Michigan Central Station

Detroit’s place along the Great Lakes made it an ideal location for rail and boat traffic bringing supplies from the east coast. The Michigan Central Railroad was the first to be chartered in the west, building a station on Jefferson at Woodward Avenue in 1836. As the line grew in length, eventually connecting Buffalo to Chicago via Detroit. In 1884 the company built a new terminal at the corner of Third and West Jefferson, commonly known as the Michigan Central Railroad Depot. But by the early 1900’s the amount of freight traffic and passengers being carried by the railway began to exceed all expectations. The construction of a rail tunnel under the Detroit River in 1906 necessitated plans for a new rail station south of downtown.

The construction of Michigan Central Station, or MCS, would be a monumental undertaking. Located at the junction of 15th and Dalzelle Streets, the station would consist of two buildings: a three-story train depot, and an 18-story office tower, making it the tallest railroad station in the world. Passengers would arrive by streetcar or carriage and enter a soaring waiting room flanked by Corinthian columns, purchase a ticket, and board their train via an underground tunnel that led to the tracks behind the station. Restaurants, a newspaper stand, a drugstore and a barber shop provided for every need that a travel might have.

Construction began in 1910 and was largely finished in 1913 at a cost of over $15 million dollars. While the scheduled opening date for MCS was January 4th, 1914, the station had to be pressed into service when old one burned to the ground on December 26th. Dan Austin of HistoricDetroit.org writes that “Newspapers reported at the time that within a half hour after officials were certain the old station was doomed, arrangements were made for trains to start using the new one. At 5:20 p.m., the first train left the new station for Saginaw and Bay City, Mich.; an hour later, the first train arrived, having steamed in from Chicago.”

Over the station’s 75 year run millions of people passed through its halls, bound for destinations across the country. During the First and Second World Wars, the station served as an embarkation point for tens of thousands of soldiers heading into conflict. But by the 1950’s passenger rail travel began a decline from which it would never recover as people began using cars and buses. The waiting room closed in 1967, along with many of the shops. Penn Central, which had absorbed the Michigan Central line went bankrupt in 1970 and was folded into the new national railroad: Amtrak.

Amtrak struggled to maintain MCS, which by the 1980’s was a shell of its former self. Barely a dozen trains called at the station each day, many of which departed nearly empty. Much of the office tower was vacant or used for storage. The station was too far from downtown, located in a rundown neighborhood, and cost a small fortune to maintain. In 1985, Amtrak announced it had sold the station to a New York realty company but continued to lease space until formally discontinuing rail service on January 5th, 1988.

The New York group wanted to convert the station into a retail and office development but couldn’t get the estimated $30 million dollars together. They sold the station in 1989 to Mark Longton Jr, who wanted to turn it into a casino. That plan fizzled too, and the station was old again in 1996 to Manuel "Matty" Moroun, a Canadian businessman who owned a trucking company and the nearby Ambassador Bridge. His plan to turn it into a trade and customs center went nowhere after it was announced in 2001. Every plan to redevelop the station was stymied by the high cost of rehabbing the building, which was falling into decay as routine maintenance stopped. Souvenir hunters and metal thieves stripped the building of nearly everything of value, leaving an empty husk towering over southwest Detroit.

The Moroun years were marked by big promises and little activity. A 2003 plan to turn it into the headquarters for the Detroit Police Department left city auditors scratching their heads, wondering exactly how the project would be paid for. By 2009 the building had deteriorated so badly that the city tried to have it demolished on an emergency basis but could not afford the estimated $5 to $10 million dollars it would cost. And so, the station sat in limbo, too expensive to renovate, and too expensive to tear down.

That is not to say that MCS was forgotten. On the contrary, the station gained a popularity as it fell apart that had eluded it while in operation. People came from around the world to see the station and take pictures of it, climbing up to the roof in packs of two and three. Film makers, including Michael Bay used the station as a backdrop for films including The Island, Transformers, and Batman Vs. Superman. Homeless camps would spring up in the waiting room and halls, only to be chased out by police. The station even had unofficial residents who call it home for years.

The Moroun family was heavily criticized for allowing the station to decay, leading to conflicts with the City over the future of the site. Finally in 2011 MCS began seeing limited work aimed at stabilizing the building, starting with the replacement of the roof and cleanup of debris. Electricity was restored to the station in 2012 along with interior and exterior lighting, followed by replacement of most exterior windows in 2015. By 2017 work had progressed to the point where an indoor social event could be held in the waiting room.

Ownership of the station changed hands once again in March of 2018, when it was announced that Ford Motor Company had bought the station from the Morouns. Ford’s plans for the station and surrounding buildings, including the former book depository include converting into a campus of autonomous vehicle research. The project is expected to take four years at a cost of $740 million dollars. Work formally began in late 2018.