The Michigan Central Railroad’s Canada Division and the Magnificent Detroit Station by Bob Mitchell
“The history of the Canada Division of the Michigan Central Railroad, like that of its corporate parent, is rich and colourful, filled with stories of accomplishment in railroad technology and infrastructure development by people famous in the annals of North American railroad history. This is a brief narrative of the Canada Division and the story of the rejuvenation of the magnificent Michigan Central Station in Detroit at the western extremity of the tracks of the Canada Division.
Cornelius Vanderbilt successfully operated a steamboat business on the Hudson River from New York to Albany in the mid-19th Century. He was a master of steam propulsion. This was a time of great migration to North America from Europe. The foremost portal for immigrants travelling to the interior of America was through New York City and up the Hudson River. Vanderbilt made a fortune transporting these people on his vessels.
Vanderbilt was also interested in making money by the new technology of steam locomotion. He took control of the struggling Hudson River Railroad in 1864 to operate up the east side of the Hudson River from Manhattan to Rensselaer. He connected by bridge across the Hudson River to the New York Central Railroad at Albany – a line which ran parallel to the Erie Canal through the Mohawk Valley of upstate New York from the Hudson River to Buffalo on Lake Erie. Purchasing the NYC in 1869 and merging it with his Hudson River Railroad, Vanderbilt created a complete line from New York to Buffalo under the New York Central name.
To this merger he added the Lakeshore & Michigan Southern Railway (running along the south shore of Lake Erie from Buffalo through Cleveland, Toledo and South Bend, Indiana) and the Michigan Central Railroad which crossed its namesake state from Detroit through Ann Arbor, Jackson, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, and Niles, joining the L&MS at Porter, Indiana. In 1900 the Boston and Albany Railroad was added to this New York Central System. The completed network now joined Boston and New York to Chicago, the main railroad centre of North America.
Cornelius Vanderbilt had also acquired controlling interest in the bankrupt Canada Southern Railway in 1873, This line ran through southwestern Ontario from its Suspension Bridge connection with the New York Central at Niagara Falls to Gordon (one mile north of Amherstburg) where it crossed the Detroit River to Grosse Ile and Slocum Junction (now Trenton) on the Michigan side of the river. This unfinished line was also designed to proceed to Chicago.
Vanderbilt made the Canada Southern into the Canada Division of the Michigan Central Railroad. In 1873 a large Italianate-style station designed by Canadian architect Edgar Berryman and a large railroad repair shops and yard complex were completed in St. Thomas, Ontario, serving as headquarters and maintenance base of the new Canada Division. The name Canada Southern disappeared from use.
Cornelius Vanderbilt died in 1877, never seeing his grand empire come to fruition. He left the enterprise to his eldest son, the astute and innovative William H. Vanderbilt, who began to make big changes to the complete railroad system, especially to the Canada Division of the Michigan Central.
First, he diverted the main line of the Canada Division away from Gordon by a great curve at Essex (known as the Essex Cutoff), sending it sixteen miles northwest to Cameron Ave. in Windsor. The line to Gordon remained as a branchline to Amherstburg for many decades but no longer crossed the river to Michigan at that point.
The Canada Division then connected to the rest of the Michigan Central Railroad, crossing the Detroit River by car ferries from the foot of Cameron Ave. to Corktown, the enclave of Irish immigrants on the west side of Detroit. Trains of the New York Central System ran on the Canada Division as they did on all portions of the Michigan Central/ New York Central System.
William H. Vanderbilt died in 1885, but his plans of infrastructure improvements on the Canada Division were carried out by his successor, son William K. Vanderbilt who led the Vanderbilt empire. These advances began with a double-tracking of the line. Heavy-duty high speed rail was laid. A new double-tracked steel bridge over the deep Kettle Creek Valley in St. Thomas was erected to replace a wooden trestle. Four steel sheet-metal track pans (two feet wide and fourteen hundred feet long, filled with water and heated by steam – the only in existence in Canada) were installed along the line at Forks Creek, Waterford, Taylor, and Tilbury, This provided for the fast scooping of water by locomotives “on the fly,” eliminating time-consuming stops along the line to take on water.
