This is one of about two dozen Michigan railroad depots listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Such listings are made because of the architectural significance of the building. It was constructed for the Michigan Central’s branch line that extended north from Jackson to Lansing and then on to Saginaw and to its final terminal in Bay City. I do not know the architect’s name but the station is an excellent illustration of his or her talents. It was probably a man since few women became architects until recently.
It is a rectangular station with several traditional characteristics of such structures: the large eves that offered some protection to passengers and freight awaiting trains, the prominent roof and the large bay window facing the tracks where the agent could see arriving trains or inspect the freight trains that passed through without stopping. This is a one-and-one-half story station with a hipped roof originally in slate. It includes a hipped roof dormer over the entryway. The building was constructed of light brick accented by the judicious use of darker brick, frieze and corner quoins. The brick and stone work on this depot is among the most attractive you will find in a smaller-town depot in Michigan. Particularly appealing are the ways in which the windows and doors are surrounded by brick work. Several pairs of transomed windows were included in the design for this station, some of them using leaded glass. I have not been inside this building but I believe that oak was extensively used in the interior.
The Michigan Central Railroad was built west from the corner of Griswold and Fort in Detroit starting in February, 1838. After many financial travails, the link joined Detroit to Chicago in 1852. A great age of railroad building occurred in Michigan immediately after the Civil War. Most small towns wished to attract a railroad so that people could move there, and that local agricultural and manufactured products could reach markets across the state and nation. A group of investors began building the Jackson, Lansing and Saginaw Railroad north from Jackson in 1865. By December of that year, their line reached Mason and Lansing. In December, 1867, the railroad attained its northern terminus in Bay City. In 1873, the railroad was leased by the Michigan Central.
The railroad last stopped passenger trains at this depot in the 1930s. By 1945, I think they ceased all use of this depot. In 1979, it was refurbished to serve as an ice cream parlor, and in 2012, is the home of the Mason Diner Restaurant.
The depot in Leslie—nine miles to the south along the same rail line—is very similar to the Mason depot but is not listed on any historic register. I wonder if the architect designed the Mason structure first and then replicated his design when he won the commission for the Leslie depot. Freight trains still pass by this attractive building. The Michigan Central Railroad became part of the New York Central Railroad in 1929, a corporation that later became Penn-Central and then Conrail and then Norfolk Southern. In 2010, this line from Jackson to Lansing was sold by the Norfolk Southern and became the Jackson and Lansing Railroad, a subsidiary of the Adrian and Blissfield Railroad, a firm with headquarters in Westland.
Mason, Michigan is most well known for being the home of Malcolm Little during several of his teen years, the man who is now better known as Malcolm X. His family lived in Lansing. After his father was killed in a street car accident and his mother, because of her depression, was incarcerated in a state hospital in Kalamazoo for mentally impaired persons, Malcolm was left in care of two older sisters. Quite quickly, child welfare officials in Lansing understood that this was not an ideal arrangement. In 1939, they assigned Malcolm Little to Ingham County Juvenile Home in Mason run by a family who befriended him—the Swerlins. He attended Mason’s junior high school and excelled in what for him was a new environment—virtually all white class mates. He was elected class president in his second semester and ranked near the top of his class academically. I believe that he attended Mason public schools for upwards of three years and consistently excelled academically. After completing eighth grade in Mason, he moved to Boston to be with relatives. Shortly thereafter, he took a job in the dining cars of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. I suspect that employment was not at all related to the time he may have spent at the Mason depot pictured above.
Architect: Unknown to me
Architectural style: Craftsmen
Date of opening: February, 1902
Use in 2012: Mason Depot Diner Restaurant
Ingham County Registry of Historic Sites: Listed
Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P23, 421
National Registry of Historic Places: Listed June 6, 1985
Photograph: Ren Farley; June 6, 2012
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