Canadian Corner: History of the Canada Division of the Michigan Central Railroad

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.

My Train Recollections: John Uhelski

Mr. John Uhelski, my friend and fellow train buff, shares his train recollections with us this month. Thanks for your memories, John!

johnuhelskiMy train watching addiction began at and early age; I, too, remember the trains at the Detroit Zoo, but also grew up with Grand Trunk Western steam at places like Brush Street Station and Eastern Market in Detroit. I also recall freight and passenger trains at the classic Birmingham Station with the high platforms.

My dad was a salaried Ford Motor Company employee, so he took my brother and me on a GTW steam-powered trip from Detroit to Pontiac in the late 1950s. Years later, I was at one of the meetings of the AATTW when Emery Gulash was showing his GTW steam slides and I saw the photos he’d taken. I mentioned that I was on this trip, and he replied, “This was a private Ford employees special; how did you get to ride on it?” I told him about my dad and it all made sense. Mr. Gulash and I remained friends for many years and stood side by side along the ROW in future train journeys over the years before his passing.

Not to dismiss the diesel engines that replaced the iron horses of my youth, my Dad often took us to the many junctions in the Detroit area. We spent much time at places like Wayne Jct, Romulus, Carleton, Milan and South Lyon, watching the growlers bounce over the diamonds in the 1960s. Great memories of climbing the tower steps to visit the operators, waiting for the bell announcing an upcoming train, throwing switch and semaphore levers to “help” the operator. All that’s left now are silver boxes trackside and memories.

In the late 50s and early 60s, we vacationed “up north” around the Petoskey, Michigan area of the northern lower peninsula. The C&O and EJ&S got the once-over by my family. I have vivid memories of C&O spotless E-Units on passenger trains and GP-30s on freights. Old #6 on the EJ&S was a treat for us steam-starved train nuts then.

My first real freight ride was in 1967 on the C&O from Petoskey to Central Lake, MI. We were at the Petoskey station and the train was about to depart southbound when a request was made to hitch a ride.  The friendly conductor told me, “You cannot ride in the caboose, but if you find an open box car, I will turn my head while you jump on.” To this day, I cannot believe that my parents allowed this trip. It was a perfect Michigan summer day with blue sky and lakeside breezes. The trip was magical for me and I only wish I had taken my Kodak Instamatic along for the ride. The crew dropped me off at the Drawbridge Road crossing, just north of Central Lake, MI, where I had a short walk back to my grandparents’ cabin on Benway Lake.  I was walking on air, a railfan for life!

I have countless more snapshot memories like this and could go on for days. My first ever train photo was of an eastbound NYC freight at the Henry Ruff Road crossing in Inkster, MI, led by a set of ALCO cab units. The B&W image is speed- and nerve-blurred , but I have it to this day. First color photos were of cigar band NYC E-Units on long passenger trains at the classic depot in Ann Arbor, MI. My aunt and uncle lived in this town , walking distance from the depot. Our tradition was as follows: visit with Ethyl and Rolland, eat dinner at the Old German Restaurant, then head to the depot in the late afternoon/evening for the passenger rush. I can remember the massive waiting room there, foot steps echoing on the tile floors. Then the show began, east and west bound varnish, pulled by sets of big E-Units. The spotless stainless steel cars hinted of exotic far away places and had to be documented with my trusty Instamatic camera — then, the wait for processing soon after.  All quaint memories in this digital age of instant gratification.

Rock on Trains © 2021, 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.

Grand Trunk Western Railway Steam Feature for January 2021

Featured steam subjects this month include various locomotive classes of the Grand Trunk Western Railway around the Brush St. station in Detroit, Michigan on August 13, 1956:

  • GTW #5630
  • GTW #5631
  • GTW #5633
  • GTW #6038
  • GTW #6335
  • GTW #6407

All photos courtesy of Mr. John Dziobko, Jr.,

Rock on Trains © 2021, 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.

Canadian Corner/Depot Doings: Kingsville, Ontario, Canada

On the Pere Marquette / C&O Rwy

The depot at Kingsville, Ontario, Canada was built in 1889 on the Lake Erie, Essex and Detroit River Railway. Originally owned by Hiram Walker, the line and depot later became part of the Pere Marquette Railroad. Still later, it was acquired by the Chesapeake & Ohio which owns the depot today, although it is no longer used for passenger service.

Kingsville is located about thirty miles east of Windsor, Ontario on what used to be a single track between Windsor and St. Thomas. East of St. Thomas, the C&O uses ex-New York Central tracks. Several C&O freight trains still pass over this route on the way to Buffalo, New York. Those trains, coming from Detroit through the Michigan Central railroad tunnel, take the Penn Central out to a Pelton Interlocking where they switch to the C&O mainline. Passenger train service on the Pere Marquette line ended in the mid-1920’s; however, many of the depots on the line were eventually refurbished for freight-only service. The first floor originally consisted of a Ticket Office, located where the semicircular bay window is at trackside, a Gent’s Waiting Room, a Ladies’ Waiting Room and a combination Freight and Baggage Room where stairs to the second floor are located.

