Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Joy, James F.

Known to be a captivating speaker and shrewd businessman, James Frederick Joy became a leader in the North American railroad industry during its early years. Born in Durham, New Hampshire in 1810, he remained on the East coast, attending Dartmouth and Harvard Law School. After graduating in 1836, James moved to Detroit, a single man arriving in frontier Detroit just before it became Michigan’s state capitol. He quickly formed the Joy & Porter Law Firm with George F. Porter, and was chosen as legal counsel for the Bank of Michigan in 1838. The same year, he was also selected to be school inspector for the City of Detroit, further adding to his rapidly expanding resume in Detroit.

Joy’s entry into the railroad business came after the State of Michigan, which had purchased the fledgling Michigan Central Rail Road, went bankrupt in 1837. He released a paper in 1844 criticizing the state ownership and operation of the railroad, and calling for new investment and management. In 1846, Joy found an investor in John M. Forbes, brokered the purchase, and drafted a new charter for the Michigan Central. Acting as legal counsel for the new railroad, James closed deals to buy out numerous railroads crossing Indiana. Illinois laws stymied a similar pursuit in that neighboring state, but Joy was able to break the stalemate with the aid of a bright young lawyer, Abraham Lincoln. Working together on the case sparked a friendship between the two that continued for life.

James Joy undertook larger projects and responsibilities soon afterward. He agreed to serve as legal counsel for the American locks project at Sault Sainte Marie in 1855. Because of his growing influence throughout the state – and despite his initial objections – he was elected as the Detroit representative to the Michigan Legislature in 1861. The same year, he won an important land dispute case in Chicago for the Michigan Central, gaining him national recognition as a top railroad litigator. In 1867 he was elected President of the Michigan Central Rail Road.

Responsible for over 1600 miles of tracks in Michigan alone, James oversaw the expansion of railways through various states as well as Canada, even overseeing the construction of the first railway bridge over the Missouri River. His dominance of the railroad industry in the region earned him enemies, however, and in 1876 William Vanderbilt bought the majority stock of the Michigan Central and voted Joy out of the presidency. Around the same time James became Director of the Second National Bank of Detroit, which later became Detroit National Bank, and following his removal from the Michigan Central he bought the Wabash Railroad and formed the Detroit Union Depot Company to manage its local assets. James Frederick Joy continued to remain an important influence in the Detroit business community until his death in 1896.

Written by Brent Maynard



Michigan Central Railroad Depot in Detroit, 1870s - 2008.112.196

Centennial brochure for the Michigan Central Railroad, 1946 - 2013.045.350

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