Railroad History of St.Johns

The following articles have been collected that deal with our St.Johns Railroading History. Many of these articles were originally collected by Merritt Scharnweber, and generously donated for our use.

Station Agents at the St. Johns Depot

1864 to 1867: Joseph W. Bromley
1867 to 1911: Thomas Bromley
1915 to 1959: Harry W. Buck

St. Johns, Michigan - Railroad History
by Merritt Scharnweber

In the Detroit & Milwaukee's early days, St. Johns was the center for railroad operations as well as serving customers. Having engine facilities and a repair shop for the Central Division was no small thing. Early St. Johns was a terminus for passengers and mixed freight trains, east and west bound until motive power grew in size and ran better needing fewer facilities for repair and maintenance. In this early period there were only three railroads that ran east and west across the State and the D. & M. R.R. was one of these.

Early History
The Detroit and Pontiac railroad project was stirred up in Oakland county as early as 1830, and an act incorporating the "Detroit and Pontiac Railway Company" was put through by territorial legislative council and was approved by Governor Cass on July 31st. This was the first railway in Michigan to have a charter. Immediately after the road was completed from Detroit to Pontiac, a project was developed to build a railroad from Pontiac westward through Shiawassee, Clinton and other counties to Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Grand River. At this point there would be a connection with steamers for Milwaukee, Wis. and other Lake Michigan ports. On February 13, 1855, an Act by the State Legislature authorized the partnership of the Detroit and Pontiac with the Oakland and Ottawa Railroad Company under the name, "Detroit and Milwaukee Railway Co." The road was completed to St. Johns in Clinton County on January 16, 1857. The line was of great benefit to Clinton County, but it proved to be a bad investment for its original stockholders. It went into bankruptcy in 1860, and it remained thus until October 19, 1878, when it reorganized and became the "Detroit, Grand Haven and Milwaukee Railway." This line came under control of the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada on November 1, 1878. On the date of November 20, 1900 the D., G.H. & M. with several other railroads was incorporated as Grand Trunk Western Railway co. In May 1928 the Grand Trunk Western Railway Co was reincorporated as Grand Trunk Western Railroad Co.

St. Johns First Depot
In December 1856, John Ranson, the editor of the St. Johns Democrat, said he "was indeed in a City of the Woods," which in 1856 was without a railroad and was much younger and smaller than Dewitt which was then the county seat. There was an old road that ran north to Rochester Colony and it crossed the to be railroad track where Mead Street is today. From there it went southwest and crossed where the courthouse is today and then angled sharply south to Dewitt.

Where this road crossed the yet to be built railroad bed was the site of the first depot and freight house in St. Johns. John Ranson also wrote in December of 1856, "The Engine House here is up and partly enclosed. It is calculated to accommodate four engines. Preparations are also being made for the erection of the Freight House, Passenger House and turntable, etc." he also wrote, "The deep cut at this place is nearly down to grade. It will be finished by the time the track layers get here." The deep cut is where the Whittemore street overpass is now located. At this date there was a big swamp west of Oakland street and the dirt from the deep cut was used for fill in this swamp for the new road bed. For some years there was a pond most of the year on the south side of the track and all year on the north side. There was no clearing of land north of the railroad for a number of years. St. Johns was the western terminus of the road for awhile as the road wasn't completed to Ionia until September 1857. Hibbards' daily line of stages for Lansing and Ionia met the passenger trains at the St. Johns depot. There was an eating house adjoining the west side of the depot for awhile, but this was later moved to Owosso.

Later Years
In later years when the railroad was known as the Grand Trunk Western, the GT employees has nicknames for the different divisions on the railroad. The Grand Trunk line from Ashley over to Muskegon was called "The Turkey Trail." The main line from Detroit, through St. Johns and on to Grand Haven was called the "Leaky Roof." Someone said it goes back to the days of wooden passenger cars when, ager a heavy rain, the lamp globes in the cars had to be taken down and emptied of water that had dripped through the leaky roofs.

Another name I found in use in 1868 on the railroad through St. Johns was "Tri-Weekly Rain." I did not find any such train in the early time scheduled of the D. & M. This name came from some passengers sitting in a station somewhere west of St. Johns. One of the passengers was growing impatient with the delay and asked of another one,
"What do they call this train?"
"Tri-Weekly Train," answered another.
"Why do they give it that name?" asked the first.
"Because it comes out west in the first of the week and takes the remainder of the week trying to get back," said a voice in a remote corner of the car.