Michigan Central Station, From Riches to Relics … to Riches Again?

From bustle and acclaim to abandonment and dereliction, Detroit’s Michigan Central Station is a living manifestation of the 20th-century demise of Midwest passenger rail in the age of the automobile. Now, the station houses a mobility innovation district that brings with it promises of a bright transit future. Cover graphic by Jason Mecchi for Midstory.

In 1805, a fire razed Detroit to the ground.

In a search for optimism during the aftermath of the fire, displaced Detroiters landed on a new motto for the city: “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus,” Latin for “We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes.”

And indeed it did: By the end of the century came the Michigan Central Railroad, a subsidiary of the New York Central Railroad, which operated out of a depot near the Detroit River and Third Street.

Detroit fell victim to yet another major fire in 1913, this time incapacitating the bustling depot at Third Street. Rising from the ashes of the original train depot was Michigan Central Station, a veritable Beaux-Arts masterpiece and the tallest train station in the world at the time of its construction.

The station had a complicated future ahead of it: the behemoth would hear the din of 200 trains and 4,000 passengers per day in the 1910s and 1920s; the cracking of windows and the sizzling of spray paint cans in the 1990s and 2000s; and the cheers of Detroiters at the announcement of its redevelopment in 2018.

Today, Michigan Central Station stands as a harbinger of a sea change in Detroit’s centuries-long journey in technological innovation.

Michigan’s Passenger Rail Heyday

Before automobiles and air travel were readily available to the masses during the post-war period, rail was the only reliable, convenient way to move any freight or passenger traffic. During the first few decades of the 20th century, passenger rail played a critical role in the development of cities and towns across Michigan.

“People in Michigan desperately wanted to have a railroad in their community and they would do almost anything to get it; towns literally lived or died by rail service, and a railroad station was a focal point of any community,” Bob Myers, the director of education at the Historical Society of Michigan, said.

Although the Detroit-Chicago route was the busiest, the Michigan Central Railroad (part of the larger Michigan rail system) reached the northernmost extremities of the Lower Peninsula.

“I recall one little town in Michigan where a railroad was planned to come through. But when they ran the railway, they ran it a mile away,” Myers said. “The town leaders couldn’t get the railroad company to divert the line about a mile to come into their town, so when the railroad opened, they just moved the whole town a mile over. Ultimately, if you didn’t have a railroad in your town, you didn’t have a town.”

Image courtesy of Boston Public Library via Wikimedia Commons.

Of the passenger stations lining Michigan’s peak railroad system length of over 9,000 miles in the 1910s, Detroit’s Michigan Central Station was the most impressive — in terms of both ridership numbers and architectural character. The station bore a notable resemblance to New York’s ornate Grand Central Terminal, having been designed by the same architects: Warren & Wetmore and Reed & Stem.

“It wasn’t simply a utilitarian building; it was an architecturally beautiful building,” Myers said. “You really stepped up in quality when you got to Michigan Central Station. They put a lot of money into it, and it was to impress people.”

In its heyday, Michigan Central Station was a national epicenter of passenger rail.

“Detroit was an enormously important hub and industrial powerhouse, regionally and nationally; if you were traveling from any major city on the East Coast, you were usually going through Detroit,” Myers said.

Decline Into Urban Decay

The decline of Detroit’s passenger rail infrastructure, beginning in the 1920s and escalating during the post-war period, came as a direct consequence of the automobile’s increasing popularity and accessibility.

“In the 1920s, the automobile really started to become practical,” Myers said. “Thus, the automobile began to take the place of the rail passenger service, and that really came into play during the postwar era: automobiles became quite practical as the roads improved, making it possible to seamlessly drive across the state. Then, finally, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, with the interstate highway system, cars really took off.”

Another reason for the decline in passenger rail was that there were simply fewer people in the city to fill passenger train cars; many Detroiters began to flee to the suburbs after its peak in population during the 1950s. This downward trend, compounded by the rise of the automobile, continued for decades until the final nail in the coffin came.

The Michigan Central Station in 1980. Image courtesy of Hikki Nagasaki via Wikimedia Commons.

