The Great Thumb Fire of 1881 opened an opportunity for agricultural development. On October 20th, 1881, construction of the thumb railroad Pontiac, Oxford & Port Austin began at Caseville, Michigan, to bring rail service to the Upper Thumb area. Just before construction began, a huge fire devastated the entire region. The result was that the former lumbering area was now ripe for agricultural development. The fire opened up the land to farming.
The Pontiac, Oxford & Northern, (P.O & N) work starts in the Winter of 1881
Local lore states that the railway was originally intended to terminate in Port Austin at the tip of Michigan’s Thumb. However, the fire devastated the eastern sections of the area around Port Austin. Caseville businessman Francis Crawford financed the railway project, and the rails were shipped in from Cleveland. Crawford’s Caseville would be the final stop of the new railway. Caseville’s first railroad engines were delivered by the ship C.R. Dumford from Cleveland. The track out of Caseville was laid out about a mile before heavy snow stopped the work.
A Shipping Disaster on Saginaw Bay
This was from The J.W. Hall Great lakes Marine Scrapbook, September, 1882.
“Intelligence was received in Chicago yesterday afternoon that the schooner J.E. GILMORE is ashore at Oak Point, somewhere near Caseville, Lake Huron. No particulars of the disaster could be learned beyond the fact that the vessel is stranded. She is from Chicago and has a cargo of railroad iron on board. The GILMORE measures 290 tons. She was built at Three Mile Bay, by A. Wilcox, in 1867, and rates A 2½, with a valuation of about $10,000. Hull and cargo insured. A. Wilcox of Cleveland is the owner. What arrangements have been made for assistance is not learned.”
On one shipment from Cleveland, the ship ran aground on the rocky shoals near Oak Point. During the salvage operation, 23 rails slipped into Saginaw Bay and were lost. This disaster delayed the start of the Thumb railroad building until December. It’s assumed that those rails are still at the bottom of the lake today.
The Pontiac, Oxford & Northern Railroad was completed with the final rail line into Caseville in October 1883
The Stops Along the Polly Ann
The entire railway was just short of being 100 miles long. In filings with the Interstate Commerce Commission, the P.O & N was denoted as having exactly 99.894 miles of rail bed. There were 18 stops along the route once the train departed from Pontiac.
|Miles From Pontiac||Station/Depot|
The depot in Caseville was located and built near what today is known as Hoys Saginaw Bay Marina. The location reflects the sensibility of being near the salt blocks, pig iron forge, and sawmills.
It would have been a busy place. Caseville was more of an industrial center than the tourist destination of today. Today the entire industrial zone is the site of a marina and Caseville Country Beach and Campground.
The Caseville depot still exists today. It was moved from its location and now serves as a private residence nearby.
Related Links to Thumb Railroad
- Thumb Railway – Story of the Polly Ann – Local folklore states that the Pontiac, Oxford & Northern Railroad (P.O. & N) ran from September 1889 until the last service run of the full length of the line on February 9, 1984.
- Ship Building In Caseville – Shipbuilding in the Great Lakes was also an important industry. In 1861 Francais Crawford built a lake schooner. The “Frank Crawford was a large masted schooner that plied the waters all over the Great Lakes in the late 1800s.
- September 1882: With a load of railroad iron, the Gilmore went ashore at Oak Point, Caseville, Michigan, Lake Huron.
- Point of Pines Hotel and Summer Resort – Do a bit of research on Port Austin and you can help but run into this picture of a large building; the Point of Pines Hotel. Postcards indicate it was active from 1898 until 1935. But little else is recorded.
- MichiganRailroads.com provides contemporary and historical information about railroads in and near the State of Michigan.