As with many rail lines, the “Polly Ann” had its roots firmly planted in the heyday of railroading, which began at the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. The “golden spike” event caused a huge investment fad that lasted for two decades. Railroads were perceived as the future in transportation and a necessity to further the growth of a community. At that time, the majority of roads were dirt and gravel which meant carriages were often bogged down in miles of mud. Travel in those days was a slow, arduous an often dirty task. The supply of goods to merchants as well as all mail delivery was often delayed, sometimes for days.
A local doctor, John T. Stanton of Oxford, teamed up with a Toledo investor, James Ashley, (who had the dubious honor of being fired by President Grant from the position of Governor of the Montana Territory) to build a rail line from the growing town of Pontiac up to the rich timberlands of the Michigan thumb area. The line was actually first chartered in April 1879, as the Pontiac, Oxford and Port Austin. The investors, however, soon ran out of funding, so Dr. Stanton went to New York in search of more money. There, he found J. P. Hale, manufacturer of the Commercial Piano, who invested 1.5 million dollars.
In 1881, before construction began, a huge fire devastated the thumb area. One report said that the fire burned 2,000 square miles, killed 280 people and left 15,000 homeless. The idea of harvesting timber in the area literally went up in smoke. The silver lining in all the devastation however, was the that the land was now cleared. Prior to the fire, people living in the area complained that there were too many trees. The fire opened up the land to farming.
With funds available, the investors decided to plow ahead, through they changed the terminus point from Post Austin to Caseville. On October 8, 1883, the first passenger train departed Pontiac headed for Caseville. There is no mention of how many people were on board, but great numbers and fanfare met the train at every stop along the route.
The line struggled but never became profitable. When Hale died in 1888, his lawyer, Hugh Porter, bought the line for $600,000 — a fraction of the original cost, to settle the estate. In 1889, Porter renamed the line, Pontiac, Oxford and Northern which was abbreviated as the P.O. & N. The name Polly Ann is derived from these initials. One account had this to say, “It was dubbed the ‘Polly Ann’, sometimes affectionately, often because of it’s questionable service, schedule delays, heavy snows that would stall trains for days, and motive power breakdowns.”
Porter was not able to manage the line into profitability and began to write himself large checks. By the turn of the century the line went in to receivership. Grand Trunk Western took over the line in 1909, with only $400,000 invested.
Passengers never reached sufficient numbers to support the line, as aside from Pontiac, the communities being serviced were all so sparsely populated. The fertile farmland known for its wheat, bean and sugar beet crops, contributed valuable tonnage to the railroad. It was said that there was always a free bag of beans to be had by the train’s crew whenever they had to layover. The term “out to beans” because synonymous with “out to lunch”.
Revenue continued to decline. In 1932, service was reduced to ‘tri-weekly mixed’ — mixing passenger and freight service on the same train — three days a week. With all the freight and mail stops along the way, passengers were in for a long day aboard the Polly Ann rail line. That factor continued to erode passenger service.
Oxford had the world’s largest gravel mines and were the source of carloads for Grand Trunk Western. This regular assigned job was known as the “mud run” during the 1930’s and 1940’s. The gravel was used for road construction and for the runways at nearby Selfridge Air Force Base. By the 1950’s the run became an extra, and was called the “Gravel Extra”. A man assigned to the “Gravel Extra” could count on a continuous 16 hour duty. Law prescribed 16 hours as the maximum duty time allowable.
The P. O. and N. picked up a new nickname, “poor, old and neglected”. Mixed service was discontinued in 1955 when the line went freight only. By 1959, diesel was everywhere except the GTW Cass Subdivision of which the Polly Ann was a part. The ‘poor old line’ was always the very last to receive new motor power. This was great for train bugs, as the line offered a final opportunity to witness and photograph steam engines that were long gone from most other areas.
On March 27, 1960 steam was finally replaced with diesel. The last train to service the full length of the line was on February 9, 1984. Grand Trunk Western Railroad agreed to sell the railroad corridor to the State of Michigan Department of Natural Resources. A federal grant was awarded in 1993 and was matched by the DNR that same year providing more than $728,000 to purchase the corridor from Grand Trunk.
A formal resolution endorsing the Polly Ann Trail from all of the local governments along the Oakland County portion of the trail have made the conversion of the corridor to a linear park a reality. Hundreds of volunteers and supporters have worked, and continue to work to ensure its preservation.
Adapted from the writings of Janine Saputo and Rex Halfpenny.