The Backstory: The truth behind "Big" Jim Ashley

For those who casually dig into local history, it is common knowledge that downtown Ann Arbor's
former Second Avenue was named after James "Big Jim" Ashley -- railroad builder, state representative, governor.

Deeper research, however, indicates that common knowledge might not have its facts quite right. Because, as much as this armchair historian can deduce, Jim Ashley might not have gone by that nickname and the title of railroad builder might be a tad overstated.

So, who was "Big Jim"? Well, there were actually two James Ashleys—father and son. Most research indicates that the elder Ashley was born in the 1820s, was a "special friend" of Abraham Lincoln, had the idea to create a railroad link between Toledo and Ann Arbor. Local histories almost always refer to James Senior as "Big Jim." But an 1899 New York Times article indicates that the "big" Jim was actually Ashley’s eldest son, who stood 6'5" and had the "strength of two ordinary men."

Obviously, some more sleuthing was needed.

According to Wikipedia, the man named James Ashley was born in 1824. But the 1899 New York Times article puts Ashley at the age of 60 in 1877, which would mean his birth was in 1817. In that same article, this James Ashley is referred to as "Old Jim" or the "Governor," as he was named governor of the Montana territory when "military governors" were appointed after the Civil War. By most accounts, Ashley was a good and honest man who abhorred slavery and sought to be fair in his work.

Ashley's eldest son was born in 1853 and was also named James. He is referred to in both the 1899 Times article and the 2008 book Ninety Years Crossing Lake Michigan: The History of Ann Arbor Car Ferries, as "Big Jim."

Most Ann Arbor historical records refer to the older Jim (we will call him "Jim Sr") as being the one who built the railroad and after whom the street is named. Whether he actually laid track is not clear, but he is reported to have initially had the idea for the Ann Arbor Railroad. Despite his position and special relationship with Lincoln, the financial panic of the 1870s left Jim Sr. nearly bankrupt and looking for a new life plan.

By happenstance, Ashley met T.A. Scott, the former Master of Transportation during the Civil War. Scott liked his railroad plan, and helped him secure rails and materials. Jim Sr. financed construction primarily on credit, and quickly got into deep debt as his group secured the road from Toledo to Ann Arbor, with the intent to extend rails all the way up to Mount Pleasant. Adding to Jim Sr’s troubles were legal issues over the crossing of Michigan Central tracks near Howell.

In 1877, the Michigan Central railroad company lobbied to get Michigan’s "crossing laws" (which allowed one railroad to cross over the tracks of another) repealed. By this point, any delay in Jim Sr’s dream would doom the entire operation. In fact, $200,000 in investment required that the tracks near Howell be completed. If they were not laid, the money would not be paid.
As the track layers reached the point of crossing and were stopped by Michigan Central. It looked like Jim Sr. could go no further. That is, until his eldest son (the one nicknamed "Big Jim") got involved! Even though he was only 25 years old, Jim Jr. understood the gravity of the situation and took action. And by "took action," we mean that he formed a small army to get the railroad built over the Michigan Central tracks.

Big Jim Jr. gathered 200 of his closest daredevil friends, armed them, and prepared to lay them some track. And just in case, he sent for 250 more men from the "toughest" part of Toledo. Carrying muskets and bayonets, the men converged near Howell on December 26, 1878. Big Jim Jr's plan was to simply dig a tunnel under the Michigan Central tracks and lay his Ann Arbor line tracks beneath. During a cold winter night, using dynamite and his hand crafted army, Big Jim Jr. oversaw the track construction of the Ann Arbor railroad.

As one might guess, Michigan Central was not happy about this turn of events, and sent in its workmen to tear up what Big Jim Jr. had built. By midnight of that very same day, Big Jim returned with his men. A few shots were fired, much macho behavior was no doubt displayed, and the Michigan Central folks backed down, jumped into waiting train cars and retreated down the track. Big Jim Jr’s men then tore up the Michigan Central tracks, took some of their rails, and blasted out a new tunnel.

The next four days brought various writs from the court, all of which Big Jim Jr. declined to follow. A friendlier judge issued his own writs, spawning what the New York Times called a "siege." Big Jim Jr. and his men stood in the "bitterest cold and deepest snow known…to that cold party of the country" for twelve days. Sympathetic local farmers brought the men food and hot coffee. The "siege" finally ended when the governor, railroad commissioner, and a United States marshall showed up to order that trains were to run on both roads until a court could properly decide the matter. They then promptly arrested Big Jim Jr. for obstruction. He ended up serving no jail time, but was fined $102.50 and costs by a Detroit judge.

So, where was Jim Sr. (Ann Arbor's Jim) all of this time? In New York, overseeing financial issues related to the building of the railway. It appears that James Ashley Sr. took care of the money end, but it was Big Jim Jr. who got the damn thing built.

In 1890, James Ashley Sr. (our Jim) fell ill and eventually died in Alma, Michigan six years later. Big Jim Jr. fell on hard financial times after the completion of the railroad, and ended up moving south. He landed in Georgia where he rebuilt his wealth by promoting power plants and trading in lumber. He ran for Congress twice but, unlike his father, was not successful. He passed away after a heart attack in 1919.

So, where does this leave us with Ashley Street and its connection to Big Jim Ashley? Well, Ann Arbor's James Ashley Sr. was never actually referred to as Big Jim. And while he secured the financing for the local railroad, it was his mountain of a man son (who never lived here) who got it built. At the end of the day, I guess it's safe to say that Ashley Street is named after both of the Ashley men – one who was big in stature and the other who was big in size.

Patti Smith is a freelance writer. Her first book, Images of America: Downtown Ann Arbor, was published by Arcadia Publishers. It is available on her website -- -- as well as local bookstores.
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