In January 1988, Amtrak ceased rail operations at Michigan Central Station in favor of a modest station in the New Center neighborhood, leaving the behemoth to decay along with much of the rest of Detroit’s infrastructure.

In the following years, Michigan Central Station fell victim to vandalism and extensive ruins photography, becoming a notorious destination for urban exploration and a symbol of Detroit’s sharp and significant decline. The station came under ownership of the Moroun family in 1995 and was encircled by barbed wire late in the 2000s.

The long-abandoned station faced certain death in April 2009, when the Detroit City Council voted in favor of an emergency demolition. The decision, which was spurred by the hazardous state of the building, was ultimately halted by a lawsuit citing the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, a mayoral turnover and debates over funding.

Michigan Central, No Station

An announcement in May 2018 regarding the station’s refurbishment rekindled a fire in the hearts and minds of Detroiters — finally, something was to come of decades-long legal and municipal squabbles over the building. But what?

Michigan Central Station was acquired by none other than Ford Motor Company.

Out of this acquisition came Michigan Central, a Ford subsidiary spearheading the station’s resurrection. The Moroun family engaged in comparatively modest rehabilitation efforts, such as ridding the station of asbestos, renewing the landscaping and replacing all 1,050 windows; yet, none of their endeavors were nearly as dramatic as Ford’s, whose efforts oversaw a complete gut and renovation of the building.

“There is a kind of irony that the automotive company that did a lot to put rail passenger service [almost] out of existence is now occupying Michigan Central Station,” Myers said. “But it remains a great example of adaptive reuse.”

Architecturally, Michigan Central Station’s renovation has been exceedingly meticulous.

“They reopened an inactive marble quarry so that they could harvest marble that matched the original grain,” Dan Austin, the director of editorial and communications at Michigan Central, said. “It’s really something special. When people walk in there, if they didn’t know better, they would never think that it ever was abandoned.”

Michigan Central Station is rapidly transforming before the eyes of Detroiters from a neglected stain on Detroit’s history to a potential magnet: an anchor for the Michigan Central Innovation District, a project intending to both keep Detroiters home and bring others to Detroit.

The Michigan Central Innovation District is Ford’s larger mobility campus in Corktown, which will comprise four smaller developments around Michigan Central Station. According to the Michigan Central website, the Innovation District is focused on the future of mobility on the streets and around the station, and the campus will be “the world’s most ambitious innovation district.”

“It’s really a Detroit-centric, resident-focused effort,” Austin said. “We’ve seen enough developments — not just in Detroit, but around the country — where, when a lot of money and investment is poured into a community, it can change the fabric of it. So the best thing that we could do would be to have regular community engagement.” 

According to Austin, Michigan Central is also partnering with Detroit at Work to offer free training to Detroit residents for in-demand tech jobs — such as electric vehicle charging station technicians.

Nonetheless, Detroiters continue to experience a lack of adequate access to mobility.

“Detroit, despite being the Motor City, sees about a third of its residents without reliable access to a car. This city is 139 square miles. It is huge,” Austin said.

Michigan Central Station as seen from above, 2020. Image by Carol M. Highsmith via Library of Congress.

As of January 2024, Michigan Central has no plan to reintroduce public transit to the station. The station will, however, retain four of its passenger tracks — down from 11 during the era of its Amtrak service — in the event that rail makes a return to Corktown.

“Michigan Central Station is mostly programmed, and at this time the train station will not be a train station again, but that does not mean that we couldn’t work with Amtrak, Canada’s Via Rail and many other partners to explore ways to bring passenger rail back to the station,” Austin said. “Our CEO, Josh Sirefman, has gone on record himself talking about how we’d love for rail to come back because rail is a major source of mobility and transportation everywhere else in the world.”

For now, Michigan Central is focusing its efforts on innovation for EV automobiles. The company is also looking to explore aerial mobility in the form of drones.

“Ultimately, we really want Michigan Central to belong to Detroit — not Ford, not startups that are here and not any of the other Fortune 500 Companies,” Austin said. “There’s so much more to what we’re doing than just saving a single building. It’s really about lifting the city even higher than it’s been lifted to date.”

In the meantime, Detroiters are hoping the now-decades-old motto continues to ring true for public transit: speramus meliora; resurget cineribus.

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