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.
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