A Brief History of the DT&I
by J.E. Landrum

The Detroit, Toledo & Ironton Railroad could trace its history back to the southern point of the railroad at Ironton. The Iron Railway was incorporated in 1849 to haul mineral and agricultural products from the rich fields of Lawrence County (Ohio) to the Ohio River city of Ironton. The line opened in late 1851 and is one of the earliest rail lines to operate in the state. It made a northern rail contact later with a predecessor of the Toledo, Cincinnati & St. Louis, a narrow gauge "super system" consisting of many smaller lines. Barge service to the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway yard across the river in Russell, Kentucky provided another outlet of interchange for the Iron Railway, as did its connection with the Norfolk & Western at Ironton. The Detroit Southern Railway acquired the Iron Railway in 1902.

The Springfield, Jackson & Pomeroy Railroad was incorporated in 1874. A narrow gauge railroad initially, it constructed a circuitous route from the Jackson and Wellston area to Springfield, completed in 1878. In 1880, the Springfield Southern Railroad took over operations of the SJ&P and almost immediately converted the railroad to standard gauge. In 1881, the Springfield Southern was acquired by interests of another railroad (Indiana, Bloomington & Western) and renamed the Ohio Southern Railroad. The infusion of capital afforded the expansion of the Ohio Southern, resulting in the construction of a line north of Springfield to Lima beginning in 1892 and completed in 1893. Several poorly advised expansions were also undertaken ,which undermined the financial stability of the company. Branches were undertaken to reach Cincinnati and Columbus. Both failed to reach either city and were abandoned some time later. In 1895, the OS had its first of what was to become a pattern for the railroad for the next 25 years: bankruptcy. The railroad was in very poor condition, both financially and physically. The end of the Ohio Southern came when it became part of the new Detroit Southern Railway in 1901.

The Detroit & Lima Northern Railway was incorporated in 1895 to construct a line from Lima to Toledo and Detroit. The railroad was completed in 1898, but did not have a direct route to Toledo. Rather, it went to the west of that city occasionally unitizing right of way from other railroads to reduce costs. The D&LN was integrated into the new Detroit Southern Railway, along with the Ohio Southern and Iron Railway, in 1901. This provided the backbone of what would become the DT&I.

The Detroit Southern was organized in 1901 with the consolidation of the D&LN and the OS. The Iron Railway was added in 1902. Trackage rights and an extension were arranged to connect the Iron Railway with the main part of the railroad. The poor financial condition of the railroad was plainly evident during this period, culminating in bankruptcy in 1903. In 1905, it was released from court protection as the Detroit, Toledo and Ironton Railway. The Ann Arbor Railroad was also placed under control of the new road, the first union of two companies whose fates would be intertwined for the next 80 years.  

The precedent continued however for the new DT&I. It too, went bankrupt in 1908. The acquisition of the Ann Arbor was voided and the DT&I was on its own again. It emerged from court protection in 1914 and was renamed the Detroit, Toledo and Ironton Railroad (as opposed to railway). The newly reorganized company fared little better financially, but remained solvent until its date with history in 1920. During this period, the DT&I leased the Toledo - Detroit Railroad, providing it with its own line into Toledo, having previously used Ann Arbor trackage. World War I and United States Railway Administration control battered the DT&I almost to death. Unprecedented traffic levels, poor equipment, and failing infrastructure nearly brought the railroad to its knees. One more blow would probably result in another trip to bankruptcy court. That blow came in 1920 when the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) ordered the DT&I to rebuild its Rouge River bridge (in Dearborn, Michigan) to provide lake access to the Ford Motor Companies plant. The DT&I did not have the money to do so. When Henry Ford learned of this, he bought the railroad outright, rather than delay the project. Thus began one of the most remarkable comebacks in railroad history.

