The "Little Railroad that Could"
Construction of railroads caught the interest of rail fans, business entrepreneurs and investors west of the Allegheny Mountains in America in the early 1800s. In April of 1833, a charter was granted to the Erie and Kalamazoo Railroad Company by the Michigan Territorial Council to construct a railroad from Port Lawrence on Lake Erie (now Toledo) to Adrian in Lenawee County in the Michigan Territory, and then on across Michigan to the Kalamazoo River, which would give access to Lake Michigan. Construction of the Erie and Kalamazoo Railroad reached Adrian in 1836 becoming the first railroad to reach into the Michigan Territory.
Railroad construction was becoming so popular that even before the Erie and Kalamazoo tracks reached Adrian in 1836, the new Palmyra and Jacksonburgh Railroad Company, under the control of the Erie and Kalamazoo, received a charter to construct a branch railroad 46 miles long, north off the Erie and Kalamazoo via Tecumseh, Clinton and Manchester into Jacksonburgh in Jackson County. Construction began in 1837, the year the Michigan became a state. From Palmyra, along the Erie and Kalamazoo Railroad, the new Palmyra and Jacksonburgh Railroad reached Tecumseh in 1838, to remain there for nearly twenty years. Plagued by financial problems, the new railroad branch struggled for several years, borrowed money from the state, but could not succeed. In 1844, it was sold to the state for operations of its Southern Railroad, and the Palmyra and Jacksonburgh Branch line began operations for the State of Michigan.
Two years later, in 1846, the state sold its Southern Railroad (including the Palmyra and Jacksonburgh Branch) to a new company, the Michigan Southern. Under its direction, construction began again, and the Palmyra and Jacksonburgh Railroad reached Clinton in 1853, Manchester in 1855 and Jacksonburgh in 1857. The Jacksonburgh Branch was completed, forming the first rail connection between Lake Erie and Jacksonburgh, Michigan.
The Michigan Southern Railroad, between 1846 and 1852, completed the former state Southern Railroad across Michigan, around Lake Michigan into Chicago. The Palmyra and Jacksonburgh Railroad was not part of the Michigan Southern Railroad's link with the western territories in American, and continued serving the railroad industry through the Civil War years.
In 1855, the Michigan Southern Railroad consolidated with the Northern Indiana Railroad and became the Michigan Southern and Northern Indiana Railroad, still including the Palmyra and Jacksonburgh Branch line.
The Michigan Southern and Northern Indiana Railroad consolidated with the Lake Shore Railway in 1869 becoming the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad. Later that year, the Railroad joined the Buffalo and Erie Railroad. Rails now reached into New York. From Lake Erie into Michigan, over to Illinois and back east to New York, railroad mania had gripped the nation.
In 1915, the New York Central Railroad incorporated and grew by leaps and bounds, gathering up railroads one after another. It consolidated with the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern along with ten other railroads, bought another and leased some to become the huge New York Central System, still including the Palmyra and Jacksonburgh Branch. Operations continued through World War I.
By 1938, the onset of the automobile and its effect on people and business caused a reduction of passenger and freight traffic, and passenger service was discontinued but freight service continued through World War II. In 1963 and 1965 tracks were removed between Jackson and Clinton, and the Jackson Branch was eliminated. The Palmyra and Jacksonburgh Branch, however, continued carrying freight from its new northernmost terminal at Clinton, and soon became known as tAs the country and its railroad industry was recovering from the Second World War, rail freight continued its downward spiral, and suddenly, in 1968 the huge New York Central System merged with the Pennsylvania Railroad into the organizational Pennsylvania New York Central Transportation Company, later to be renamed the Penn Central Transportation Company.
During 1969, the Penn Central Transportation Company received the operations of the Penn Central Railroad, which was operating the Palmyra and Jacksonburgh under the new system, and promptly began bankruptcy proceedings for Penn Central Railroad in 1970. With the track receiving limited use, Conrail filed for abandonment of the line in 1981. The little Palmyra and Jacksonburgh Branch again seemed doomed to disappear from the railroad scene.
When three high school students in Clinton, Michigan learned that the historical track would be abandoned and it was at risk to be removed permanently, Dale Pape, John Shaw, and Jeff Dobek banded together to save the track. All three were members of the Lenawee Model Railroaders association at the time. The newly formed volunteer Southern Michigan Railroad Society, Inc., purchased the Clinton Branch and transformed it into an operating railroad museum in 1985.
Faced with railroad obscurity, the Southern Michigan Railroad survived its tumultuous past making it truly the "little railroad that could." Today, the Southern Michigan Railroad Society, Inc. continues to preserve, restore and educate the public about the first branch line railroad off the first railroad in the Michigan Territory. The SMRS Museum offers nostalgic train tours over the remaining track of the early Palmyra and Jacksonburgh Railroad.