Henry Ford’s railroad

EXPANDED AND UPDATED: Henry Ford liked to own things. In the acquisitory phase of his life, his possessions included an airport, a hotel, a fleet of lake freighters, a rubber plantation in Brazil—and a railroad.



In 1920 Ford purchased the Detroit, Toledo, and Ironton Railroad, a decrepit little road that was known as “the railroad to nowhere” for its tangle of meandering right-of-ways. Launched in 1874 as the Springfield, Jackson, & Pomeroy, a narrow-gauge railway serving the small coal towns of Southern Ohio, the road had gone broke multiple times, merging with a series of equally bankrupt rail companies along the way.

However, the DT&I did have one asset with great potential for Ford: a line that ran north to south from Detroit all the way to Ironton on the Ohio River near Huntington, West Virginia. Thus the little road had a connection with every major rail line crossing the Midwest, allowing Ford to negotiate more economical through-rates for his own cargo to and from his giant plants in Dearborn and Highland Park.


DT&I Steam Locomotive circa 1950


In order to further frighten the rail industry into cooperating, HF I thoroughly rebuilt his railroad in the mode of his Model T production, firing needless layers of management and updating all the rolling stock. You could say that like many men, Henry enjoyed model railroading, but his toy train was in 1:1 scale.  Soon he had the little railroad gleaming like a new coin in his pocket, and in 1929 he sold the company to the Pennsylvania Railroad for a bundle. But before he did, he performed an interesting experiment.

Ford electrified one branch of the road that ran from the Rouge plant south to Flat Rock, then west through Carleton and Maybee, Michigan, a distance of 40 miles. To support the wires, hundreds of catenary towers or trestles were erected, many of which are still standing to this day. You can find them from just north of Oakwood Boulevard to just south of Eureka road, but the foundations for them are still present all the way west to Maybee. The towers shown in the lead photo above are just northeast of the Pelham Road rail crossing in Allen Park, and they are generally between 200 and 300 feet apart, depending on the curve and grade.


Still standing just north of Southfield and south of the Ford Rouge Plant are a dozen or more of these double catenaries, designed to supply current to four sets of track.


In late 19th and early 20th century there were countless electric railways in the USA, constructed mainly for city and interurban passenger travel. Ford’s plan was to use excess electrical production from his big powerhouse at Highland Park to run a heavy freight road, and he had two giant electric locomotives built using Westinghouse motor-generators. However, the surplus electrical capacity never materialized, apparently, and the experiment was abandoned.


DT&I electric engine 


Here’s the path of the DT&I’s planned electric rail line, stretching southwest from the Rouge plant in Dearborn through Flat Rock and Carleton nearly to Dundee. The line crosses under Interstate 75 near Eureka Road, Exit 36—and if you look, the towers there are easily visible from the highway.


Under the management of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the DT&I ran conventional steam engines until after WWII, then switched to GM Electro-Motive diesel-electrics with distinctive colors and graphics until it went out of business. The former DT & I road is still in operation today, owned by the Canadian National.


The catenaries or their remains can be found from near the Rouge plant in Dearborn to the DT&I rail yards at Flat Rock. However, Ford had tower supports constructed all the way to the town of Maybee (see map above). While the historical record is unclear on this point, it appears the supports between Flat Rock and Maybee were never used. 


Since they are mainly concrete, the old catenary towers have little salvage value, apparently, so it seems they just stand there until they get in the way or start to crumble and a few more are torn down. Eventually, the towers will all disappear. But in the meantime, Motor City residents still have these interesting local landmarks that stretch downriver for miles.

More exclusive stories about Henry Ford at Mac’s Motor City Garage:

Henry Ford’s Airport 
Henry Ford’s Soybean Car 
58 Bagley Avenue Revisited 
The Second Car in the City of Detroit 



Catenary towers 


DT&I Caboose


Ford Fordor Sedan DT&I rail auto


22 thoughts on “Henry Ford’s railroad

  1. I grew up next to these tracks and used to love watching all the NEW ford cars and trucks roll along the tracks for years until the train cars were enclosed brings back memories of a simpler times

  2. This is a great report! As a railroad historian, I’d only like to point out that the line is currently operated by Canadian National and that the DT&I didn’t go out of business, it was merged into the Grand Trunk Western railroad (which in turn merged into CN).

    I agree that the electrification experiment ended at Flat Rock. While the concrete foundations sit basically new/unused further South/West, they never held up any catenary structures.

    From what I’ve read Henry Ford (and Edision) both believed that ‘DC’ based systems were the way to go. You’ll find, however, that modern electric trains operate on AC as it’s much more efficient. If Ford has chosen AC, it may have lasted much longer/been in service today.

    • Technology changes. It started out DC was easier. Everything was by battery. Generators came along, and AC had the upper hand. AC could be easily converted to different voltage levels by transformers to reduce current (ohmic losses) in long distance or high power transmission systems, and AC motors and generators could be simpler and more efficient. DC is now as or more efficient than AC thanks to solid state devices. How we view technology depends on the year we are viewing it from. The most efficient variable speed motor drives, including locomotives, are now inverter drives. The solid state inverter is actually powered by DC.

  3. I saw a picture once with me, my mom and my aunt when I was about 4 standing under one of those and always wondered what they were. I am 77 now. Thx for the info

  4. Awesome article! I never knew. One minor typo – “The former DT & I road is still in operation today, owned by the Canadian Northern.” As Josh O commented, I think you mean Canadian National.

  5. Born and raised in Detroit “Delray” never heard this info. Thanks for sharing yet another piece of history.

  6. I grew up within a block of the crossing of the D T & I and the B & O RR’s in Hamler, Ohio. I pretty much always knew it was Henry Ford’s RR but what went on north and south of us, I never really knew. I remember they had diesel powered engines vs steam compared to the B&O and carried lots of vehicles South and switched cars onto the B&O too.

  7. Pingback: Henry Ford | Marc Antinossi

  8. Very cool article. I’m guessing the caption under one of the pictures should have said Southgate, not Southfield.

  9. Henry Ford bought the bankrupt DT&I Railroad in 1919 for 5 million dollars. At that time Mr Ford announced a program to spend between 10 and 15 million to upgrade the line. He found the regulations of the I.C.C, and compliance with federal Law annoying and in 1928 began negotiations with the Penn-road Corporation (associated with the Pennsylvania RR), finally selling to that company in 1929 for 36 million dollars. More than seven times more that he had paid for it in 1919. Eventually it was taken over by GTW (Grand Trunk Western) and finally by CN (Canadian National). Cement footings for those towers still exist about a mile north of my home at the Burns Road crossing in Monroe County Michigan.

  10. The Pennsylvania RR had a number of the famed GG-1 electrics immortalized by Lionel in the ’50s.

  11. I still work by there and use to love visiting it with my dad as a child keep up the history lesson.

    • There was an article in TRAINS magazine in the late 70s about this. It had some drawings of the structures. Not really detailed ones, but if I remember correctly, enough if you wanted to build a model.

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