Ypsilanti Passenger Depot, Michigan Central Railroad

Depot Drive near the intersection of Cross Street and the
Michigan Central Railroad Tracks, Ypsilanti

Is this the second oldest surviving railroad depot in Michigan? Territorial governor Stevens T. Mason led Michigan’s controversial transition into statehood, including playing a role in settling the “Toledo War.”  In January, 1837, Congress admitted Michigan to the Union.  Mason proposed state funding for three transportation systems that would link the east and west coasts of the state. He knew that the interior of Michigan was inaccessible and would not develop until people could readily get across the Lower Peninsula.  He proposed a southern line that would extend from the port of Monroe to a port on the St. Joseph’s River.  The middle line, presumably, would extend from Detroit to St. Joseph on Lake Michigan.  A northern line might extend from Port Huron to a port on the Grand River.  Governor Mason, presumably, assumed that the southern and middle lines would be rail but some or much of the northern route might be a canal.  Selling bonds to fund this infastructure proved difficult since the U.S. economy was devastated by the Panic of 1837. 

Private investors, in June, 1832, had obtained a charter from the Michigan territorial legislature to build a rail line from Detroit to St. Joseph.  They successfully obtained federal help to survey at least some of their line and completed grubbing as far west as Ypsilanti but they did not have the financial resources to build a railroad.  Governor Mason began implementing his Michigan in-ternal development strategy in April, 1837 by having the new state purchase the never-built Detroit to St. Joseph line. The state renamed it the Central Railroad of Michigan.  Funds were available to actually build a railroad, and on February 3, 1838, the line reached Ypsilanti and service began.  Two years later, the railroad extended to Ann Arbor, Jackson in 1841, Albion in 1844, Battle Creek in 1845, and Kalamazoo in 1846.  The state had great difficulty securing funds to build and maintain the Central Railroad so, in 1846, the state sold the line for two million dollars to a newly formed Michigan Central corporation; hence the name that remains in common use today.  This new firm had the resources to continue extending rails west reaching Niles in 1848, New Buffalo in 1849 and Michigan City in 1850.  Through cooperation with Indiana and Illinois rail lines, the Michigan Central linked Detroit and Chicago in 1852—a 270-mile trip.

The Central Railroad of Michigan built a frame depot in Ypsilanti on the site of the present freight station.  I have not seen a picture or sketch of that building.  By the late 1850s, Ypsilanti was becoming somewhat of a manufacturing center because of the water power supplied by the Huron River.  Several substantial mills were built to produce a variety of products and the city’s population grew. Census 1860 counted 3,955 residents of Ypsilanti, making it the state’s seventh largest city.  Only Adrian, Ann Arbor, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Jackson and Port Huron had more residents.  The Michigan Central began construction of an elaborate Victorian style, three-story brick depot with a much-embellished tower.  I have seen 1860, 1863 and 1864 listed as the date of completion. The street side of the depot feature a port cochere, a component typically included in railroad stations of that era.A picture here shows the elegant depot as it appeared in 1900.  Prior to the completion of the Michigan Central depot in Jackson in 1872, I presume that the Ypsilanti depot was the most architecturally significant one in Michigan.

Fate was not kind to this depot.  A fire on May 28, 1910 destroyed most of the structure.  It was rebuilt, but without a third story or a tower. In 1939, a freight train derailed, and once again, destroyed much of the depot.  I think that the structure we see now more or less reflects the extremely modest rebuilding done by the Michigan Central/New York Central after the 1939 accident.

The earliest Michigan Central schedule I have seen is for 1869.  It shows four round trips each way between Detroit and Chicago, every train pausing at the Ypsilanti depot.  The trains were carded at 10-1/2 to 12 hours to make the 254-mile journey from Ypsilanti to Chicago.  The Michigan Central in 1869 also had a commuter train from Dexter to their depot at Third and West Jefferson on the Detroit River.  The 1926 Official Guide shows seven east bound Chicago to Detroit trains stopping daily in Ypsi, along with two Grand Rapids to Detroit trains.  A similar number of west bound trains paused and the travel time to Chicago had been cut to about seven hours.  In the late 1960s—on the verge of the Amtrak take-over of most US passenger rail service—two trains in each direction stopped in Ypsi each day.  At that time the Penn-Central was stilling running a midnight mail train with a rider coach between Detroit and Chicago, one that stopped in Ypsi.  The Penn Central also ran an Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter train, but the reverse service in the evening was provided by the Twilight Limited that stopped at Ypsi on its way to Chicago.

