Early Roads & Railroads in Richland Township MI

The article provides a glimpse into the early days of settlement in Richland Township during the 1860s, focusing on the challenges settlers faced due to the lack of roads, bridges, and paths. It details the efforts of pioneers like August C. Fiting, who, amidst a thick forest and with no modern conveniences, had to create their own routes for basic communication and transportation. Through narratives of crossing the Tittabawassee River, constructing log houses, and the eventual development of roads and a railroad, the article illustrates the transformation of the area from an isolated wilderness to a connected community, emphasizing the critical role of infrastructure in fostering growth and development.

Early Roads & Railroads

by Lorenz H. Loesel

When the early settlers came to this area in the early 1860s, they faced an array of obstacles that could only be surmounted by sheer courage and hard labor. We must realize that the first settlers had no roads, bridges, or paths that would help them to communicate with their neighbors or nearby established communities. Consequently, the early pioneer was forced to build his own road and thus establish a minimal means of communication with other settled areas. The account of August C. Fiting, who was one of the very early settlers, states: “There were but seven other families in Richland Township when Mr. Fiting moved here in 1859, and of these but two families remain, the others having moved away. No roads had been opened and the farm was covered with thick forest growth. In those days Mr. Fiting was accustomed to go to Saginaw with oxen and sleds, there being no wagons or horses in the county, and the trip there and return (fourteen miles) consumed three days.” (1)

Since most settlers came from Saginaw and surrounding areas, they had to cross the Tittabawassee River in order to reach the townships west of this river. It was rather difficult to determine the approximate spot of location where these early settlers crossed the Tittabawassee River. Some of the older people of this community recall the days when they had to ferry across the Tittabawassee River. The place of crossing was due east from the corner where Dice Road and North River Road meet. This place of crossing must have existed fairly early in the development of Saginaw County. The early history of Thomastown and its settlement made it imperative that a place of crossing be established. Again the biography of August Fiting reveals the following: “The family settled on a farm in Thomas Township, where the father, with the aid of his sons, built a log house for the abode of his family. They remained on that place for three years, making improvements on the farm, and in the meantime the boys contributed to the support of the family by running a ferry across the Tittabawassee River.” (1)

We know that Mr. Fiting settled in Thomastown as early as 1856. However, according to other accounts, the ferry may have operated many years earlier than 1856. Mrs. Fred Koeppen related to me that she and many other young people had been invited to a wedding which was in Thomastown or the east side of the river. In order to cross the river, they had to hire a ferry which was operated by a certain Mr. Capstine. Smilingly, Mrs. Koeppen related that it was late in the morning when these young people were ready to return to their homes. Apparently, Mr. Capstine was not too happy to make a crossing in the late morning hours. However, we may rest assured that these young people were not unduly alarmed. With kind words and persistent coaxing, they persuaded Mr. Capstine to ferry them across in the late morning hours.

Another interesting account of the primitive condition of the community was told to me by the late August Wardin. Mr. Wardin and many other young men of this community worked at the Barr Brickyard. This brickyard was on the east side of the Tittabawassee River. Luplow’s Tavern and the Saginaw Transfer Company are located in this area. C. W. Wardin’s farm was previously the home of the late August Wardin. Every Sunday afternoon Mr. Wardin would walk from his farm to the Barr Brickyard. Since there was no established road, he would follow the high sand ridges which afforded the best and only means of reaching his place of employment.

When we see our black-topped and paved roads, it almost seems incredible to believe that the roads in Richland Township were merely sand trails and muddy paths in the early and even late 1880s. The rainy seasons of the year made some of these roads almost impassable. Some of the low spots were covered with logs so that the wagon and horses would not get mired in the deep mud. The following incident from the History of St. Peter Lutheran Church states: “Between Hemlock City, as the railroad station was named, and the church site the road was terrible. It was out of the question for a team of horses to haul the logs through the worst place, therefore every load had to be met and helped by a span of oxen…” (2) Also dealing with the history of this church in 1882, we read: “The roads were very bad. In spring and fall, people came to church walking on logs, jumping from one to the next and a misstep meant wet clothes to the knee…” (2)

The only decent road that was built in the early 1860s was the Saginaw Valley and Saint Louis Plank Road. As we mentioned in a previous chapter, this plank road did much to link Hemlock City with neighboring communities. Even though the road had been built with sturdy three-inch planks, swamps and constant exposure to the heavy rains did much to bring on an early deterioration of the plank road. Mr. Earl said that a heavy stand of trees on either side of the road prevented proper drainage. In the early 1880s, a forest fire destroyed portions of this road.

There was a regular stagecoach route that carried passengers on this road. We can well imagine the coach leaving the City of Saginaw with some passengers. Traveling due west on the plank road, the coach had to cross the Tittabawassee River at the State Road Bridge. Here the passengers would see the Boom Boarding House, R. Treby’s Blacksmith Shop, and several other places of business in this little community. Later this little community was named Shields. Continuing their trip, these passengers then had to cross Swan Creek where another toll had to be paid. After a rough and exciting adventure, they were ready to enjoy a little rest. Entering Hemlock City, the driver had to pay another toll. This toll gate was located at the corner of M-46 and the Midland Road.

