The St. Clair River Pontiac & Jackson Railroad: An Unbuilt Mystery

For the better part of the last year, I've been stuck trying to figure out what appeared to be the trace of an abandoned rail line immediately west of Pinckney, MI, which is easily visible in the satellite imagery below.

Google Maps image of the line west of Pinckney via our Abandoned & Out-of-Service Railroad Lines map.

The line in question diverges from the right of way of the former Grand Trunk Railway line that is now part of the Lakelands Trail. The grading is fairly consistent for the first 10 miles of line, and then just stops around the Joslin Lake area, which led me to believe that it was either a long-forgotten ice house spur, just like the California Ice and Coal Company Line in Antioch, IL, or a logging railroad of some kind, of which numerous operated in the State of Michigan, albeit usually in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula.

However, after being unable to find any information corroborating those theories, I finally came across what appears to be the ROW on a few maps from the 1870's. I believe this stretch was the original alignment of the Michigan Air Line Railroad, one that was graded, but ultimately never built. The line appeared on some maps as the St. Clair & Chicago Air Line Railroad.

From the David Rumsey Map Collection..."(Map of Livingston County, Michigan. Drawn, compiled, and edited by H.F. Walling, C.E. ... Published by R.M. & S.T. Tackabury, Detroit, Mich. Entered ... 1873, by H.F. Walling ... Washington. The Claremont Manufacturing Company, Claremont, N.H., Book Manufacturers)"

This line seemed to connect the towns of Unadilla and Waterloo, the latter of which is in the adjacent Jackson County, MI, and would have been the routing of the larger Michigan Air-Line between Jackson and Pinckney, MI. 

To understand the St Clair & Chicago Air Line, it's necessary to examine the Michigan Air Line Railroad as a whole, which was part of a Grand Trunk Railway project to complete a continuous railroad line from Chicago to Buffalo, NY and beyond, which would eventually come to fruition as the Michigan Air Line in the US and the Canada Southern Railway in Ontario. The M AL was built by investors hoping for a quick sell to the Grand Trunk to complete the project. The first proposal for a route came in 1865 as the Chicago and Michigan Grand Trunk Railroad to connect Ridgeway, MI (present-day Richmond) with the State of Indiana.

While a continuous route would eventually be created, it proved to be more challenging than simply building a direct line through southern Michigan, especially as other railroads, like the New York Central, would attempt to build or purchase parts of the route, fearing the competition another through-route would bring.

Part of this impressive map of the Grand Trunk Railway from 1885 via David Rumsey Map Collection.

This was further compounded with the Panic of 1873, which would see numerous railroad companies go bankrupt, and in many cases, end business or construction of lines altogether. This would split the Michigan Air Line into several companies, one of which was the St Clair and Chicago Air Line Railroad, which operated the line between Romeo and Richmond, MI. However, this is where things get confusing, as the Romeo-Richmond route is far from where this unbuilt right of way is located, however, the Wikipedia article on the Michigan Air Line notes that the St Clair & Chicago Air Line leased the unbuilt St. Clair River, Pontiac and Jackson Railroad, which leads me to believe that this is the right of way in question, and why the St Clair & Chicago Air Line appears on maps of unbuilt rights of way as far west as Jackson, MI.

(Map of Jackson County, Michigan. Drawn, compiled, and edited by H.F. Walling, C.E. ... Published by R.M. & S.T. Tackabury, Detroit, Mich. Entered ... 1873, by H.F. Walling ... Washington. The Claremont Manufacturing Company, Claremont, N.H., Book Manufacturers) via David Rumsey Map Collection.

I've only been able to find this information regarding the St Clair River Pontiac & Jackson Railroad from the above-linked forum, "Incorporated on April 5, 1872 with $1.2 million to own 120 miles of railroad from the St. Clair River Pontiac and Jackson. An entity that attempted to build a competing route to the Michigan Air Line Railroad and would have gone through Romeo. One week after its incorporation, it leased interest already acquired in perpetuity part of the Michigan Air Line Railroad. It was renamed the St. Clair and Chicago Air Line on July 20, 1872." Thus, assuming that the grade in question was the StCRP&J, it appears as though the unbuilt mystery line has been solved.

Obviously, finding unbuilt rights of way is far more challenging than what is actually been built, existed, and abandoned, but I find them especially interesting, particularly when grading is still evident today, or infrastructure of a line that never existed is still exists, as is the case of the Decatur & State Line Railway, for example. With that said, if anyone has further information regarding this line, or believes that anything is erroneous, please let me know as always!

Thanks for reading!


  1. Last night I walked and droned the segment west of Lakelands to Kelly Rd which is open to the public. No remnants of ties or rails or anything metal which would fit with it never being built. I could share the drone pictures if you are interested.


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