Disaster On The Bay

The Railroad at the Bottom of Saginaw Bay

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.

Caseville’s Industrial Area of 1881

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 PontiacStation/Depot
33Imlay City
42.5King’s Mills
48.5North Branch
74.4Cass City

Caseville Depot

Rare photo of Caseville Depot c1900

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.

Crawford’s Saw Mill Caseville 1880’s – Note Depot on Left

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.

Caseville Depot

The Caseville depot still exists today. It was moved from its location and now serves as a private residence nearby.

Michael Hardy

Michael Hardy is the owner of Thumbwind Publications LLC. Michael was born in Michigan and grew up near Caseville. In 2009 he started this fun-loving site covering Michigan's Upper Thumb. Since then, he has authored a vast range of content and established a loyal base of 60,000 visitors per month.

View all posts by Michael Hardy →

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