Fred Fiting stated that his folks recalled the days when a stagecoach ride to Saginaw was regarded as something unusual because not too many people had an extra dollar to pay for the fare. According to his report, there were two Lunney girls who worked at the James Henry Mill. Since they were paid one dollar a day for packing shingles, these two young ladies were fortunate enough so that they could afford this trip to Saginaw. Undoubtedly, these two fashionable girls were the envy of many girls who wished that they could make the trip to the City of Saginaw and window shop, viewing the latest in the big city.

The exciting days of stagecoach travel were soon at an end. Since Richland Township and surrounding areas were developing as lumbering areas, better transportation had to be provided so that its forest products could be shipped to distant cities and trading centers. Men of vision and business acumen encouraged the building of a railroad from Saginaw to Saint Louis so that the sawmills, tanneries, and similar places of industry could avail themselves of the lumber and forest products of this rich area. Fortunately, we have an excellent account of this project in the History of Saginaw County.

“This road of the Saginaw and Saint Louis Railroad was surveyed in June 1871, by Frank Eastman. In September of that year, the contract for grading was awarded to Alexander McDonald. September 15, 1872, the first train passed over the line from Saginaw to Saint Louis. December 31 witnessed the formal opening of this new railroad, extending westward from Saginaw, uniting the city with the already rich agricultural district embraced in Gratiot and adjoining counties, rendering available an extensive belt of pine, oak, hemlock, and other timber. The length of the railroad from East Saginaw to Saint Louis is 35 miles.” (3)

We can readily appreciate that this railroad had a definite effect on the development of Richland Township and its trading center, Hemlock City. Farm tools, machines, heavy equipment needed in the mills, and cumbersome freight could now be transported via rail. It opened new areas of trade and business possibilities which were not possible heretofore. Besides, passenger trains passing through Hemlock City enabled people to travel more comfortably.

Many of the older people of this community will remember the day when they boarded a train at Hemlock Station and then anticipated the pleasant day they would spend at Saginaw. Traveling east, you would hear the familiar names as the conductor called: Flag Station, Graham Station, Swan Creek, and finally, Paine Station. At this point, the Saginaw Valley and Saint Louis Railroad would switch onto the tracks of the Jackson, Lansing, and Saginaw Railroad. Within a few minutes, you were approaching the outskirts of Saginaw. I realize that these names of the railroad may seem strange to the present-day reader but due to mergers of railroads and changes of ownership, the names had been changed several times. The great success of this early railroad is indicated in this report.

“Although one of the shortest railroads in the State, its roadbed was first class, and its rolling stock consisted of four engines, two passenger coaches, twelve box cars, and forty flat cars. Its total earnings in 1873, the first year of operation, amounted to one hundred and thirty-five thousand dollars, and the operating expenses were forty-two thousand dollars, which was considered a very good showing for a new road. In addition to paying its annual interest charges, a considerable number of bonds were retired. At that time, the shipments consisted very largely of forest products, including staves, shingles, and bark. While general merchandise, agricultural implements, and household goods comprised its outbound freight.” (4)

We have another document that helps to confirm and establish the success and history of the Saginaw Valley and Saint Louis Railroad. Miss Mary Raucholz has an interesting letter from the present company that operates this line at the present time. We will quote parts from this letter since it gives us valuable information as to change of ownership, history, and the amount of rolling stock in the early 1870s.

“The first railroad through Hemlock was the Saginaw Valley and Saint Louis Railroad, incorporated in 1871. In 1873, 28.7 miles from Saint Louis to Paines Junction was opened, and the balance of the distance from Paines Junction to Saginaw was reached by running over Jackson, Lansing, and Saginaw Co. Lumber and forest products for the most part were the traffic—96 percent of total tonnage in 1874, and well above 80 percent in 1875… In 1896 it became part of the Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Western Railroad Co., which became the Pere Marquette Railroad Co., in 1907… In 1947 this became the Chesapeake and Ohio. A strip of land or right of way 100 feet wide and approximately 1200 feet long was purchased from W. F. Glasby on September 12, 1871, for one dollar and other valuable considerations. (It may be of special interest to note the name of W. F. Glasby. We mentioned him in other chapters since he was very influential in the early development of our community.) The location of the original depot was 350 feet east of the present one, and on the same side of the track. The present depot was built in 1907. (Hemlock had two depots. The first one was destroyed by fire. We may assume that the first one was built in the early 1870s.)” (5)

When we consider the great amount of freight and tonnage that was hauled by this railroad, it becomes apparent that Hemlock City and its surrounding farming area depended largely on this railroad. By the same token, we can readily see that the stock and shareholders of this railroad made tremendous profits.


  1. Portrait and Biographical Record of Saginaw and Bay Counties, Michigan, 1892. Biographical Publishing Co., Chicago, Illinois.
  2. 1880-1930 Fiftieth Anniversary of St. Peter Evangelical Lutheran Church, Near Hemlock, Michigan.
  3. History of Saginaw County, Michigan, 1881.
  4. History of Saginaw County, Michigan, James Cooke Mills.
  5. Letter: The Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Company, Richland Township Library.


Loesel, Lorenz H. Richland : its sons and daughters : a review of the first century of Richland Township, Saginaw County, Michigan, Hemlock, Michigan : Hemlock Herald-Merrill Monitor, 1962.

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