Encyclopedia Of Detroit

McMillan, James

James McMillan was a Detroit industrialist and U.S. Senator from Michigan. He was born on May 12, 1838 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. His father, William, founded the Great Western Railway. McMillan was educated and raised in Ontario, but in 1855, moved to Detroit. Following a clerkship at Buhl & Ducharme hardware, he became a purchasing agent at the Detroit & Milwaukee Railroad, thanks to the influence of his father. 

Continuing his foray into the railway business, McMillan, with three partners, transformed a failing railroad freight car company into the Michigan Car Company, in 1864, putting him on the road to success. The need for freight cars during the Civil War to transport soldiers created sales for the company, spurring the formation of a related business, the Detroit Car Wheel Company, in 1865. McMillan was generous with his wealth, supporting the Detroit Museum of Art (forerunner to the Detroit Institute of Arts) and founding Grace Hospital, named after a daughter who died in childbirth.

McMillan’s business acumen led to his involvement with many other businesses and industries, including Bell Telephone Company, the Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Company and Detroit Dry Dock. He opened Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to rail travel when he and his brother Hugh built the Detroit, Mackinaw & Marquette Railroad, which was sold to the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railroad, with McMillan becoming president. By building a bridge connecting Sault Ste. Marie to Canada he is credited with forestalling a threat by the isolated-feeling U.P. to become a separate state.

McMillan was president of the Detroit Board of Park Commissioners for three years, recruiting landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design a plan for Belle Isle Park. In 1877 he became a member of the Detroit Board of Estimates, the same year he joined the State Republican Committee. 

He was elected to the United States Senate as a Republican in 1889, and again in 1895 and 1901. He served on the Senate’s Committee of Manufactures, and the Committee on the District of Columbia, where he contributed significantly to upgrading the infrastructure of that city. In an effort to improve Washington, D.C.’s mall area for the capitol’s centennial, the McMillan Commission was responsible for the location of Union Station and the cleaning up and reorganization of the site that today is home to the Lincoln Memorial and other monuments.

McMillan died on August 10, 1902 in his home at Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts and is buried in Detroit’s Elmwood Cemetery. His papers are held by the Burton Historical Collection of the Detroit Public Library.



Map showing locations of land owned by Detroit, Mackinac & Marquette R.R. in Upper Peninsula, c.1885 – 1960.001.100

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