John Pierce had some sheep that were killed on the Michigan Central Railroad’s tracks, so he sent a letter to a Marshall newspaper. “No heathen altar ever smoked more continually with the blood of its victims,” wrote Pierce, a preacher and Michigan’s first superintendent of public instruction. People along the whole line from Detroit who were losing cattle and other livestock held the railroad responsible. Violence should be expected, Pierce implied. But John Brooks, the railroad’s chief of operations, responded, “Tell that parson out there he’d better stick to preaching.”
And so the battle line was drawn. The Detroit & St. Joseph Railroad was privately chartered in 1831, six years before Michigan’s statehood. It became instantly decrepit, with trains barely able to make 15 miles per hour. The state took over operations in 1837 and paid farmers full compensation for lost livestock, but after an investor group formed the Michigan Central Railroad Co. in 1846 and bought the railroad for $2 million, Brooks said a cow was the farmer’s responsibility. He reduced the outlay for slaughtered farm animals to half-value.
Landowner Abel Fitch, of Michigan Center, and attorney Benjamin Burnett, of Grass Lake, initiated a campaign of active resistance. In Jackson County, trains that now maintained 30 miles per hour thanks to track improvements were attacked. People hurled rocks, placed obstacles, and jammed switches. Asked about gunfire in the night, a Michigan Center teamster admitted to his neighbor that, indeed, he’d pulled the trigger: “Damn ’em, if they don’t want to be shot, let ’em pay for the cattle they’ve killed.”
Jackson County’s unique geography may have exacerbated the situation. “The Dry Marsh” east of Michigan Center had been an obstacle in foraging, but “the cattle in the area, which had previously skirted the marsh, began to use the tracks as a convenient bridge, with disastrous results to themselves,” as Charles Hirschfeld wrote in his 1953 account, “The Great Railroad Conspiracy: The Social History of a Railroad War.”
For Michigan Central’s management, bad publicity was an obstacle in their vision of continuous travel from Buffalo to Chicago. They had finished the line all the way to Lake Michigan by 1849, and earnings reached $200,000 per year with strong dividends to investors. Yet the social situation worsened, so Brooks commissioned spies to gather evidence.
Knowing as much, the farmers struck back. Ringleader Fitch, together with three others, paid $150 and supplied an incendiary device to George Washington Gay, a Detroit brothelkeeper formerly known as the “Whig Bully of City Hall.” On Nov. 18, 1850, he started the $140,000 fire that destroyed the railroad’s Third Street freight depot in downtown Detroit and its uninsured contents of flour and grain.
The next April, one train with a sheriff and deputies set out from Niles. Another like it set out from Detroit. Overnight, in Jackson County, they rounded up some 30 men who were taken to Detroit and jailed. Bail was set at $2 million for the bunch. “The R.R. folks think they have got us completely in their clutches and feel disposed to wrong us in every possible way,” Fitch wrote his wife from prison.
The case was rushed to trial and lasted 89 days. The defendants, now numbering 37, weren’t allowed to testify. During the proceedings, Gay, the arsonist, died of advanced syphilis, and Fitch, the mastermind, succumbed to dysentery. A dozen defendants were convicted and sentenced to as many as 10 years.
Burnett, who was acquitted, went home to Grass Lake and crusaded in his Public Sentiment newspaper. His effort led to reforms such as fencing the tracks, and from then on, people became less inclined to repeat his charge that the railroad was “an iron-armored slave-holding giant without any soul.”