Kalamazoo Depot, Michigan Central Depot

459 North Burdick, Kalamazoo

Kalamazoo is very nearly one-half way from Detroit to Chicago.  And if you drew the shortest land route from one of those locations to the other, it would pass very close to Kalamazoo.  Since the early 1830s, there has been a great interest in maintaining transportation between Detroit and Chicago.

Michigan’s population did not grow until the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825.  Then the territory grew rapidly because people from the East Coast could more easily settle here, even though it involved a long, slow barge trip across New York State and then a sail from the eastern shore of Lake Erie to Detroit.  As soon as the Erie Canal made Michigan attractive to settlers, investors realized that East Coast residents would want to go further west toward the Great Plains and that farm products from that area would be shipped east.  Since there were no rail lines or canals across Indiana, this meant they had to cross Michigan.  By the early 1830s, it became apparent that Chicago, at the southern tip of Lake Michigan, would become a dominating Midwest metropolis.  By that time, stage coach service linked Detroit with Chicago, although there must have been many delays in the spring when the plank road—financed in-part by federal appropriations obtained by Michigan Representative Father Gabriel Richard—sunk into mud. Current route U S #12 pretty much follows the road that Richard promoted.

On June 29, 1832, a group of entrepreneurs secured a charter from the Michigan territorial legislature to build a rail line—the Detroit and St. Joseph Railroad—linking those two ports. This was the second rail line to be chartered in the territory.  Presumably, westbound passengers and freight would arrive in Detroit after crossing Lake Erie, travel across Michigan by the rail line and then sail west to Chicago or Milwaukee.

The investors found it challenging to raise capital.  They sought support from the territory and the federal government but originally got little, although Washington assigned a surveyor who was assigning Michigan ports the additional task of mapping a right of way for the Detroit and St. Joseph.  Steven Mason effectively led Michigan from its territorial status to statehood by 1837 and then served as the first governor.  He was a tremendous booster of the state and proposed using the financial backing of the state to issue bonds that would build three rail lines across Michigan, a southern route extending from Monroe to New Buffalo, a central route from Detroit to St. Joseph and a northern route from St. Clair or Port Huron to Lake Michigan.  At this time, it was assumed that travel by water would remain more economical than travel by rail.  With funds from state-backed bonds, construction on the Detroit and St. Joseph line started in Detroit in 1837.  On February 3, 1838, this railroad reached Ypsilanti, and on October 17, 1839, train service began connecting Detroit and Ann Arbor.  Even with funds from state-issued bonds, the rail line had great troubling building its facilities and running its trains.  Gradually, they built west, reaching Kalamazoo in 1845.  At that time, the state sold its financially troubled and faltering rail line—known at that time as the Michigan Central Railroad—on March 28, 1846 to a group of Michigan investors who agreed to rebuild the poorly constructed line from Detroit to Kalamazoo within two years and then west to a Lake Michigan port within three years.

By the time, the Michigan Central reached Kalamazoo, it became clear that an all-rail line to Chicago would be preferable to one that involved transferring passengers and freight from rail cars to a vessel at a Lake Michigan port.  Building west from Kalamazoo, investors in the Michigan Central headed the line directly toward Chicago but they did reach New Buffalo in 1848 to completely fulfill their legal obligation. By 1852, Michigan Central trains were making the entire trip from Detroit to Chicago trip.

The Civil War, the populating of the Great Plains, the emergence of Michigan as a manufacturing state and continued population growth in the east created a “golden age” for the state’s rail line extending from the 1870s at least until the financial panic of 1892.  People and freight traveling from the East Coast to the Midwest had a choice of more than one-half dozen routes.  Three of them ran through Michigan—the Grand Trunk from Port Huron through Michigan to Chicago; the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern through Toledo, then through the southernmost tier of Michigan counties and on to Chicago; and the Michigan Central’s direct line from Detroit to Chicago.  All these lines had connections east from Michigan and west from Chicago.  After 1867, Cornelius Vanderbilt began investing in both the Michigan Central and the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern.  Both firms eventually became components of the New York Central railroad that Vanderbilt and his collaborators assembled, although the Michigan Central retained a separate identity into the 1920s.

From the 1870s to the first decade of the Twentieth Century, the Michigan Central had generous funds to invest in improving its line. The railroad’s first developers lacked capitol so their line followed the curves of rivers and the rolling topography of Michigan.  The well-funded Michigan Central in the decades following the Civil War modernized the line and also erected marvelous stations for the cities along their line.

The Kalamazoo Romanesque Revival depot that you see, was designed by an accomplished and well known Nineteenth Century architect, Cyrus L. W. Elditz.  Elditz, born in New York City in 1853, was the son of a well-known New York architect.  The younger Elditz went to Stuttgart for his architectural education and then went to work with his father.  In the Nineteenth Century, Elditz worked in the Gothic and Romanesque Revival style.  Among his best known buildings in that mode are the Dearborn Street Station in Chicago and the impressive Buffalo and Erie County Library in Buffalo.  Interestingly, trains from Elditz’ Kalamazoo Station never arrived at his Dearborn Station.

The depot that you see is basically a single story but large building—almost 200 feet from one end to the other.  You notice the steeply pitched roof with the large eaves that provide some protection for travelers waiting for their trains.  The design called for some second story office space, space that was reached by stairways in the turrets.  This facility served the major east-west line through Kalamazoo—the Michigan Central—and their branch line to South Haven that carried passengers into the 1930s.  Trains of the north-south rail line through Kalamazoo—the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Grand Rapids and Indiana subsidiary—stopped at a nearby station that was restored recently by the Arcus Foundation.

After 1900, Elditz switch to the Beaux-Arts style.  He accepted commissions to design many buildings for telephone companies.  His Bell Laboratory Building at 463 West Street in lower Manhattan is a National Historic Landmark.  There is one Elditz building we have all seen many times even if we never take an Amtrak train through Kalamazoo.  Elditz designed a 25-story building for Times Square to serve as the home of the New York Times.  When it opened in 1903, it was the second tallest building in the world.  This building now holds the apparatus for the illuminated ball that falls every New Year’s morning at 12:00:01.  The New York Times moved out of this edifice in 1913, and in recent decades, it has been a vacant building, but a profitable one for its owners since it supports dozens of the garish neon signs that light up Times Square.

So far as I know, this block-long rail station is the only work of Elditz in Michigan.  Upon this station, you will find a plaque commemorating the removal of Indians from the Kalamazoo area in the 1830s.

Architect: Cyrus Lazelle Warner Elditz
Architectural Style: Romanesque Revival
Date of Construction: 1887
Use in 2010:  Passenger station for Amtrak train and for local and intercity buses
Photograph:  June 4, 2010
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites:  P23,658  Listed February 21, 1975
National Register of Historic Places: Listed June 11, 1975
Description prepared: June, 2010

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