History Stories

Michigan Central Station was once the tallest train station in the world. Then as Detroit fell on hard times, so did its train hub. Can its rebirth help revitalize Motor City?

In 1913, when it opened its doors to passengers, the 18-story, 500,000 square-foot Michigan Central Station was the tallest rail station in the world. But it was more then just a transportation hub; the station, with vaulted ceilings and marble floors, represented Detroit’s new-found industrial might and its soaring expectations for the future.

For the past three decades, however, the station has come to symbolize something very different: urban blight and the decline of a once great city.

In June 2018, Ford Motor Co. announced that it planned to restore the building to its past glory, turning it into a 21st-century technology hub that would bring innovation and jobs to the city that would, in turn, inspire Detroit’s economic revival. But the question remains: Can the restoration of Michigan Central Station transform a city burdened by high crime, massive unemployment and stubborn levels of poverty?

The Michigan Central Train Station

Michigan Central Railroad Station with Canadian Pacific trains in foreground, 1927. (Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library)

The station once served as Detroit’s Ellis Island, greeting thousands of passengers every day eager to find new work and a new life. It was also the heart of Detroit’s industrial empire, pumping thousands of people through the arteries of the city’s thriving automobile industry. The year that Central Station greeted its first riders, Ford was turning out 200,000 cars a year. By 1920, 200 trains passed through Central Station every day and Ford was producing 1 million cars a year.

The station, constructed by the same architects who built Grand Central Terminal in New York, was designed to inspire. It consisted of an ornate, three-story station and an 18-story office tower that stood south of Michigan Avenue and a mile west of downtown. The station had its own restaurants, barbershop and newsstands. It even had Roman-style baths where passengers could freshen up before or after a long trip. The centerpiece of the station was the ornate waiting room with marble floors, 68-foot Corinthian columns, and soaring 54-and-a-half-foot ceilings adorned with large bronze chandeliers. Signs advertising trains—the Ambassador, the Detroiter, the Empire State Express and the Canadian Pacific—stood above the ticket counters. “The grandeur of the interior is something that will be lasting, for it is of marble, brick and bronze, all of this is set off by one of the best lighting schemes ever installed in a building,” the Detroit Free Press wrote in December 1913.

In a famous 1940 fireside chat President Franklin Roosevelt called on Americans to become the “arsenal of democracy,” turning from domestic to military production to aid the Allies in the battle against Hitler. Detroit answered the call. Assembly lines that once tuned out cars now churned out tanks, planes, rifles, and bullets…millions and millions of bullets. More than 4,000 passengers passed through the station every day, and it greeted Presidents Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman and Franklin Roosevelt along with actors Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson, and inventor Thomas Edison. By the middle of the century, people in Detroit enjoyed a higher rate of homeownership and higher median income than residents in any other major American city. Detroit, which claimed 500,000 in the year that Central Station was built, saw its population soar to 1.8 million in 1950.

The Michigan Central Train Station

View of travelers waiting in line at gates to tracks inside Michigan Central Railroad Station. (Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library)

Ironically, the automobile that been responsible for Detroit’s success also contributed to its decline. It allowed the white middle class to move to the suburbs, draining away the city’s much-needed tax revenue. Because it heavily depended on automobile manufacturing, Detroit was not well-equipped to deal with the influx of cheaper, more fuel-efficient cars from Japan and Europe in the 1970s. To reduce costs, auto companies moved manufacturing abroad, shuttered plants in Detroit and laid off workers.

Racial tension also contributed to Detroit’s decline. The city suffered from one of the worst racial riots in the nation’s history—a disturbance that left a deep and lasting scar. In July 1967, the Detroit exploded after the police raided an after-hours club frequented by African Americas. By the time it ended, 43 people had been killed and more than 2,000 buildings burned to the ground. “It looks like Berlin in 1945,” noted an observer. After the riots, whites flooded out of the city. More than 800,000 left in 1969 alone.

The past 30 years have not been kind to Detroit—or its train station. With the city’s population plummeting, and fewer commuters depended on train travel, passengers dried up; and the station, after several efforts to keep it alive, closed. At 11:30 AM on January 5, 1988, train number 353 headed to Chicago left the station, the last one to do so. The station’s demise foreshadowed the economic decline of Detroit. In July 2013 the city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection with a debt estimated between $18 billion and $20 billion. It was the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in history.

The Michigan Central Train Station

The main waiting room out of commission except for storage, circa 1960s. (Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library)

Walking through the station today you see reminders of its past glory alongside disturbing images of its decline. The bones are visible—the vaulted ceilings and concrete pillars, the ghosts of storefronts and the Roman baths. But vandals stripped the building of tiles, flooring and copper wiring, and destroyed the façade with sledgehammers. Water damage ruined much of the plaster work.

On June 19, 2018 the station served as a backdrop for Bill Ford, the company’s chairman and a great-grandson of founder Henry Ford, to announce his vision for the station and for Detroit. “100 years after Henry Ford’s assembly line revolutionized industry, we’re reimagining mobility,” he told a crowd of about 500 Ford employees. For Ford the future is about mobility. As population grows and cities become more crowded, he believes, carmakers need to rethink their mission. Ford is betting on technology. The future, he declared, “means smart cars, but also smart roads, smart parking, smart public transit systems, and ways for them all to talk to one another.”

Ford plans to make Central Station the centerpiece of a new campus that will include approximately 1.2 million square feet of property in Corktown (named because so many Irish immigrants from Cork settled there). It will serve the community with mixed-use space: offices, retail and residential housing. The initial proposal includes locating approximately 2,500 Ford employees, most from its mobility team, to Corktown by 2022.

The Michigan Central Train Station

Michigan Central Train Station, 2008. (Credit: Timothy Fadek/Corbis/Getty Images)

Ford is not the only company betting on a Detroit revival. Two Detroit natives, Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert and Little Caesars pizza creator Michael Ilitch, have invested in downtown stadiums, newly built office space and entertainment facilities.

But Detroit remains a deeply distressed city. Its population has dwindled and is now only slightly higher than when Central Station was built. It has among the highest rates of violent crime, unemployment and poverty in the nation, and it has recently been ranked as the least desirable city in the country to live.

Detroit’s future will depend not only on massive investments from companies like Ford, but on the spirit of residents in this resilient city. One promising sign: The vandal who stole the wrought-iron clock that greeted visitors at the station has offered to return it. “I loved that clock,” he wrote in anonymous email, “and I loved that station.” That is a good start.

Steven M. Gillon, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, is the Scholar-in-Residence at HISTORY. He has authored numerous books on American history, including the recent Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism, (Basic, 2018)

History Reads is a weekly series featuring work from Team History, a group of experts and influencers, exploring history’s most fascinating questions.

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