Ann Arbor Depot, Michigan Central Railroad Station

401 Depot Street in Ann Arbor

Michigan’s population did not grow until the Erie Canal was completed in 1825.  Then Michigan’s population increased rapidly because people from the East Coast could more easily settle here, even though it meant a long, slow barge trip across New York State and then a sail from the eastern to the western end of Lake Erie.  As soon as Michigan was settled, investors realized that East Coast residents would want to get to the Midwest and that farm products would be shipped east.  Since there were no rail lines or canals across Indiana, this meant they had to cross Michigan.  By the early 1830s, it became apparent that Chicago at the southern tip of Lake Michigan would become a dominating Midwest metropolis.  By that time, stage coach service linked Detroit with Chicago, although there must have been many delays in the spring when the plank road that was financed in-part by federal appropriations obtained by Michigan Representative Gabriel Richard—sunk into mud.  Current route US #12 pretty much follows that road.

On June 29, 1832, a group of entrepreneurs secured a charter from the Michigan territorial legislature to build a rail line, the Detroit and St. Joseph Railroad, linking those two ports. This was the second rail line to be chartered in the territory.  Presumably, west- bound passengers and freight would arrive in Detroit from the east by boat, cross Michigan on the rail line and then sail west to Chicago or Milwaukee.

The investors found it challenging to raise capital for their project.  They sought support from the territory and the federal government but originally got little, although the federal government sent a surveyor to assist in mapping their right of way.  Steven Mason led Michigan from its territorial status to statehood in the late 1830s and served as the first governor.  He was a tremendous booster of the state and proposed using the financial backing of the state to issue bonds that would build three rail lines across Michigan, a southern route extending from Monroe to New Buffalo, a central route from Detroit to St. Joseph and a northern route from St. Clair or Port Huron to Lake Michigan.  With funds from state-backed bonds, construction on the Detroit and St. Joseph line started in Detroit in 1837.  On February 3, 1838, this railroad reached Ypsilanti and, on October 17, 1839 train service began connecting Detroit and Ann Arbor.  Since that time, there has been regularly scheduled passenger service on this line.  In 1839, the train tip from Detroit to Ann Arbor took about two and one-half hours compared to a full day’s travel by horse.

This railroad went through great financial difficulties.  The state took over the line but problems persisted, and by 1846, the legislature decided to get out of the railroad business. The line was sold by the state in 1846 to entrepreneurs who incorporated it using the name we know it by today, the Michigan Central Railroad.  It was completed from Detroit to Chicago in 1852, just 13 years after reaching Ann Arbor.

After the Civil War, the Michigan Central became the most successful of the rail lines to cross Michigan.  At Detroit, it was linked to rail lines in Canada that carried freight and passengers to Montreal, Boston, New York and other points east.  Its prosperity allowed it to build magnificent stations in many Michigan towns, symbolizing both the stature of the railroad and the importance of the city.  The station pictured above was, of course, not the first depot in Ann Arbor.  I believe that one was located at about the same point.  The one that has stood on Depot Street in Ann Arbor for a century and a quarter was designed by famous Detroit architect, Frederick Spiers, in collaboration with William C. Rohn.  It is in the then-popular Richardsonian Romanesque style.  The glacial stone used in the structure was mined at Four Mile Lake between Dexter and Chelsea.  Separate waiting rooms for men and women were designed at opposite ends of the structure.  I do not know when that segregation ended.  Prior to the successful use of trucks and the paving of intercity roads shortly after World War I, trains handled almost all local freight.  The separate building to the west of the main station was designed for less-than-carload lot freight.  Spier and Rohn designed two other nearby buildings in a similar architectural style: St. Thomas Catholic Church on a bluff just south of the Michigan Central Station and the Kelsey Museum on the campus of the University of Michigan.  This was originally the Helen Newberry Residence Hall for Women.  Notice the impressive arches and the elaborate stone work on this railroad station.  In the mid-decades of the Nineteenth Century, the Michigan Central had a very difficult time locating capital to build their lines.  In the final decades of that century, they had the resources to hire the most skilled architects to design large stations in Michigan cities and to hire exceptionally skilled stone masons who created monumental buildings that remain impressive.

The New York Central Railroad leased the Michigan Central in 1915 for 999 years, but this line is still known as the Michigan Central, even though it is now operated by Norfolk Southern.  After 1960 rail travel by passenger train plummeted and the New York Central invested little in maintaining the station or promoting passenger trains.  When Amtrak took over passenger service in May, 1971, there were three daily trains in each direction and one commuter train from Ann Arbor to the Michigan Central Station in Detroit. In 1970, the station was sold to Detroit restaurant impresario, Joseph Meur.  After Amtrak built a small station just to the west of the Broadway Bridge for their use, the marvelous structure was restored to its glory and converted into the Gandy Dancer Restaurant.

The University of Michigan and Ann Arbor attracted many important visitors over the years.  Until well after World War II, most of them arrived and departed from the station you see.  The Ann Arbor Railroad offered passenger service to the city, but few used its train that traveled from Toledo to Frankfort and return.  Younger people today would be surprised by the convenient schedules that once offered Ann Arbor passengers overnight service to the major metropolises of eastern United States and Canada.  In the Twentieth Century, the University Musical Society invited most of the internationally famous artists to perform in Ann Arbor and many of the leading orchestras.  Almost all of those artists alighted from and boarded trains at this great station.   Presidents William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland, Dwight David Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy either used this station or gave campaign appearances there.

Architect: Frederick Spier and William C. Rohn
Date of Construction: 1886
Architectural style: Richardson Romanesque
Use in 2010: Gandy Dancer Restaurant
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P3,795 Listed July 26, 1974.
State of Michigan Historical Marker: Put in place in 1975
National Register of Historic Places: #75000963; Listed March 3, 1975
Photograph: Ren Farley,  May, 2010
Description prepared: May, 2010

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