More new stations were built. Although most were of wooden construction, a lovely stone station was built in Essex in 1887. Designed by Spier and Rohns of Detroit, it features Romanesque Revival architecture and a cladding of granite fieldstone from Michigan. Its thick walls provided for its survival of two nearby devastating explosions. Past its doors were seen, at the peak of the line in the 1920’s, over forty passenger trains a day and seventy freight trains. A beautiful Romanesque station was opened in Amherstburg in 1896 followed by a Dutch Colonial-style station in Windsor in 1911.
The New York Central Railroad specialized in providing the fastest rail connections between New York and Chicago. The NYC’s luxurious flagship train the Twentieth Century Limited was created to run opposite the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Broadway Limited in a fast 18-hour dash south of Lake Erie on its Lakeshore line through Toledo and South Bend. The two trains would compete in a “neck and neck” race on the multi-tracked straightaway into Chicago’s LaSalle Street station, often so close that passengers on each train could wave to those on the other.
To provide a similarly fast 20-hour service to Chicago while capturing the Detroit market, the New York Central ran it’s equally-luxurious overnight train, the Wolverine, along Michigan Central’s Canada Division through St. Thomas and past the doors of the Essex Railway Station into the yards in Windsor. For twenty-five years these and other NYC trains were ferried across the Detroit River from the foot of Cameron Ave. The trains then backed eastward into the old Michigan Central Station at Third Street and Jefferson Ave. to detrain and entrain its Detroit passengers before heading west across Michigan. This Detroit River crossing was a bottle-neck in the system and the back-up move was an extremely time-consuming process due to the intricacies of manual track switching and navigating over increasingly busy grade crossings.
In 1910, the Vanderbilts completed a much-needed double-bore tunnel under the Detroit River from Cameron Ave. in Windsor to Corktown in Detroit. It was an engineering marvel of its time, built, as it was, of welded steel tubing sunk into a trench at the bottom of the river. It featured electric locomotives for the smokeless movement of trains through the tunnel from Windsor to the yards of the Canada Division in Detroit’s Corktown. Elimination of the labourious ferry crossing improved the running time to Chicago, much closer to the goal of twenty hours.
The year 1913 saw the completion of a brand new three-storey Michigan Central Station in the heart of Corktown. It was topped by the fifteen-storey headquarters of the Michigan Central railroad containing over 500 offices. The massive building was situated in alignment with the Canada Division tracks coming from the Detroit River Tunnel. The lengthy back-up exercise to Third Street downtown was eliminated with the advent of the new station. The twenty-hour goal was now achieved.
This magnificent building was constructed in beautiful Roosevelt Park just off Michigan Ave. and the Vernor Highway. It was designed in the Beaux-Arts Classical style by a collaboration of the distinguished architects Warren & Wetmore of New York City and Reed and Stem of St. Paul, Minnesota, designers of the New York Central Railroad’s Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.
This new Michigan Central Station served, at its peak in the 1920’s, over two hundred passenger trains and forty thousand passengers a day from its ten covered platforms. From this station departed some of the most famous New York Central passenger trains heading for New York on the Canada Division – notably the Wolverine; the Ambassador; the Detroiter, on which Henry Ford would ride in his private car the Fairlane; the North Shore Limited, and the fast Empire State Express. Also using the Detroit River Tunnel of the Canada Division was the Canadian Pacific Railway’s fast trains the Chicago Express and the Overseas, running between Chicago and Montreal.
The great steel-framed Michigan Central Station in Detroit comprises a floor area of some 500,000 square feet and sits on fifty acres of prime property. It rises to a height of 75 metres, almost 230 feet, and was the tallest railroad station building in the world at the time of construction. When the station was opened, many passengers arrived by streetcar. The station was built to be one of the premier flagship stations in the New York Central System. It had the same status as that of the Grand Central Terminal in New York. According to the original plans, the building was to include a hotel, but the space was instead used only as offices for the administration of the Michigan Central Railroad. The top two floors were never furnished and never used.
