The first train steamed into the venerable Union Depot, downtown at Third Avenue and Fort Street, on Jan. 21, 1893.
Planning began in 1889, with James Stewart & Co. of St. Louis — one of America’s most accomplished railroad contractors - handling its design. Construction began in 1891 and took a couple of years to complete. Stewart carved the behemoth out of a dark red sandstone, choosing the Romanesque Revival style popular at the time. The style was based on the concepts of H.H. Richardson, a Boston architect who also designed the Bagley Memorial Fountain in Detroit. The depot’s appearance was similar to the still-standing Detroit Club on Cass and First Presbyterian Church on Woodward.
The depot was described by architectural critics as monumental and gutsy, and of being in a solid, aggressive style. W. Hawkins Ferry, in his “The Buildings of Detroit,” described the station as being of “robust plastic composition.” Ross and Carlin mention it proudly as “an ornament to the city” in their “Landmarks of Detroit,” published before the turn of the century. Its massive four-clock tower served as a proud landmark in and of itself — a beacon in the years before skyscrapers appeared. (As an odd side note, the clock faces read “IIII” instead of “IV.”)
The station started as a depot for a combination of railways, including the old Wabash, the Flint and Pere Marquette, and the Detroit, Lansing and Northern. The depot was part of an area that was a major transportation hub, bounded by Fort Street to the north and the Detroit River to the south, and Cass Avenue to the east and what is now the Lodge Service Drive to the west. Steamships from the Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Co. would puff up to the docks at the end of Third. The steamers brought hundreds of people at a time from Cleveland and Buffalo, N.Y. Just a few blocks south of the Union Depot was its main competition, the now-demolished Michigan Central Railroad Depot. This meant that many people’s first views and impressions of Detroit were experienced in this block.
The MCRR Depot closed in 1913, and the railway moved to the now-infamous Michigan Central Station in Corktown. The steamers stopped puffing ashore when the D&C line folded in 1951. The Union Depot outlived them all.
Folks arrived there from all over the country to work at the city’s factories. Others said their farewells to loved ones on the depot’s train platforms and headed off to war. Others were just off to Grandma’s. The station was once was the home of the famed passenger trains the Ambassador, Wabash Cannonball and the Red Arrow.
In the mid-1930s, some Common Council members and others wanted to replace Old City Hall and were soliciting places to build. Albert Kahn Inc. suggested leveling the Union Depot and building a structure that would combine city hall, a railroad station and an exhibition and convention hall like today’s Cobo Center. The complex would have stood a massive 20 stories but was ruled out after the site was deemed too isolated from downtown.
That’s not so say that the Union Depot wasn’t a bustling place, as it was, especially in the 1940s, when the station received a half-million dollar renovation (about $7 million today). Fluorescent lighting, a restaurant, a baggage room, lockers and train gates were added in 1946. The ticket offices also were relocated at this time. Two years later, in 1948, the depot would commission itself a masterpiece.
The renowned Marshall Fredericks, sculptor of “The Spirit of Detroit,” was commissioned to create his “Romance of Transportation” for the depot. After three years of work, the 42.5-foot panel depicting the development of transportation in America was unveiled in May 1951. The aluminum sculpture is now part of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore. The Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum at Saginaw Valley State University has a plaster cast of it on display, as well as its molds.
The depot avoided a threat to tear it down as part of early 1950s plans for what became Cobo Hall. It also survived tunneling under its tracks for the Lodge Freeway. Then the Wayne County Stadium Authority planned to build a $150-million riverfront replacement for Tiger Stadium on the 75 acres of railroad tracks. That plan called for leveling the depot, though it would have saved its ornate entrance, incorporating it into the ballpark.
While the depot could fend off development, it could not survive the automobile and air travel. As cars and planes made passenger trains obsolete, rail companies and train stations closed one-by-one. The Wabash Cannonball bowled out of the Union Depot for the final time on April 30, 1971. The next day, boards and wire mesh were nailed over the station’s windows and doors. Stationmaster Leo Wojcik spent 32 years working at the depot, and it was left to him to pound the nails into the plywood and seal up the old landmark. “After all these years,” he told the News, “it hurts.”
The building stood empty for nearly three years, becoming a sanctuary for the homeless and vandals. In the fall of 1973, city officials ordered the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Co. — the depot’s owners — to keep the vagrants out or face court action. A C&O spokesman told the Detroit Free Press at the time that the company had been unable to keep the vagrants out because as soon as the railroad boarded up an entrance, someone tore it down.
Scrappers had pulled out its plumbing and removed copper flashings that secured roof slates, making it an insurance liability. Citing increased vandalism and dangers caused by scrappers, the C&O deemed it more economical to tear it down than to make the necessary improvements to keep the building standing. The C&O said it regretted tearing down the building, but that no one had offered to purchase it. Sarko Equipment Inc. of Dearborn was awarded the job of bringing the depot to the ground.
In January 1974 — 81 years to the month that it opened - a last-minute attempt was made to save at least part of the building, even though demolition had already begun. The demolition crews agreed to start work from the rear, leaving the core of the depot and its clock tower standing for a few weeks longer.
Ideas that were floated for saving at least part of it included turning it into a transportation museum, a restaurant or a cluster of retail shops.
Sarko also had agreed to allow preservationists to save any of the building’s architectural gems and features, such as the landmark four-faced clock. Sadly, either “plunderers or misguided preservationists” took the 8-foot clock hands from the tower, destroying the glass face of the clock in the process, Solan W. Weeks, then-director of the Detroit Historical Museum, told the Free Press at the time. That made saving the clock for future use on another site impossible.
In a Hail Mary attempt, the Historical Preservation Committee of the Detroit Historical Society recommended that the Depot be listed as a national landmark — but ran out of time.
At the end of January 1974, the building would be destroyed. But instead of a wrecking ball, a crane with a jack-o-lantern-like clamshell bucket nibbled away on its red sandstone walls. A fitting, drawn-out demise for a building that had served Detroiters for more than 80 years.
The Wayne County Community College District has a building there now. The depot’s miles of rails were replaced with miles of concrete. Most of the tracks are under what is now the Lodge Freeway (M-10).
Several large pieces of the Union Depot were saved and are housed in a warehouse at Ft. Wayne.