Battle Creek Depot, Michigan Central Railroad

44 McCamly, Battle Creek

Few Europeans settled in Michigan when the French and the English ruled.  Similarly for the first three decades of United States control, the population of the Michigan territory grew at a miniscule pace.  The Erie Canal was completed in 1825 and immediately Michigan's population began to increase more rapidly than ever before.  Travelers from New York sailed north on the Hudson River to Albany and then were transported very slowly by canal barge across New York to Dunkirk or Buffalo where they boarded a steamer that would take them to Toledo, Monroe or Detroit.  The success of that canal led to interest in building a transportation system to take people and goods across Michigan.  In the early 1830s, it was not clear whether railroads or canals would be the best system for crossing the Wolverine state.

In 1833, private developers proposed building a rail line from Detroit to St. Joseph.  Supposedly passengers and freight would arrive in Detroit from the east by boat, go by train across Michigan and the board a ship in St. Joseph to sail to Illinois or Wisconsin.  The developers found some private capital, but not very much, so they sought to obtain governmental funding.  Originally, they were not successful but the city of Detroit put some money into the project, and on May 18, 1836, construction of this rail line began in that city from a point on Gratiot near Campus Martius.  The developers also convinced the federal government that they should send a surveyor who would survey Michigan’s ports and then begin to survey a rail line from Detroit to St. Joseph.  However, these entrepreneurs had little success finding capital for their rail line.

Steven Mason led the successful movement to change the status of Michigan from territory to state.   As the founding governor of the state of Michigan, he strongly advocated investing in infrastructure to promote the state’s development.  In 1837, the state bailed out the failing Detroit and St. Joseph Railroad, invested five million in bonds and renamed it the Central Railroad of Michigan.  This was one component of Governor Mason’s major endeavor to build transportation systems in the state.  Using state bonds, he hoped to finance a southern rail line that would stretch from Monroe to New Buffalo, a central line from Detroit to Benton Harbor and a northern line from either St. Clair or Port Huron to a port on Lake Michigan just west of Grand Rapids.  And if those lines were not enough, Governor Mason wanted to use state bonds to build a canal from the Clinton River near Mt. Clemens to the Kalamazoo River and another canal from the Saginaw River to the Grand River.  Eventually, southern, central and northern rail lines were completed, but neither canal was.  Indeed, only a short section of canal was built in the state now commemorated by an historical marker near Rochester.

The central rail line was, arguably, the most successful.  State funds allowed the railroad to build west from Detroit.   They reached Dearborn in 1837, Ypsilanti on February 3, 1838, Ann Arbor on October 17, 1839, Dexter in 1840 and Jackson on December 29, 1841.  Then the rail line ran out of funds.  They struggled to maintain their poorly built tracks and extend them west but faced numerous difficulties, most of them financial.  However, I infer their service was not dependable since their lack of money forced them to cut corners in constructing the line.   The railroad got to Marshall on August 12, 1844 and to Battle Creek on November 25th of the next year and then to Kalamazoo on February 1, 1846. 

By that time, the legislature realized that the state had no money to adequately finance the building or rail lines and canals.  The experience with state financing of rail lines and canals was so unfavorable that when a new constitution was written in 1850, it specifically prohibited the state from financing internal improvement. The state legislature decided to sell their investments.  A group of investors purchased the central line from Detroit to Kalamazoo and received a charter for the Michigan Central Railroad.   These new entrepreneurs agreed to rebuild the hastily constructed line from Detroit to Jackson and complete a line west from Kalamazoo to a Lake Michigan port within three years.

By the time this rebuilding started, it was clear that railroads were an effective way to ship freight and passengers.  Plans for canals across Michigan petered out.  It was also clear to the management of the Michigan Central that an all-rail line to Chicago was feasible.  They felt that had an obligation to reach to a Lake Michigan port in Michigan, but they also wanted a direct route to Chicago.  Rather than building west from Kalamazoo to St. Joseph as originally planned, they headed their line more directly toward Chicago.  The Michigan Central construction crews laid rails to the port of New Buffalo by 1849 and, the next year, they got to Michigan City, Indiana. 

In this era, railroads were chartered—and often financed - by states.  The idea of rail lines going across states lines was just emerging.  There was much litigation and controversy about a Michigan company building a line across northern Indiana, but by late in 1850, the Michigan Central line crossed into Indiana and got to the Illinois-Indiana border.  The Michigan Central then reached an agreement with the Illinois Central Railroad that allowed trains from Michigan to get to Chicago on Illinois Central tracks.  Through rail service from Detroit to Chicago commenced in 1852 and continues on this line to the present although there was a change in the tracks used to get to downtown Chicago in the 1960s.

In the decades after the Civil War, the Michigan Central became a prosperous carrier on this route, although the northern railroad—a rail line known since the end of the 1860s as the Grand Trunk—competed for the same business.  In 1867, the Michigan Central became affiliated with the extensive New York Central system so they offered service from Chicago to Detroit on trains that continued east across Canada to New York, Boston or Montreal.  In post Civil War decades of great prosperity, the Michigan Central built massive stations in the cities along this corridor, most of them still standing and providing elegant evidence of the ken of this era’s architects.  Henry Hobson Richardson was, perhaps, the most popular architect of this era and his design often used large stones, giving his buildings an impressive stature that makes them quite unforgettable.  Railroads in the east, especially the Delaware and Hudson, commissioned him to design their more important depots.  The Michigan Central depot in Ann Arbor was also designed in the Richardsonian style but the older station in Jackson was completed before Henry Hobson Richardson’s designed influenced station architects.

The Detroit firm of Rogers and MacFarland designed this depot in the Richardsonian Romanesque style that was then popular.  It was constructed with red Lake Superior limestone.  Unlike other stations on this line, it includes an immense clock tower that once dominated downtown Battle Creek.  This station opened on July 27, 1888 and was used by the Michigan Central, the New York Central, Penn Central and Amtrak until November 18, 1981 when Amtrak moved into a modest but much more modern station about five blocks south.  The rails of both the Michigan Central and Grand Trunk lines were removed from downtown in the early 1980s to improve traffic flow in Battle Creek and create an ambiance along the graceful river.

Restaurateurs Peter Jubeck and Ross Simron apparently did not want to see this classic station fall into decay so they purchased it, restored it and opened Clara’s Restaurant in the building on June 8, 1992.  They also restored the Michigan Central Railroad Station on Michigan Avenue in downtown Lansing where they also operate a Clara’s Restaurant.

Architects: Randolph Rogers and MacFarland
Architectural style: Richardson Romanesque
Date of completion: 1888
Use in 2010: Clara’s Restaurant
Website for restaurant:
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P 22,716  Listed November 6, 1970
State of Michigan Historical Marker:  Put in place April 25, 1989
National Registry of Historic Places: Listed April 16, 1971
Photograph: Ren Farley; April 28, 2010
Description updated: November, 2010                                                

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