The second floor consists of a small hallway from the stairs leading to a single large chamber that has a series of small windows facing trackside. To the left of the bay window is an opened and curved covered porch that adjoins a porte-cochere to the rear of the building. It was probably once used as a carriage entry and exit point. When the depot was first built there was a raised platform in the Freight and Baggage Room which occupied about half the room next to the large freight door. Another platform of equal height joined this same wall on the exterior of the building. Both were used for the handling of freight and baggage. The exterior platform no longer exists but it is shown in the drawings.

The chimney, like the exterior walls, is of stone and the roof peak joints are covered with a galvanized iron projection. All windows on the first floor are set in deep casements and entry doors are crowned with an arched design.

The Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad still staffs the Kingsville depot with a part-time agent. The former waiting room is now used as a storeroom and kitchenette for the maintenance-of-way crews.

Article courtesy of the Mainline Modeler April 1990
Text Credit: Julian Cavalier
Drawings made expressly for Mainline Modeler. Copies of these drawings may be made for noncommercial use only.

The depot slowly fell into disrepair in the 80’s with its abandonment. The timeless images below were taken from 1972 to 2003 and reflect on the station’s many years of neglect. Through tireless efforts and what seemed like constant delays, the citizens of Kingsville prevailed in keeping this exquisite piece of railroad architecture preserved for future generations. After full restoration, the depot now houses a beautiful Mediterranean-style restaurant, Mettawas Station.

Rock on Trains © 2020, 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.

My Train Recollections: Bob Mitchell

April’s train recollections come to us from Mr. Bob Mitchell. Thanks for sharing your memories, Bob!

Bob Mitchell Photo“Windsor, Ontario, the Canadian city on the south shore of the Detroit River, was (and still is) a major industrial city like its big brother on the north shore. In the 1940’s it was laced with railroad tracks, both Canadian and American, having such names as Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, Chesapeake and Ohio, Wabash, New York Central and Essex Terminal, the latter being the tie that bound all the others together. This was my birthplace and hometown and having come from a railroad family, I was steeped in and passionate for steam locomotives and everything that was associated with them. In fact, I loved all things that traveled on steel rails. The narrow gauge railroad that ran through the Detroit Zoological Park qualified for this. This was reached after a quick trip through the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel and an exciting ride on the old Peter Witt and PCC cars of the Detroit Street Railways. They glided and clanged up Woodward Avenue from Campus Martius towards Royal Oak where the wonders of this great zoo and its superb railroad beckoned.

My love of all things rail began with my grandparents. Granddad was a station agent with the Canadian Pacific Railway at Indian Head, Saskatchewan, way out west. The dreaded disease called Polio was so concentrated in the Detroit-Windsor area in the 1940’s and it affected so very many kids. Because of this, my Mom, who loved trains even more than I did, having been born in the upstairs residence of a CPR station, took me off to western Canada with her every summer for several years for a visit to Indian Head. There the outbreak wasn’t so bad. Did you know that the baggage cars between Windsor and Toronto carried an Iron Lung for transporting polio-stricken kids to Sick Childrens’ Hospital? West from Ontario, we enjoyed the comforts of the splendid heavyweight tuscan red sleepers and diners available to us on the crack Train #7 – The Dominion – pulled by beautiful Royal Hudson steam locomotives unique to the Canadian Pacific. The dining cars of the day were something to behold with their tables clothed in white linens and adorned with flowers in crystal vases, their cherry-wood paneling, brass fixtures, and the heavenly smells from the kitchen that were beyond belief! The service was impeccable with rules of serving having been set down long ago by William C. Van Horne, famous president of the CPR responsible for pushing the railway across Canada and through the Canadian Rockies. The train delivered us right to Granddad’s platform at Indian Head, the station being a regular stop on the transcontinental main line of the CPR. During one of those visits, we arrived at the height of one of those violent prairie storms. The power was out, and there was my rain-soaked Granddad, complete with railroad lantern, greeting all detainees at the step box. I spent many a wonderful day watching the activity around the “prairie skyscraper” grain elevators that lined the track and the comings and goings of the mainline freights from Granddad’s bay window. Mike, Granddad’s Irish Setter, was my pal. He met the dining car of each passenger train in his quest for table scraps and leftover bones. All the crews along the line knew Granddad and Mike.

Back in Windsor, I saw my first diesel locomotive at the Pillette Road crossing of the Wabash. It was a London-built GMD F7, resplendant in the famous blue and silver livery with the Wabash flag on the nose. These engines were manufactured exclusively for use between Windsor and Buffalo.

Over the years, I studied everything I could about North American railroads, specializing in the age of steam. I was a volunteer with the Canadian Railroad Historical Associations’s now-defunct Salem and Hillsborough Railroad in New Brunswick, Canada where we operated a very fine dinner train and a steam excursion train for many years. I also worked with a wonderful group of volunteers, the Southern Ontario Locomotive Restoration Society, that cosmetically restored ex-CNR 5588. This is a 1911 Grand Trunk product that sits on Windsor’s riverfront overlooking the beautiful Detroit skyline. It marks the spot where the first train arrived in Windsor (and to Detroit from the east) in 1854. How fortunate I have been to have had a life-long love of trains. I now share this by teaching Canadian railroad history with ElderCollege, a southwestern Ontario educational enrichment group associated with Canterbury College of the University of Windsor.”

Rock on Trains © 2020, 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.