Central to Everything

Thanks to George H. Webb, Michigan Central Railroad’s new depot in 1913 was a wonder of design and engineering.
Michigan Central Station lobby
The main lobby of Michigan Central Station was inspired by a Roman bathhouse with marble walls, a vaulted ceiling, and Doric columns. In addition to ticket windows, customers were treated to restaurants, arcade shops, and large waiting areas. // Photo courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

George H. Webb may have been frantic while building the Michigan Central Railroad’s new station in Detroit, but he was used to it. Trained as a civil engineer, Webb had spent a key period of his early career completing railroads in South America’s mountains. His experience and acumen qualified him to be the Michigan line’s chief engineer in 1905. 

“To (his) engineering skill and ability, the fine Michigan Central Station largely stands as a monument,” historian Clarence Burton would write of Webb. Unlike the previous
station, with its landmark roundhouse at Fort and Third streets, the new depot allowed incoming trains to park on straight tracks set below metal canopies, or sheds. 

Understanding every subtlety, Webb supervised the design by collaborating with two architectural firms — Warren and Wetmore, and Reed and Stem — that had earned renown with New York’s Grand Central Terminal. 

Instead of being squeezed onto a cumbrous riverside site, the new station sprawled over five acres between 15th and 17th streets, just south of Michigan Avenue. The location was about a half-mile west of the river tunnel. The contractor, George A. Fuller Co. in Chicago, started the $15-million project in April of 1912. 

Tests had determined a thick slab — 30,000 pounds of concrete and 500 tons of rebar — could be laid over the clay soil, and soon the combination passenger terminal and office building started to rise. In all, the edifice required 7,000 tons of structural steel, about 125,000 cubic feet of stone, 1.5 million facing bricks, and 7 million plain bricks. 

Another 3,500 tons of steel went into the external train shed, which was of the modular type developed a few years earlier by engineer Lincoln Bush. The well-lit, ventilated shed sheltered 11 passenger trains. Outside tracks provided for seven different freight trains and abutted an express office. 

A spacious subway for arriving and departing passengers went beneath the tracks. On average, the station — with its expansive, well-appointed lobby — served 5,000 people per day. There was plenty of extra capacity for peak travel times. 

Typical of how self-propelled equipment influenced the design of everything from ships to factories, the station’s scheme depended on small electric vehicles to move baggage in and out. Northwest of the train shed, the modern coach yard enabled testing, repair, and cleaning of coaches inside 200-foot-long warming houses. A special pit made it possible to remove and replace a heavy wheel in 11 minutes. 

Towering 232 feet high, the I-shaped office building was advanced in its own ways. It offered 250,000 square feet of bright space for railroad offices. Features included a steam-driven vacuum pump and five vacuum connections in every corridor; a janitor could clean 3,000 square feet in an hour. Filtered, brine-cooled water circulated to drinking fountains all over the station and office tower. 

A grand opening had been scheduled for Jan. 4, 1914, but the new station went into service sooner due to a major fire at the old depot. On Dec. 26, 1913, the first train pulled in at 5:20 p.m., initiating the new era. But Webb didn’t stick around. After the United States entered World War I, he joined the 16th Regiment of Engineers and built railroads in France. 

For more than 40 years, Michigan Central Station was Detroit’s supreme gateway. That began to change when streetcars stopped running in the 1950s, and people arriving by car found little on-site parking. Competition from airlines and new interstate highways
also became a factor. 

After passenger service ended in 1988, the station was abandoned, largely stripped by vandals, and became a major symbol of Detroit’s blight. While some restoration work, including the installation of new windows, by the structure’s present owners, the Moroun
family, has occurred, the building’s status is undetermined. 

And with each new day, fewer Detroiters recall the sound of whistles blowing and the sight of steam billowing from the passenger and freight locomotives. 

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