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When Michigan fish traveled by train, not water

Steam Engine With Passenger Cars Ascending Horseshoe Curve Altoona (PA)
Ron Cogswell
Michigan relied on fish trains to transport fish from hatcheries to replenish the lakes in the 1890s

You might have heard the phrase, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” But did you know that in the 1880s, leaders in Michigan decided that fish needed a train?

State Archivist Mark Harvey joined Stateside to talk about the history of fish transportation in Michigan.

Following the end of the state's lumber boom, Michigan became a hotspot for fishing. However, there was a supply and demand imbalance in the lakes and rivers, so the state opened hatcheries to restock them. To get those fish to the lakes, though, Michigan needed special transportation: fish train cars.

“Simple economics meant we got to have a few hatcheries and distribute the fish from there. You couldn’t do that with a horse and carriage; that’s not efficient,” Harvey said, “This is pre-automobile, and even when we had the automobile we didn’t have the infrastructure to distribute via automobile, so rail was the only option.”

Special train cars were designed and used, but by 1937, automobiles and trucks had become the new best option for transportation, leaving trains behind. Some things in the system haven’t entirely changed, though.

“The estimate now is that there have been billions of fish planted,” Harvey said, “and we still have fish hatcheries and we still propagate fish across the state.”

Listen above for the full conversation on Michigan’s fishing history.

This segment is produced in partnership with the Michigan History Center.

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