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Railroad author tackles the Pere Marquette

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

The history of Michigan's railroads is colorful and complex, and there's probably no one who knows the subject better than Graydon M. Meints (pronounced like "Heinz"), the author of 12 books on the Michigan and Indiana's legendary rail systems and companies, now mostly long gone.

The Kalamazoo resident's new book, to be released July 1 by Michigan State University Press, "Pere Marquette: A Michigan Railroad System Before 1900," looks at the early history of the fabled line with the colorful name.

The Detroit News caught up with Meints, 86, to talk rail magnates, the "Resort Special," and why this may be his last book.

Graydon M. Meints, who's written 12 books on Midwestern railroads, tackles the legendary Pere Marquette line in his newest title.

Have you always been interested in railroads?

Graydon M. Meints: "Only since the seventh grade. What happened was World War II was coming to an end, and I'd always been interested in airplanes. I had a plane spotter's book, so if an enemy plane flew over, I could tell what it was. But with the war coming to an end, there were no planes. So somehow or other, I shifted over to railroads. And the fascination just stuck."

What was your first book?

That was back in the 1980s - "Along the Tracks."

At one point, it seems like there were dozens and dozens of railroads in Michigan.

"Yes – really, Michigan was overbuilt. With logging and lumbering, there was a line just about everyplace."

When was the Pere Marquette established?

"The name Pere Marquette had been around in railroading in Michigan since the 1860s in the Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad, a line that ran from Saginaw to Ludington -- which is the mouth of the Pere Marquette River. But the Pere Marquette itself was formed in 1900, when three companies merged -- the Flint and Pere Marquette, the Detroit, Lansing and Northern; and the Chicago and West Michigan."

How long did the new company last after the merger?

"The Pere Marquette ran until 1947. After that it was taken over by the Chesapeake & Ohio, which later became CSX."

Charlevoix was a Pere Marquette stop for decades, but its 1892 station was built by an earlier railroad -- the Chicago and West Michigan.

Wasn't the Pere Marquette famous for its weekend overnight trains to Charlevoix, Petoskey and other lakeside towns?

"Yes. That was the Resort Special – I can’t remember when started, but it ran from Chicago and went all the way up to Bay View. It was a very nice train, probably one of the better ones the PM ran at that time. That train was in service, I would guess, until almost the 1960s."

Railroads, of course, were once the territory of mega-money speculation -- sort of the Silicon Valley of their day, no?

"Yes. It's amazing how much money entered into the whole equation. After the Civil War, railroads could get free federal land grants to build lines. They got quite a swath of land – in Michigan, most grants were 10 miles wide, and the companies were entitled to sell whatever they didn’t use for the tracks themselves.

"Naturally, there were some very wealthy people involved, including Gov. Henry Crapo (1865-1869) who was a big investor along with his son, and James F. Joy, president of the Michigan Central Railroad (whose son Henry would become president of Packard Motor Car Co. in the next century)."

How long did it take you to write "Pere Marquette?"

"Two years. I enjoy the research, but it's a slow business. The writing is the hard part – trying to reach for clarity and audience appeal, and that’s not easy to do."

What's your next book?

"I don’t think there will be one. I’ll try to write a few magazine articles, but nothing that involves a lot of work. I might write something for Michigan History or something like that. And later this year I have an article in the magazine of the New York Central System Historical Society. So I’ll keep inflicting myself on the public."

'Pere Marquette: A Michigan Railroad System Before 1900'

By Graydon M. Meints

Michigan State University Press, July 2020

$44.95

 mhodges@detroitnews.com

(313) 815-6410

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy