Michigan Transportation History

James A. McMillan

Public RailroadMichiganPersonBusinessRepublican Late 19th Century Gilded AgeIndustrialistDetroit

The Michigan Manufacturer in 1910 called James A. McMillan "the real founder of Detroit's manufacturing industry" and the "greatest individual influence" for the rise of Detroit as a center of manufacturing.1 Yet, so powerfully had the automobile industry, and in particular Henry Ford?, propelled Detroit to even greater manufacturing accomplishments that McMillan has become overshadowed, his reputation and legacy lost. Few people today recognize the centrality of McMillan and the firms he led as the foundation of Detroit's manufacturing.


James McMillan's parents, William and Grace, emigrated from Scotland to Hamilton in Upper Ontario, Canada. The circumstances of this migration are not clear. They migrated to Hamilton in 1834 either because of William's involvement with the Great Western Railway? or because they were intent on migrating to Illinois in 1836 and were visiting relatives in Hamilton, who then interested William in the Great Western in which he became immediately involved.2 In any case, William subsequently served as a director of the line until his death in 1877 and the family settled in Hamilton where William became one of the leading citizens.

The McMillans had seven sons and one daughter. James, the oldest, was born on May 12, 1838. He was educated through the Hamilton Grammar School. McMillan left school when he was fourteen (1852) to enter business. His first job was as a clerk in a local hardware store.3

McMillan married in Detroit Mary L. Wetmore, daughter of Charles Wetmore?, on June 7, 1860. They had five children: William Charles?, who associated with his father in business; Grace Fisher (who married W. F. Jarves [or Jarvis -- sources vary]), James Howard? (who became a lawyer), Amy, Philip Hamilton, and Frank Davenport.4

The McMillan's home was at the corner of East Jefferson Avenue and Russell Street, next door to John S. Newberry. The home housed an art gallery and McMillan's growing collection paper ephemoria of Napoleon Bonaparte.5

Business Career

McMillan came to Detroit in 1855 (when he was seventeen), and so, with the Hendries and Muirs, was another of the Scottish immigrants to Detroit. His first association was with the prominent Detroit businessman Christian H. Buhl. Buhl was just organizing the hardware firm of Ducharme & Bartholomew Company? in 1855 and McMillan, probably because of his previous experience in hardware, got a clerking job. This began a long relationship between Buhl and McMillan, as both were active in Detroit's manufacturing, railroads, railroad supply companies, and banking.6

The Depression of 1857 ended McMillan's first Detroit employment when he was laid off from the hardware firm. His father William interceded and found James a job as purchasing agent for the Detroit & Milwaukee Railroad?.7 By 1864, McMillan was a third-party credit manager for the failing freight-car manufacturer Dean & Eaton?. Impressed with McMillan's negotiating skill, partners Edward C. Dean? and George Eaton? asked him to come into the company as a full partner. McMillan wanted his friend from the Jefferson Avenue Presbyterian Church, John S. Newberry, to join too. Dean, Eaton, McMillan and Newberry reorganized the company as the Michigan Car Company with capitalization at $20,000. Under the leadership of McMillan and Newberry, the Michigan Car Company was greatly profitable through the end of the Civil War and beyond.8 In 1865, the McMillan group founded the Detroit Car Wheel Company as a parallel supplier.ManufacturerRailroadEquipmentRolling Stock

In 1872, James brought his brother Hugh? into the company. By 1873, George Eaton had died. The Panic of 1873 also led Dean to retire and sell his interest to McMillan and Newberry. During the recession following the panic, McMillan and Newberry introduced freight car leasing. They also began expanding manufacturing to St. Louis (Missouri), Cambridge (Indiana), and London (Ontario). Brother William McMillan? was general manager of the St. Louis works and Hugh McMillan was general manager of Detroit works. As profits expanded, McMillan and Newberry began to diversify backwards in the production stream. They started the Detroit Iron Furnace Company?Iron, the Baugh Steam Forge Company, the Fulton Iron and Engine Works?Machinery, the Newberry Furnace Company?, the Detroit Pipe and Foundry Company?, and began investing in railroads. By 1880, the brothers were collectively earning about five million dollars a year.9

In 1882, James McMillan was listed as the president of the Detroit Transportation Company, president of the Detroit Recreation Park Company, and treasurer of the Detroit Steam Supply Company.10 By 1884, he was no longer involved in either the recreation or steam supply companies.11

The McMillan syndicate started the Detroit, Mackinac & Marquette Railroad. McMillan was the principal stockholder, while Hugh McMillan was secretary/treasurer and a director. The syndicate expanded the line to connect Duluth with Sault Ste. Marie. Hugh sold the line (internally) for $3 million.12 The line eventually became the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railway.

