Detroit MC Depot

Track Side, Detroit Michigan Central Depot

Detroit's Michigan Central station was completed in 1913, as part of a huge project to build a railway tunnel under the Detroit River, connecting Detroit and Windsor. The new station, two miles from downtown, was placed very near the west portal of the tunnel, and was arranged as a "run-through" station. The earlier Detroit station was stub ended, requiring a time-consuming back-up move into the station.

A large station was need for the many routes and trains converging in Detroit. This was one end of the Michigan Central's  busy Detroit-Chicago main line. Trains also ran north to Bay City and as far north as Mackinaw. Grand Rapids was served by trains running to Jackson, then turning off onto the Grand Rapids branch. Tracks going south served Toledo and continued on to Cincinnati. Going east on the Niagara Fall Route, trains went to Boston and New York.

Street Side Main Entrance.

Two different architectural firms designed the building - Reed and Stem, of St. Paul Minn. and Warren and Wetmore. Whitney Warren and Charles Wetmore were well know for their hotel designs including the Ritz-Carlton in New York City. Reed and Stem also designed Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Both buildings are in the Beaux Art style, which features highly decorative "fine art", and have very similar main entrances. Most likely, Reed and Stem designed the station itself and Warren and Wetmore designed the office tower. Critics have noted that the station looks like two separate buildings with little in common as far as their style.

Despite the classical appearance of the building, it was actually designed and built with quite progressive concepts. There is a 7,000 ton structural steel framework supporting the building and a parking garage below the station . Streetcar tracks ran up to an entrance on the east side of the building. On the west side was a taxi stand.

The station offered a complete array of services, all in very elegant settings. The general waiting room has 76-foot high ceilings, huge arches, carved plaster decoration and marble columns. There was a separate waiting room for women in the northeast corner of the building, a reading room in the northwest corner, and a smoking room toward the back of the building. There was a dining room with a vaulted stone ceiling, a lunch counter, and a cafe. There was a drug store, cigar store, barbershop and a newsstand. There were baths and changing rooms for those wishing to freshen-up without going to a hotel.

The tower section provided thirteen floors of office space. The top five floors never had the interiors completed. The reasons for building so large are unclear. Perhaps the railroad hoped the station would become popular commercial space. Another possibility is that the railroad planned a hotel for the upper floors. The railroad itself used most of the office space for its own business.

Behind the station were 11 tracks with covered platforms. From the platforms, stairs went down to a hallway running under the tracks. A ramp led back up to the station. In addition to the 11 passenger train tracks, there were 7 more tracks for staging freight trains using the tunnel. To the west of the station was a 175-car coach yard. All tracks had an electrified third rail so that they would be usable by the electric engines that pulled all trains through the tunnel.

Below the tracks and platforms was a HUGE area for baggage, express and mail. It was roughly twice the area of the station itself. Freight elevators ran up to the platforms, and at the far south end, a series of doors opened to the city streets.

The New York Central Railroad had created a magnificent station, built to handle a huge volume of traffic. But within  a decade of its completion, traffic started dropping off. Over the years, services in the station were discontinued and the stores closed. In 1967 the main waiting room was closed. The station was becoming a dusty old relic.

In 1971 Amtrak took over all remaining passenger service. Briefly, the future of MC station looked bright!  Over a million dollars worth of renovations led to a Grand Reopening in June 1975.

But the downward spiral was to continue. In 1984 the station was sold to private owners who hoped to redevelop the station as a transportation center.  The railroad offices must have been relocated or closed by this time. Then in 1988 Amtrak moved out, likely because it was a very expensive station to maintain. The station closed forever. Soon after that everything of value was stolen. Everything else was smashed. The station became shelter for the homeless and at least one rave, in 1993. The Detroit City Council has threatened to order the demolition of the building.

The railroad tunnel remains busy, so trains still pass just behind the station. In 2000 the platforms were demolished to make room for an intermodal yard.

The property has changed hands three more times, once selling for less than $80,000. It is now owned by Control Terminals, part of a trucking and transportation company that also owns the Ambassador bridge. Over the last few years they have tightened security at the station. An article in the Detroit Free Press reports that they also have done work on the flat roofs and pumped a million gallons of water from the lower portions of the station. In January 2002 Control Terminals announced that they were in "serious negotiations" with a potential tenant regarding redeveloping the station as an international trade center. This seems to be enough to keep the City council from ordering demolition, at least for now.

Control Terminals estimated that it would cost $100 million to renovate the building's 500,000 square feet. That seems a very conservative estimate considering the building would need new roofs, all new wiring, new plumbing, all new windows, and a whole new interior.

So the ultimate fate of the Detroit Michigan Central Station remains in doubt. Any renovation would be so expensive, it is not likely to happen. But it would be a real shame to see the building torn down. Perhaps it could be preserved as it is; a towering hulk symbolizing the faded glory that was WAS Detroit and the Michigan Central.

For more on Detroit's MC Depot:

Exploring the Abandoned Michigan Central Station
A large selection of recent photos.

David Kohrman's Forgotten Detroit
Nicely written history and large clear photos of the station, inside and out, platforms and destruction of platforms.

Detroit's Abandonded Train Station-- Michigan Central Station Very large format photos of station inside and out.

Detroit's Michigan Central Station, by Kelli B. Kavanaugh is a 128 page soft cover book with hundreds of photos and also floor plans of MCS. Captions provide a lot of info.

Michigan Passenger Stations Home Page

April 2003
Louis Van Winkle
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