pass in front of this depot carrying, primarily, agricultural products.
Builder: E. M. Stewart
Date of Construction: 1890
Use in 2013: Marlette Historical Museum
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Places: P19,690 Listed August 16, 2001
State of Michigan Historical Marker: Put in place November 6, 2001
National Register of Historic Sites: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley July 12, 2013
Description prepared: July, 2013
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