Henry Ford personally purchased the DT&I in the Summer of 1920. He had always had an interest in railroads and the DT&I provided an outlet for all of the innovations he had envisioned. He began a massive capital improvement program to rehabilitate the physical condition of the railroad. He saw the DT&I as being a large terminal railroad, hauling raw materials and finished product to the Rouge Complex of the Ford Motor Company. The DT&I crossed all of the major east - west railroads, thus Ford could easily access the major cities on the east coast or the west. Ford also had very radical ideas about labor relations and applied them liberally to the DT&I, much to the shock and dismay of the other railroads. Ford developed an organization built on pride, extraordinary efficiency, and profit. The railroad regularly pulled a 25% net profit after several years of Ford ownership, a far cry from the days of the worn trail to bankruptcy court!

Henry Ford brought many innovations to the DT&I. Perhaps the most ambitious was the electrification project begun in 1923. Though destined to be a failure (one of Ford's few mistakes during DT&I ownership), it provided much information and scientific development for other electrification projects soon to be underway (Pennsylvania Railroads New York to Washington mainline for example). The most successful Ford era project was the Malinta cutoff. This new 55 mile line was constructed from 1925 to 1929. It bypassed the curve and grade laden line via Napoleon and Wauseon, for a superbly engineered line consisting of few curves and light grades in addition to being more direct. It departed from the original mainline at Malinta and Petersburg respectively. Ford also planned a bypass around Springfield, but it was never followed through. 

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These four images courtesy of Scott Williams.

In the Fall of 1929, Henry Ford sold the railroad to the Pennsylvania Railroads financial subsidiary, Pennroad Corporation. Ford had become disgusted with ICC interference with his operations of the DT&I and was finally compelled to throw in the towel. Pennsylvania Railroad control of the DT&I resulted in many of Fords innovations going by the wayside. Of particular note, the labor relations field became more conservative and inline with standard railroad operating practices. PRR control lasted until the Penn Central bankruptcy of 1970.

The DT&I operated profitably for the next 30 years, serving well during World War II and the economic boom of the 1950's. The railroad dieselized in 1955, ending 100 years of steam operations. Interesting to note that the DT&I purchased diesels from only one builder, the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors. Major innovations in freight car design pushed the railroad to the forefront of railroad technology. The railroad was one of the first to embrace the high capacity "Hi-Cube" boxcars for auto parts shipments as well as specially designed cars to haul steel coils. The DT&I also maintained an extremely modern locomotive fleet for a railroad of its size. It marketed several premium transportation services, such as the "Railblazer".

The PC bankruptcy of 1970 and its subsequent inclusion into Conrail, resulted in the DT&I being sold off to assist in paying off PC's creditors. The former Toledo - Detroit Railroad was abandoned in the early 1960's and trackage rights over the Ann Arbor Railroad again provided access to Toledo for the DT&I. The newly independent DT&I faced a very hostile railroad environment in the late 1970's. The DT&I needed to form so sort of union with another railroad in order to survive the increased competition from the trucking industry and the ever expanding railroad neighbors. In 1980, the DT&I was acquired by the Grand Trunk Western Railroad. Following the GTW acquisition, the DT&I retained its corporate identity for a brief time. In 1982, the first major abandonment of DT&I trackage took place when the Ironton Branch (former Iron Railway) was abandoned south of Jackson. The line from Washington Court House to Waverly was also abandoned in 1982 when trackage rights were secured over the B&O and C&O railroads. The shops at Jackson were closed in 1984 and the trackage from Jackson to Waverly were abandoned, as were the trackage rights secured in 1982. In 1984, the DT&I was integrated into the Grand Trunk Western Railroad and passed into history.

In 1990, the GTW sold the former DT&I trackage from Springfield to Washington Court House to the Indiana & Ohio Railroad. The GTW continued to operate the former DT&I from Flat Rock to Springfield until February 15, 1997, when most of it was sold to the I&O. Everything south of the Ann Arbor Jct. at Diann, Michigan was included in the sale. The I&O has undertaken a massive capital investment program, rebuilding the railroad after almost a decade of neglect under GTW ownership.

The Detroit, Toledo and Ironton was a truly unique railroad in its continuous rising and falling from the favor of fortune. With the Indiana and Ohio Railway owning the largest remaining portion of the DT&I, perhaps the rails of the DT&I will once again be under the bright shine of fortunes favor.

written 1/7/98 by J. Erik Landrum