The McMillan's investments were widespread. He invested in railroads, steamship companies, shipbuilders, grain elevators, haulage companies, iron mines, foundries, pipe companies, electrical works, docks, banks; fire, marine, and life insurance companies; paint companies; power & light companies; and lumber companies. Some prominent companies of which he was a director included Detroit Dry Dock Company and the Michigan Telephone? company.13

McMillan was also president of the Sault St. Marie Bridge Company?, the Detroit and Cleveland Steam Navigation Company?, of the Detroit and Duluth and Atlantic Transportation Company?, and of the Michigan Telephone Company?. He was also a director in the Detroit Savings Bank, the First National Bank of Detroit, the D. M. Ferry & Company, and the Detroit Dry Dock Company.

Contractor for construction of the railroad piers at Grand Haven.


Beginning, probably, sometime during the 1870s, McMillan started to maneuver himself as the successor of Zachariah Chandler?. Following the death of party boss Chandler in 1879, there was a struggle for control. Eventually, McMillan emerged as the central figure and party boss of the state's Republican Party.

Politically, McMillan was careful to spread power and patronage around. He included prominent Democrats as directors in his companies. He got his men appointed to key government positions and so had access to the governors. The Republican-controlled legislature was always under McMillan's control. McMillan controlled key appointments to the Michigan Board of Trade, the Detroit Chamber of Commerce?, regents of Michigan's universities, the trusteeships of art institutes, museums, hospitals, charities, and at the prestigious gentlemen's clubs of Detroit. Sidney Olsen? explained that the McMillans "made many men rich and some rich men much, much richer. To be a friend of the McMillans was to succeed in life."14

In 1876 and again in 1886, McMillan was selected as a member of the Republican State Central Committee. He was unanimously elected by the state caucus to the United States Senate in 1888; he would be re-elected twice (in 1894 and 1900). While Senator, he again served as chairman of the Republican State Central Committee in 1890.

In the U.S. Senate, McMillan served as chairman of the Committee on Manufactures and of the Committee on the District of Columbia. While in the latter capacity, he also chaired the Senate Park Improvement Commission of the District of Columbia (also known as the McMillan Commission). The plans coming from this commission created the National Mall.


In 1888, McMillan endowed Grace Hospital in Detroit, naming it after his daughter Grace Fisher (McMillan) Jarvis. Other partners associated with McMillan also contributed to the institution. McMillan also endowed the McMillan Shakespeare Library at the University of Michigan, the Tupper collection of insects at the Agricultural College, and Belle Isle.Philanthropist

Regarding the Shakespeare Library, McMillan donated moneys to the University of Michigan beginning in 1881 enabling Professor Isaac Demmon to collect items, manuscripts, and works associated with William Shakespeare. Initially known as the McMillan Shakespeare Library, the collection formed the nucleus of the Special Collections Library's Shakespeare Collection.15


McMillan died on August 10, 1902, while in Manchester, Massachusetts. His body was brought back to Detroit and was buried in Elmwood Cemetery.


1. Geoffrey G. Drutchas, "Gray Eminence in a Gilded Age: The Forgotten Career of Senator James McMillan of Michigan." Michigan Historical Review 28, no. 2 (Fall 2002), 82.

2. Compare A Cyclopedia of Canadian Biography: Being Chiefly Men of the Time, volume 1, edited by George Maclean Rose (Toronto: Rose Publishing, 1886), 666 with Clarence Monroe Burton, s.v. "James McMillan," Compendium of History and Biography of the City of Detroit and Wayne County, Michigan (Chicago: Henry Taylor & Co., 1909), 281.. The difference relies on the timing of William's employment with the GWR, whether or not William was hired by the GWR prior to immigrating.

3. Clarence Monroe Burton, s.v. "James McMillan," Compendium of History and Biography of the City of Detroit and Wayne County, Michigan (Chicago: Henry Taylor & Co., 1909), 281.

4. Men of Progress ... of Representative Men of Michigan reports that another daughter, Susan, married Frank Shepherd, who was a judge and politician in Cheboygan, Michigan (see p. 146).

5. Drutchas, 79-80, 85-86; T. P. Hall and Silas Farmer, Grosse Pointe on Lake Sainte Clair Historical and Descriptive (Detroit: Silas Farmer & Co., 1886), 64.

