Michigan Central Railroad Depot – Niles

598 Dey Street, Niles

This is one of the state’s more attractive buildings, at least in part because of the landscaping.  The Michigan Central Railroad reached Niles from Detroit October 2, 1848 on its way toward Chicago, a location attained four years later. Cornelius Vanderbilt, in his effort to dominate traffic from Chicago to New York, obtained control of the Michigan Central in the late 1860s and early 1970s.  He established a through route from Chicago to New York, although it required a transfer of freight and passengers across the Detroit River until a tunnel opened in 1911.   The Michigan Central prospered in the later decades of the Nineteenth Century as business boomed, thanks to both the development of Michigan as a major manufacturing state, and the nation’s need for Michigan’s White Pine. It addition the line greatly benefited from increasing east-west shipments of goods and passengers.   Evidence of this prosperity is the impressive stations the Michigan Central built along their major line: those in Ann Arbor, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo and about a dozen smaller towns. 

The Columbian Exposition of 1893, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, was a major event for the entire nation. The Michigan Central Railroad knew that many travelers from the East Coast and from abroad would travel on their rail line to reach Chicago.  Niles would be the last major Michigan city where their trains would stop.  In preparation for the Columbian Exposition and the great business it would generate, officials of the Michigan Central constructed the attractive depot you see pictured above.

Detroit architects Fredrick Spier and William Rohns designed a gabled Richardsonian Romanesque building in three distinct sections.  There is the main waiting room which features an arched entryway facing away from the railroad tracks and an attractive bay window. This is the large facility at the west end of the building.  This section also includes an attractive and well illuminated smoking room with extensive wood paneling.  You get the impression the Michigan Central Railroad intended to spend generously to provide an elegant setting for passengers awaiting their trains.  At the other end of the depot, there was a 125-foot-long, single-story baggage room with its own hipped roof.  These two structures are connected by the 50-foot-long covered walkway.  The building is dominated by a 60-foot brick tower with a pyramidal hipped roof containing a large clock manufactured by the Howard Brothers firm of Boston.  As you look at this building, you are impressed by the architects’ devotion to the roof and roof lines.  This station, similar to the one Spier and Rohns designed for Battle Creek, features a large clock tower—both of them still in operation.

In the late Nineteenth Century—and well into last century—the Michigan Central Railroad employed John Gipner as their horticulturalist.  It was his obligation to breed and develop flowers and bushes that would be in planted around the railroad’s major stations each spring to improve their appeal.  Thus he traveled from Chicago to Detroit, across Ontario and on to Buffalo to make certain the line’s depots were appropriately garnished with flowers and bushes. His nursery and green houses were located on several acres not from the Niles depot.  It appears that he paid special attention to landscaping and flowers for the grounds of the Niles depot that you see.  During the summer of 1893, the Michigan Central Railroad and John Gipner hired a staff of six to present to a rose or a carnation to all women on their trains passing through Niles on their way to the Columbian Exposition.  Amtrak has not reinstituted this practice.

This station has been used continuously as a railroad station since it was built, although the freight facility at the east end was substantially remodeled.   The depot passed from the Michigan Central Railroad to the parent New York Central in the late 1920s and then to the short-lived Penn Central Railroad and then, in 1971, to Amtrak.  The Michigan Historical marker is in error in stating that Amtrak started operations in 1974.  It was three years earlier. As passenger traffic declined, maintenance was reduced and the depot lost some of its appeal but, in the early 1990s, local efforts were devoted to restoring the depot to the glory that Spiers and Rohns had in mind when they drew blueprints in 1891.  John Gipner’s ken was not forgotten since the plants and flowers have been arrayed around the station to insure a colorful display during the summer months.

Until the 1960s, the New York Central used this former Michigan Central line for many of their east-west freight trains.  Then they invested in the development of the Robert Young Classification Yard in nearby Elkhart, Indiana.  That yard is located on the former New York Central main line that directly crosses northern Indiana just a few miles south of Michigan in several locations.  The New York Central and its successors shifted almost all through freight trains to the tracks that cross northern Indiana thus very few freight trains pass in front of this depot.  At present the tracks from Kalamazoo to the Indiana state line are owned by Amtrak.  In 2009, 18,329 passengers alit from or boarded Amtrak trains at this depot.


Architects for the depot:  Frederic Spier and William C. Rohns
Date of completion: 1892
Architectural style:  Richardsonian Romanesque
Construction material: Brown sandstone from Ohio
Architect and building for the clock tower:  Howard Brothers of Boston
Landscape architect: John Gipner
Use in 2010:  Station for Amtrak with three daily trains to Chicago; three to Detroit and Pontiac and one to Port Huron
Web site: http://user.mc.net/~louisvw/depot/niles/niles.htm
Obituary of John Gipner:  http://www.nilesstar.com/2009/04/18/the-man-behind-the-name-garden-city/
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P25,429  Listed October 15, 1992
State of Michigan Historic Marker: Erected January 13, 1993
National Register of Historic Places: Listed September 19, 1979
Photograph: June 4, 2009
Description updated: November, 2010

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