1913 : Michigan Central Depot Opens in Detroit

December 26, 2018 all-day

Michigan Central Photo, 2015, courtesy of Wikipedia

On December 26, 1913, the first train pulled into Detroit’s Michigan Central Station – the tallest train station in the world at the time and a proud, towering symbol of the city’s progress.

When travelers stepped off the train, they entered a building covered in fancy marble and hand-carved wood, soaring ceilings, intricate wrought-iron railings, gargantuan columns and famous Guastavino tile arches.

Michigan Central consists of an ornate, three-story depot and an 18-story office tower and stands just south of Michigan Avenue, about a mile west of downtown. The station itself cost $2.5 million, in 1913 dollars, to build, and was designed by the same architectural firms responsible for New York’s Grand Central Terminal.

The station’s formal opening had been set for Jan. 4, 1914, but a fire at the railroad’s old depot downtown the day after Christmas rushed its replacement into service early. A mere three hours after the blaze began, the first train left the new station for Saginaw and Bay City at 5:20 p.m. Dec. 26, 1913. An hour later, the first train arrived from Chicago.

The station contained its own restaurants, barbershop, newsstand and other amenities, and as many as 200 trains once departed from there each day in the years before interstate highways and commercial air travel. The centerpiece of the building was the waiting room, which with its marble floors and soaring 541/2-foot ceilings echoed with the sound of a bustling city on the move.

Image result for Michigan Central Station photo

For 75 years, the depot shipped Detroiters off to war, brought them home, took them on vacation and sent them off to visit Grandma. It was Detroit’s Ellis Island, where many generations of Detroiters first stepped foot into the city for factory jobs. It was filled with the sounds of hellos and good-byes, panting locomotives and screeching wheeled steel.

The station’s fortunes declined with those of the railroads. The grand waiting room was eventually closed, and the station was taken over by Amtrak in 1971. The grandiose landmark continued to limp along until Jan. 5, 1988, when the last train left the station. Amtrak now operates out of a small depot on Woodward in New Center.

A Downriver real estate investor, Mark Longton Jr., bought the building for an undisclosed sum in 1989 and, with his pistol and German shepherd Whitey, vigilantly guarded the property from trespassers. Longton envisioned filling the cavernous space with a casino, hotel, upscale restaurants and even a nightclub, but lost the property to foreclosure in 1991 – five years before voters approved casino gambling in the city.

The station has been owned by Matty Moroun, a trucking mogul and owner of the Ambassador Bridge, since 1995.

The abandoned station quickly fell prey to vandals and thieves, and its dearest features were yanked out, including the chandeliers, brass fixtures, decorative balcony railings, elevator ornaments and the great clock once mounted over the ticket windows. Urban explorers poured in to venture through the massive interior.

>”It was senseless – smashing out windows, smashing marble paneling, that sort of thing,” said Lucas McGrail, a local architect and architectural historian who visited the station many times.

The building lost nearly all of its windows, its copper roofing was stripped and the stone facade was splashed with graffiti and smashed with sledgehammers. Water ate away much of the fine interior plaster work, and until recently, the tunnels between the depot and train platforms were flooded.

On July 11, 2018, the building was sold to the Ford Motor Co., so there is hope that it will be restored.   Ford will announce plans on January 19, 2018.

For more information, see Michigan Central Depot

Michigan Central Depot Through the Years, courtesy of the Detroit News.

>Dan Austin and JC Reindl, “Once crown jewel, Detroit train station now symbol of ruin“, Detroit Free Press, June 11, 2018.

For more information about the lure of railroads, see Bill Loomis, “Riding the first rails brought excitement, danger”, Detroit News, July 8, 2012.

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