DAYS GONE BY: Logging Railroads in Lake County

Editors note: This article is part of Days Gone By, in which members of the Lake County Historical Society share stories of Lake County’s rich history. The articles will appear every other week in the Lake County Star. The Lake County Historical Society office and museum are located at 830 N. Michigan Ave. in Baldwin. Its mailing address is 830 N. Michigan Ave., P.O. Box 774, Baldwin, Mich. 49304.

By Shanna Avery Lake County Historical Society member

Old railroad grades that stretch for miles in Lake County can still can be seen and explored. Sometimes railroad spikes and fragments of railing can be seen along these paths, offering a tangible glimpse into the past. 

Early logging operations were mostly done in the winter when the snow made it possible to transport lumber by sleigh. In the spring when the waters were the highest, logs were floated down the river to mills. The Pere Marquette and Pine Rivers were used for log drives, yet hundreds of acres of trees in Lake County did not have access to a large enough river source.

By 1877,  a local Michigan man revolutionized the lumber industry with the invention of the logging railroad. Winfield Scott Gerrish, who settled in Hersey in 1869 and logged in Clare County, introduced the first logging railroad in the nation in January 1877. Around this sametime the ‘Shay Locomotive’ was created by Ephraim Shay, the postmaster in Haring, Wexford County. These engines were used all over the state on narrow gauge tracks.

The use of logging railroads and locomotives gave direct access to the lumber during all seasons, and opened the floodgate to logging in places like Chase in east Lake County. Chase didn’t have a large enough river source to transport logs, but by the mid 1880s whistles from 17 different mills could be heard in Chase and the population swelled from 5,000 to 6,000.

Standard Gauge railroads were a width of 4 ft 8 1/2 inches between the rails. The standard width of the narrow gauge was 36 inches. An unusual feature of the Chicago & West Michigan Railroad north of Baldwin in the 1890s was that it had three rails so that narrow gauge engines and cars could use the same railroad.

Many accidents and fatalities happened on the logging railroads. Also, in some instances there was resistance and vandalism. In June 1883 the Lake County Star reported that twelve men were caught in the act of tearing up the track on the Nirvana & Luther Railroad three miles north of Nirvana. All escaped but one, and a reward for $500 was offered for apprehension of the others involved.

In the account, ‘Lake County Railroads’, by Charles Johnson, some of the logging railroads were: Durham, Peters & Co. built 1881-82 running from the town of Chase south 4 miles; J. A. Haak Logging Railroad built 1881 running from Chase 3 miles north to Pinora Twp; Nirvana and Luther Railroad Co. incorporated on May 2, 1883 running 13 miles from Nirvana to Luther; Osceola, Lake & Wexford Railroad Co. incorporated on May 18, 1892 running 10 miles from Olga, Lake Co. to Hoxeyville, Wexford Co and abandoned about 1898. Osterhout & Fox Lumber Co. running from Chase north to Deer Lake and Foxville; Seaman & Webster Railroad Co. running from Chase south; Wingleton & Wolf Lake Logging Co. built in 1883 running 9 to 12 miles and abandoned in 1892.