From the late 1870s until the early 1950s, a traveler in all large and many very small cities in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, could board a train and arrive in Detroit the same day. The state’s most prosperous railroads—the Michigan Central, the Grand Trunk and the Pere Marquette—erected attractive and large depots to serve their clientele in almost all places. The picture above shows the depot that stands now in Three Oaks.
The Michigan Central Railroad built west from Kalamazoo toward Chicago after 1848. By that time, the state had sold the line to Michigan investors who were obligated to build from Detroit to a port on Lake Michigan. Their line reached New Buffalo in 1852. Since New Buffalo is only seven miles west of Three Oaks, I suspect they reached Three Oaks in 1852. When they built through this location, there was, apparently, no city. According to legend, the name “Three Oaks” was given to this location by trainmen working for the Michigan Central because of three giant oak trees at this location.
The becoming brick depot that you see was built in 1898 or 1899 by the Michigan Central. It resembles Michigan Central depots in Columbiaville, Michigan and in Amherstburg, Ontario, presumably designed by the same architects. Trucks, buses and cars did not become a mode of local transportation until after World War I when states began to pave roads. Almost everyone and everything that arrived in or departed from Three Oaks—and other small towns—came and left by rail. Hence the need for moderately large stations in towns of just a few thousand residents.
Some small towns enjoy their 15 minutes of fame. Toward the end of the Nineteenth Century, Three Oaks became somewhat well known as the home of the Warren Featherbone Factory, whose building still stands. Earlier in the Nineteenth Century, whale bones were commonly used to structure women’s corsets. The whaling industry was so successful that toward the end of the Nineteenth Century, no more whales were available to supply their bones for corsets. The Warren Featherbone Company, founded in Three Oaks in 1883, solved that crisis by using turkey bones. The company continues to operate, but not in Three Oaks, and turkeys are no longer sacrificed for the corset industry.
After the Spanish-American War, many communities raised funds for memorials to commemorate the sailors who lost their lives when the Battleship Maine blew up in Havana’s harbor. The contributions from Three Oaks residents, many of them presumably employed in the corset industry, were greater than those of any other community on a per capita basis. Because of that unusual generosity, President William McKinley came to Three Oaks to dedicate a park that commemorates the Spanish-American War and proudly displays a canon from the Battleship Maine. That park and canon are just across the rail tracks from the beautiful depot where, I assume, President McKinley got off and returned to a special Michigan Central train on October 17, 1899. So far as I know, there has been no recent ceremony in Three Oaks commemorating the great day when President McKinley visited the town. This might be explained, in part, by the fact that Three Oaks faced bankruptcy in 2008 and so its financial administration was taken over by the state of Michigan.
By 1951, only two west-bound passenger and Detroit-bound train stopped each day. Passenger service ceased in 1959. Three years later, a local resident purchased the depot and operated a book and antique store from the building for a few summers. In 1973, it was sold to a woman from Chicago who held it for 15 years, but it was not used for any purposes other than property speculation. In 1988, it was sold to a businessman from Chicago who did some refurbishing and rented out retail space. In 1993, the Three Oaks Spokes Bicycle group purchased the depot and rented bicycles from the building for a number of years. In 2005, the depot was again sold; this time, apparently, to its current owners who use it as a clothing store. Despite many owners since the Michigan Central departed in the late 1950s, the depot has been maintained in a very attractive condition.
Architects: Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge
Date of Construction: 1898
Use in 2010: Clothing store
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley; June 4, 2010
Description prepared: July, 2010
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