Historic Detroit

Michigan Central Railroad Depot

The Michigan Central Railroad Depot was the company’s second station in Detroit, opening on the southwest corner of Third and West Jefferson avenues in 1884. The Romanesque Revival structure cost about $1 million to build (about $21 million in today’s dollars).

Newspaper articles at the time deemed the depot the pride of Detroit. Numerous turrets made it look like a medieval castle and the waiting rooms — there was a separate waiting room for ladies — had marble floors. Its massive clock towered above everything around it.

The depot was designed by Cyrus L.W. Eidlitz, the architect responsible for One Times Square in New York City and the Dearborn Station (aka Polk Street Station) in Chicago, which opened two years after the MCRR station.

The brick-and-stone structure was the point of arrival and departure for all trains of the New York Central lines and connected with the Canadian division by ferry and tunnel. The thriving railroad added vastly to its waterfront shed space and tracks to serve a growing Detroit. Additions over the years extended the structure for two blocks, but it eventually outgrew its home.

Plans were already under way to replace the three-story depot when, on Dec. 26, 1913, the station was ravaged by a fire. The blaze started in the records room on the third floor of the building’s northwest wing, near where the main depot attached to the freight sheds. Flames, which firefighters could not get under control, raged from 2 to 4 p.m. Rafters supporting the slate roof burned away, causing the roof to cave in.

A Detroit News article of the blaze said that the depot tower was photographed by newsreel and newspaper photographers until its 1,000-ton clock and cupola crashed to the ground. Above the first floor of the station, only charred walls remained.

The new Michigan Central Station, which stands abandoned today and is familiar to most in metro Detroit, was close enough to being completed that it was put into service quickly. In fact, the Detroit Free Press reported, the first train to pull out of the new station left for Bay City at 5:20 p.m. — about 3 1/2 hours after the fire started at the old station.

Despite the devastating blaze, the depot was not torn down, in fact surviving without its clock tower until 1966. The Michigan Central Railroad had become part of the of the New York Central in 1916, and for years, the Detroit office badgered the company for funds to demolish the decrepit building to save on taxes and eliminate what had become an eyesore.

While the depot was destroyed, the back of the station was still in use for decades longer. Freighters would steam up to the shore and drop off their loads, which were then shipped out through the depot.

While the tracks and freight sheds adjacent to the depot were still in use, vandals had smashed the windows as the old depot sat empty. An eerie fact when considering the fate that befell its predecessor at 14th and Michigan.

Finally, after decades of decay and abandonment, the New York Central Railroad came through with the money and the old depot was razed in June 1966.