Columbiaville Depot, Michigan Central Railroad

4643 First Street, Columbiaville

If you have visited many Michigan Central Railroad depots, this one will seem familiar.  It was designed by the architects who built the similarly attractive depot for the Michigan Central on their main line in Three Oaks.  In the 1870s, the Michigan Central came under the control of Cornelius Vanderbilt and his associates who ran the New York Central.  Apparently, that line used this architectural firm to design many depots.  And these highly productive Boston architects, Shelpley, Rutan and Coolidge, felt free to repeat much of their work in different locations.  This is the Romanesque-style depot designed for small towns.  A similar station was built for the Michigan Central in Amherstburg, Ontario.  Perhaps the most appreciated buildings today designed by these architects are the Art Institute in Chicago and South Station in Boston. 

The early wave of railroad building sought to link the East Coast to Chicago with lines that crossed Michigan.  This effort began in the late 1830s.  By 1855, both the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern and the Michigan Central provided rail service from the east side of the state to Chicago.  By 1873, the third major carrier, the Grand Trunk, completed a line west from Port Huron, to Durand, on to Lansing, then to Battle Creek and into Chicago by way of South Bend and Valparaiso, Indiana—the very line that is used by the Canadian National today.

By the 1870s, major rail building efforts sought to link Detroit and the southern counties of the Lower Michigan with the northern part of the Lower Peninsula and, later, to the Upper Peninsula. This is explained by the great white pine forest that covered the state.  With industrialization after the Civil War, came a booming market for goods produced in Detroit and the state’s other manufacturing centers.  Many of these products utilized Michigan’s white pine.   By the end of the 19th century, the Michigan Central reached the Straits of Mackinac as did the Pennsylvania Railroad affiliate, the Grand Rapids and Indiana.  The Ann Arbor Railroad crossed the state in a northwest direction from Toledo to Frankfort.  The Detroit and Mackinac followed the Sunrise Coast, while a Pere Marquette line branch line followed the Sunset Coast north from Grand Rapids to Traverse City.  Many of the long-distance lines were assembled from short-distance carriers that were chartered to join one small city to another nearby settlement.

The Detroit and Bay City Railroad began building southeast from Bay City about 1870 and reached Columbiaville in 1872.  It built on toward Detroit and was, in 1883, taken over by the Michigan Central as part of their line that extended from the state’s largest city to Mackinac City.

The first settler—Levi Cutting—came to Columbiaville in 1847.  His home still stands in town.  The next year, George and Henry Niver arrived and established a water-powered saw mill on the banks of the Flint River.  So at this early point, entrepreneurs began to profit from the great pine forests of the state.  The Nivers were from Columbia County, New York.  Shortly after their arrival, William Peter, who was born in Germany in 1824, but migrated to Columbia County as a youth, also came to this small settlement on the banks of the Flint.  Peter arrived penniless but went to work in the mill the Nivers established.  Peter turned out to be the entrepreneur who, literally, put Columbiaville on the map.

The settlers, in the early 1850s, wished to call their settlement, Columbia, after their county of origin.   They tried to establish a post office in 1857, but the postal service told them there was already a Columbia in Michigan so they selected Columbiaville as the moniker for their community.

William Peter plotted the village and then began buying land that was covered with timber, presumably at low cost.  This is the strategy lumber barons used to become rich. He erected a large lumber mill and then established a brick yard and a woolen mill.  In the process, he became very prosperous.  The state’s early railroads found it exceedingly difficult to raise capital, so they would route their line through a community if the residents promised to buy their stock and bonds.  William Peters may have made certain that the Detroit and Bay City laid their rails through Columbiaville.  He certainly needed their service to get his products to the state’s largest city.  After the Michigan Central took over the Detroit and Bay City, Peter was dissatisfied with the quality of their service.  Thus, he promised to pay for the construction of the attractive station that you see pictured above if the Michigan Central would improve their service and promise to stop their passenger trains in Columbiaville.  The railroad went on to select one of the nation’s most accomplished firms to design the Romanesque depot.

A century ago, six passenger trains paused daily at this station on their way to or from points north to Detroit.  You could depart from Columbiaville at 5:45 in the morning and arrive at Detroit’s Michigan Central Station—then at Fourth and West Jefferson but no longer standing—at 7:40 or wait until 9:18 for the train that arrived in the Motor City at 10:59.  For the return trip, you could board in Detroit at 5:45 PM and arrive in Columbiaville for a late dinner at 7:40.  Passenger service on this line ended in 1964.  Freight service continued until 1976 when the federal government had to bail out the bankrupt Penn Central Railroad.  Immediately, branch and redundant lines were terminated.  The state of Michigan took over many of these abandoned lines and tried to find contract operators who would maintain freight service.  They had no luck with this line, so the last train passed this station in the year the nation elected James Carter as their president.

You might think that there is little of interest in a rural community in suburban Lapeer County where Census 2000 counted only 815 residents.  This is an incorrect assumption.  The home of the community’s founder, Levi Cutting, is located at the corner of Water and Lapeer.  William Peters used his immense wealth to build a huge mansion in 1892, one that still dominates the village.  It stands at 4704 Water Street and is listed on the Michigan Registry of Historic Sites.  Also, Columbiaville is the starting point for a eleven-mile paved bicycle trail laid on the original line of the Detroit and Bay City northwest from Columbiaville to Millington.

Architects: George Foster Shepley, Charles Hercules Rutan and Charles Allerton Coolidge
Date of Construction: 1893
Architectural Style: Romanesque
Use in 2010:  Home of the Columbiaville Rotary Club
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P23,848  Listed October 23, 1979
State of Michigan Historical Marker: Put in place September 11, 1981
National Register of Historic Places: Listed April 5, 1984
Photograph: Ren Farley; July 2010
Description prepared: August, 2010

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