Congress did not mandate an Amtrak take-over of commuter trains so Penn-Central ran a Budd car from Ann Arbor to Detroit in the mornings and in the reverse direction in the evenings to fulfill their obligation to provide commuter service.  They won approval to terminate the service in 1975 but the state of Michigan stepped in, funded the commuter train and contracted with Amtrak.  For ten years, Amtrak operated a morning commuter train from Jackson to Detroit with a return service in the evenings, typically provided by the late afternoon train from Detroit to Chicago.  State funding ran out and so, on January 13, 1985, the final scheduled passenger train stopped in Ypsilanti.  After about 125 years of service, this venerable station ceased to welcome travelers. In the latter years of the State of Michigan commuter train, the depot was closed but trains stopped at this point.

The Detroit, Hillsdale and Indiana Railroad obtained a charter from the state in 1869 to build a line from Detroit to central Indiana.  I do not think the investors intended to build a line into Detroit itself.  James Joy, an executive with the Michigan Central, was also an officer of the Detroit, Hillsdale and Indiana.  When completed in 1871, this new line extended from booming Ypsilanti 65 miles southwest to Bankers, Michigan—a point four miles southwest of Hillsdale. Presumably, the investors intended to profit from a railroad that would be linked to other lines and could quickly whisk freight and passengers from Detroit to Indiana, central Illinois, St. Louis and points west. When I moved to Ann Arbor in 1967, this line—by then incorporated into the New York Central—was still in operation for freight service.  Their line intersected with the Michigan Central about one-third of mile northeast of the Ypsilanti passenger depot and then passed through what is now the Eastern Michigan campus on its way to Saline, Manchester and Hillsdale.  Part of the roadbed through the Eastern Michigan campus is now a pedestrian trail.

The Detroit, Hillsdale and Indiana used the Michigan Central depot in Ypsilanti.   As early as 1871, this railroad coordinated their passenger service so that travelers could easily get to and from Detroit by changing trains in Ypsilanti. By 1873, the line—in cooperation with the Michigan Central, the Fort Wayne, Jackson and Saginaw Railroad and the Detroit, Eel River and Indiana Railroad—offered passengers through car service from Detroit to the Eel River port of Logansport, Indiana.  Interestingly, James Joy was an investor in all those line.  Alas, the Detroit, Hillsdale and Indiana was not successful, and in 1874, the Washtenaw Circuit Court foreclosed the line.  It emerged as the Detroit, Hillsdale and Southwestern. In 1881, this line was leased to the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern and then, in 1915, to the New York Central. The 1932 Official Guides shows that, three times a week, a train left Hillsdale at 7:30 AM for a three and half-hour trip to Ypsilanti and returned at noon for a leiseurly four-hour ride over the 61 miles to Hillsdale.  The line served Saline, Manchester and Hillsdale for 98 years but its tracks were pulled up between 1969 and 1972 with the exception of a short section from the Ann Arbor Railroad to a Ford plant in Saline.

The Michigan Central railroad devoted great attention to the surroundings of their depots.  Their leading horticulturalist was John Gipner who planted extensive gardens at the Niles depot.  Many travelers coming, in the summer of 1893, to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago from New York, Boston and points east used the Michigan Central line.  John Gipner hired six men to greet the trains that stopped at Niles in 1893 on their way to Chicago. As the trains’ engines took on water and coal, women were presented with flowers grown at the Niles depot.  Mr. John Laidlaw was responsible for the gardens at the Ypsilanti depot.  I don’t know if he also tended the gardens that once graced to slope to the east of the magnificent Michigan Central depot in Ann Arbor.

So far as I know, the Ypsi depot has been vacant and more or less unintended since the Penn Central era. When Amtrak took over passenger service, they inherited the Ypsilanti depot.  Later they sold it to James and Carol Kovalak who intended to convert it into a restaurant. They were not successful in that endeavor but they sold the property for $197,000 in 1999 to Ann Arbor real estate investor Dennis Dahlmann.  Members of the City Council and Downtown Development Authority in Ypsilanti have, I infer, been unhappy about the lack of investments in the depot which is currently assessed at about $83,000, suggesting a market value of twice that.

Apparently the oldest railroad depot still standing in Michigan is the one in Mount Clemens.  That very attractive, one-story, brick Italianate building was completed in 1858 or 1859 for the Grant Trunk Western’s line that linked Detroit to Port Huron.  That line was constructed to connect Detroit to Montréal and the port of Portland, Maine.  Perhaps the Mount Clemens depot, which is now a transportation museum, is best known as the place where Thomas Edison learned telegraphy and developed his interest in electricity. Alas, I do not have a picture of that Mount Clemens depot on this website.

Date of construction: Between 1860 and 1864
Architect or builder: Unknown to me
Architectural style: Victorian
Major changes:  Fire in 1908; freight train derailment in 1939
Use in 2015:  Unused building awaiting reuse or demolishment
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph of 1893 depot: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Photograph of 2015 depot:  Ren Farley; April 19, 2015
Description updated: May, 2015

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