This area was first settled by brothers James Miles Williams, Oswald Williams and Horace Williams. Using the mighty flow of the Red Cedar River, they erected a saw mill in 1840 and a grist mill two years later.
When Michigan became a territory in 1805, Detroit was the capital. When Michigan became a state in 1837, a constitution was adopted that required the capitol be moved away from Detroit within ten years. The drafters knew that Detroit had been captured by the British in 1812 and feared that might happen again. They also knew that most of Michigan was inaccessible so the only feasible place for a capitol in that decade was Detroit. The huge military complex known as Fort Wayne that the federal government constructed in Detroit testifies to the national fears that the British would once again attempt to use their armed forces to suppress the American colonies.
In the mid-1840s, cities including Ann Arbor and Marshall thought they would be selected as the capital but the legislatures could, apparently, agree on nothing about the site. As a compromise that might displease most everyone, they selected a more or less uninhabited area now known as Lansing. A wooden building was constructed there to serve as the first capital in order to meet the constitutional requirement.
A major problem was that it was almost impossible to cross the interior of Michigan except where two rail lines stretched, one from Detroit to New Buffalo and another from Monroe toward the west side of the state. Plank roads were a very rough substitute for real roads and they were laid down in several places in the state. A plank road from Detroit reached the area now known as Williamson in 1852 and a settlement grew up at this point. Then, in 1871, Detroit, Lansing and Northern completed a line through Williamson that linked Lansing to West Detroit.
The first Williamston depot was erected in 1871 but it burned to the ground. Another one was built on the same site but it too was consumed by fire. The third time was the charm. The depot you see pictured above was constructed in 1893 and survives to this day. Passenger train service through Williamson began in 1871 and continued for 92 years. As the picture of the 1885 time schedule shows, the Detroit, Lansing and Northern, the Chicago and West Michigan, and the Flint and Pere Marquette Railroads merged in 1899 to form the Pere Marquette Railroad. The railroad expanded to become a network extending from Buffalo across southern Ontario into Michigan and on to Chicago with dozens of far reaching branch lines in the Wolverine State. This line was purchased by the Chesapeake and Ohio in 1926 and merged into that railroad in 1947. In 1987, the railroad became the CSX, an identity it retains today.
The Williamston Chamber of Commerce has placed in the window of this 1893 depot a copy of the 1885 passenger train service. As you can see, the Detroit, Lansing and Northern had a line from Detroit through Lansing to Ionia. At that point, the line bifurcated with one set of tracks heading west through Greenville to Howard City and another heading northwest to reach Big Rapids. Williamston was not a point that generated a great deal of passenger business. In 1910, the Pere Marquette stopped only two trains in Williamston each day on their treks from Lansing to Detroit and return. By 1947, Williamston was a flag stop for one train each day in each direction.
The final passenger trains paused for customers in Williamston in 1963 but the service linking Detroit to Grand Rapids continued to the initiation of Amtrak on May 1, 1971. In the mid-1970s, the owners of the depot, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad wished to raze it. Historic preservations were able to purchase the 1893 depot and moved it to its present location on Grand River Avenue in downtown Williamston where it hosts the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
In late 2014, a modest amount of funding became available to study the possibility of reëstablishing rail passenger service from Detroit through Grand Rapids to Holland – the “Coast to Coast” train. The next year studies were conducted. If such a service were implemented, passenger trains would once again pass through Williamston. I don’t know if there would be enough business from this community to justify their stopping here. Presumably, Williamston would have to build a new passenger depot or return the 1893 depot back to its location along the CSX tracks where it stood for 86 years.
Date of Construction: 1893
Moved to present site: 1979
Architect: Unknown to me
Use in 2015: Home of the Williamston Chamber of Commerce
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Places: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley, July 6, 2015
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