Inside the station was a main lobby featuring restaurants, ticket counters, arcade shops, a barber shop, a shoe-shine parlour, an office for sending telegrams, and all other amenities one would expect to find in a big-city station. The over-200-foot-long grand main waiting room, entered from Roosevelt Park through massive bronze doors with mahogany trim, was designed to appear as an ancient Roman bathhouse, its sixty-five-foot ceilings being vaulted with carved designs and its walls and floors being of solid marble. Lighting was provided by large fancy brass chandeliers and huge arched windows facing out onto Roosevelt Park. The expansive hall housing the ornate ticket windows and the arcade shops was adorned with 68-foot Doric columns, shiny brass fixtures, and an impressive large clock. The main concourse joining the two areas featured a mezzanine with a huge copper-framed skylight overhead. From this great hall, stairs and elevators accessed the ten platforms below by way of a tunnel to the train shed.
This magnificent building fell into disrepair following the rise of the jet age and the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950’s and 1960’s during the rise of airliner and automobile travel. The railroads fought back hopelessly, replacing steam locomotives and heavyweight trains with diesel engines pulling stainless steel streamliners. The huge amount of rail traffic that emanated from the Michigan Central Station fell to a trickle, then stopped altogether. The last passenger train to leave the station for New York via the Canada Division’s Detroit River Tunnel was Amtrak’s Niagara Rainbow on January 31, 1979. Amtrak train 353 to Chicago on January 5, 1988 was the last train ever to leave the station heading west to Chicago. The building fell into complete dilapidation – even to all 1,050 of its windows being broken out. It was purchased in the early 1990’s by Controlled Terminals Inc., a company owned by late Michigan entrepreneur Manuel (Matty) Maroun.
In May, 2018, the Ford Motor Company announced it would immediately begin work to re-purpose the still-majestic Michigan Central Station building into its Corktown Campus of retail, residential, and office space housing some 2,500 to 3,000 Ford employees involved in the development of autonomous automobiles. It is expected that the original design will be closely adhered to and it should be spectacular. The offices above the station will be the most modern available with the latest in high-tech equipment. It is hoped and expected that the lobby – the original public areas of the building – should retain the original Beaux-Arts design with its features of Doric columns, copper skylight, marble walls and floors, vaulted carved ceilings, and great Roman arched windows. It should feature restaurants and boutiques to attract shoppers to the area, all part of the renaissance of the historic Corktown area of a now-renewing city. Ford plans to spend approximately $1.3 billion U.S. in addition to tax incentives received.
Why should we, as Canadians, be excited about this massive development? We share the Detroit River frontier with our American friends and our histories have intertwined since 1679 when French explorer Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle, sailed up the river on his ship Griffon.
Trains of the New York Central Railroad for many decades graced the tracks of the Michigan Central Canada Division across the southwestern Ontario “short cut” into the Michigan Central Station in Detroit. Many were the Canadians who were employed by the Michigan Central in offices, roundhouses, stations, shops, control towers, and in on-board jobs like engineers and conductors.
While gazing on the great skyscrapers of downtown Detroit, we have long grieved the dilapidation of the grand railroad masterpiece that the Michigan Central Station was. The Ford Motor Company, part of our shared Detroit-Wayne/Windsor-Essex history, has seen fit to fully restore this magnificent edifice, one of our most important joint historical icons, admired from the south side of the Detroit River daily.
We must appreciate that the lovely Essex Railway Station was only two station stops east from the MCR Detroit Station when both were still in active use. Those who love architectural beauty will marvel at the renewed visual aspects of this great building and revel in the return to life of this great icon of the railroad age. We should heartily celebrate this forthcoming restoration of the former Michigan Central Railroad’s grand Detroit station – truly a historical treasure to be shared and enjoyed by Americans and Canadians alike.”
Rock on Trains © 2022, Tom Rock + T.D.R. Productions. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Tom Rock is strictly prohibited.