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The Michigan Timberliner

Led by New York Central 4-6-4 Hudson 5357, the southbound Timberliner makes its first stop south of Mackinaw City at Cheboygan, Mich., on Labor Day weekend 1955. This was the final year of steam for the Timberliner. —John Nieman; author’s collection

The Michigan Timberliner

2023-03by Ron Cady/photos as noted

Michigan’s Mackinac Island has long been an idyllic vacation destination where time seems to have stopped, with the village retaining its 1880s appearance. With automobiles long banished, the island’s beauty and historical draw are so strong that nearly a million tourists visit each year. In PTJ 2020-4, I detailed Pennsylvania Railroad’s Northern Arrow, a summer train that took vacationers to Mackinaw City, where they would board a ferry for the seven-mile trip to Mackinac Island. Initiated in 1935, the Northern Arrow was a lengthy train, fully equipped with a diner, Pullmans, and a lounge car for the 533-mile overnight trip, starting in Cincinnati and taking a run up the western side of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. However, PRR was not the only provider of summer vacation trains. New York Central also offered a service that would whisk away passengers destined for this island that time forgot.

NYC started its own summer service on June 27, 1947, with a train called The Michigan Timberliner, which was aptly named since it ran through forests where virgin stands of white pine once ruled. NYC’s service was not competitive with PRR, because NYC’s train started in eastern Michigan from Detroit and followed a route to Mackinaw that ran up the middle of the Lower Peninsula. Leaving Detroit’s massive Beaux-Arts Michigan Central depot at 5:00PM, the train made the 181-mile run in less than six hours. A tavern-lounge car provided light meals. Mohawk (4-8-2 wheel arrangement on NYC) and 4-6-4 Hudson steam locomotives powered the Timberliner (its shortened name) until 1955, after which GP7 or GP9 diesels were normally used.


ABOVE: Pulled by NYC GP9 5938 and trailed by a coach, the Beeliner rolls through Bay City, Mich., in September 1960. —Hart Smith; author’s collection

In addition to the summer-only Timberliner, vacationers could also travel on NYC’s daily Detroit-to-Mackinaw City Northerner. That train had been an overnighter leaving Mackinaw City with mostly mail and express cars plus a coach and a Pullman. The Northerner withered away in fall 1959 to a single Budd RDC, an equipment type known as a Beeliner on NYC. Dining service had not been offered on the overnight Northerner. However, the RDC train became a daytime operation. With no dining car, pre-ordered boxed lunches were loaded en route.

The Timberliner ran from late June to Labor Day weekend; north on Fridays and back on Sundays. Using Mackinaw City’s Union Station (in earlier years shared by Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic; Grand Rapids & Indiana; and Michigan Central), the train’s first decade of operation seemed fruitful. However, the market dramatically declined with the opening of the Mackinac Bridge (connecting Michigan’s two peninsulas) in 1957 and a soon-to-be-completed segment of Interstate 75.


ABOVE: The final NYC passenger train departs Mackinaw City, on September 3, 1962.Author’s collection

By then, vacationers had largely abandoned this rail service for their automobiles. The Timberliner had shrunk to a baggage car, a cafe-lounge, and one or two coaches. Likewise, the Beeliner had its woes. Claiming the RDC only averaged 10 passengers per trip, and citing losses of nearly $100,000 annually, NYC was permitted to discontinue the Beeliner on September 3, 1962. Coincidentally, that day also saw the final run of the Timberliner

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This article was posted on: July 15, 2023