6. Geoffrey G. Drutchas, "Gray Eminence in a Gilded Age: The Forgotten Career of Senator James McMillan of Michigan." Michigan Historical Review 28, no. 2 (Fall 2002), 80. Note that Drutchas claims that McMillan's first job in Detroit was with "Buhl & Ducharme" but according to Silas Farmer, Clarence Burton, and probably others, there was no "Buhl & Ducharme" in 1855. Buhl was the silent partner behind Ducharm & Bartholomew. See Christian H. Buhl.

7. Drutchas, 80.

8. Drutchas, Farmer, and others, but see also John H. White Jr., The American Railroad Freight Car (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 140. It should be noted that Charles Moore adds that McMillan borrowed $5000 (or his share of the capitalization) from Newberry.

9. Sidney Olson, Young Henry Ford: a picture history of the first forty years, p. 108.

10. Detroit City Directory for 1882 (Detroit: J. W. Weeks & Co., 1882), 346, available through Ancestry HeritageQuest.

11. Detroit City Directory for 1884 (Detroit: J. W. Weeks & Co., 1884), 432.

12. Sidney Olson, Young Henry Ford: a picture history of the first forty years, p. 108.

13. Sidney Olson, Young Henry Ford: a picture history of the first forty years, p. 108.

14. Sidney Olson, Young Henry Ford: A Picture History of the First Forty Years, p. 109.

15. Isaac Demmon, McMillan Shakespeare Library, Holograph Bibliography, (July 1884), and Anna B. McMahan, "The McMillan Shakespeare Library," Shakespeariana: A Critical and Contemporary Review of Shakespearian Literature 53, no. 5 (1888). For Professor Demmon's work see Louis A. Strauss, et al., "Isaac Newton Demmon: A Memoir Read before the University Senate," November 22, 1920, reprinted in The Michigan Alumnus, 364-372.


McMillan's papers are held at the Burton Historical Collections, Detroit Public Library.

A finding aid is available.

Carlisle, Frederick. Chronography of Notable Events in the History of the Northwest Territory and Wayne County (Detroit: Wayne County Historical and Pioneer Society, 1890), 443-444.

Drutchas, Geoffrey G. "Gray Eminence in a Gilded Age: The Forgotten Career of Senator James McMillan of Michigan." Michigan Historical Review 28, no. 2 (Fall 2002): 79-115.

Drutchas, Geoffrey G. "The Man With a Capital Design." Michigan History 86 (March/April 2002): 36-38.

Heyda, Marie. "Senator James McMillan and the Flowering of the Spoils System." Michigan History 54 (Fall 1970): 183-200.

Hershock, Martin J. The Paradox of Progress: Economic Change, Individual Enterprise, and Political Culture in Michigan, 1837-1878. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2003.

Moore, Charles. "James M’Millan, United States Senator from Michigan." Michigan Historical Collections 39 (1915): 173-87.

Moore was McMillan's private secretary and succeeded him on the U.S. Commission for Fine Arts.

Weeks, George. "37 Men and One Woman." Michigan History Magazine 88, no. 5 (September-October 2004): 68-73.

Abstract: This article mentions for McMillan only the McMillan Plan for Washington DC. The article is essentially a list of Michigan's U.S. Senators with only the highlights of their political careers discussed for each one.


Argersinger, Peter H. Representation and Inequality in Late Nineteenth-Century America: The Politics of Apportionment. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Kaplano, Richard L. Politics and the American Press: The Rise of Objectivity, 1865-1920. Cambridge University Press, 2002.


Michigan. Legislature. In Memory of Hon. James McMillan, Senator in the Congress of the United States from Michigan. Lansing: R. Smith Printing Co., 1903.

U.S. Congress. James McMillan: (Late a Senator from Michigan). Memorial Addresses Delivered in the Senate and House of Representatives. 57th Cong., 2d sess., 1902–1903. Washington: Government Printing Office.

On Washington D.C.

Kohler, Sue A., and Pamela Scott. Designing the Nation's Capital: The 1901 Plan for Washington. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, 2006.

Peterson, Jon A. The Birth of City Planning in the United States, 1840–1917. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Encyclopedic Information

Men of Progress: Embracing Biographical Sketches of Representative Michigan Men with an Outline History of the State. Detroit: Evening News Association, 1900.

Available at: The Michigan County Histories and Atlases Digitization Project, University of Michigan, p. 391 — • — Archive.org, p. 391

Citation: When referencing this page please use the following citation:

R. D. Jones, "James A. McMillan," Michigan Transportation History (Ypsilanti, MI: 2020), www.michtranshist.info/.

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Page last modified on March 30, 2020, at 07:23 PM EST

Page last modified on March 30, 2020, at 07:23 PM EST