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Michigan Central Station is a symbol of Detroit’s century of growth and decay

Central Station in Detroit
Michigan Central Station has symbolized Detroit's past century of growth and decay.

Thirty years ago this week, on January 5, 1988, the last train left Michigan Central Station. That moment marked the end of nearly 75 years of Michiganders catching trains at the once-proud station.

Dan Austin, who has written three books about Detroit history and founded HistoricDetroit.org, and Mark Harvey, state archivist from the Michigan History Center, joined Stateside to discuss the station's legacy.

Listen above for the full conversation, or read highlights below.

On Michigan Central in its heyday

Michigan Central was the tallest rail station in the world when it opened in 1913, according to Austin. For so many arriving in Detroit, Michigan Central was the first sight of a grand and elegant city on the rise.

“The waiting room is done up like the old baths of ancient Rome with the sixty-five foot ceiling,” he said. “It was really a grand statement.”

On changes in 1970s

Michigan Central continued to be a major transportation hub well into the 20th century, though the construction of the interstate system in the 1950s made a dent in its popularity. In the 1970s, however, the rail industry declined and Michigan Central was no longer quite as important for getting people around. Amtrak, which took control of Michigan Central in 1971, “tried to pump some new life into the station,” said Harvey. But even with the re-opening of the grand waiting room, the station lacked a connection to the airport, and its western location was too inconvenient for most travelers.

By 1988, Michigan Central had already become run-down and grimy, said Austin. Detroit was declining in the 1980s, and after the station closed, it became prone to vandalism. 

“It really was an undignified way to end what had been this grandiose building and such a symbol of pride. It quickly became the symbol of Detroit’s decay,” Austin added.

On whether it can be salvaged and redeveloped

There have been plenty of attempts to revitalize Michigan Central, but often the barrier is money. “You’re looking at a building that is so big. I mean it’s 18 stories tall. The waiting room would take probably $100 million on its own,” said Austin. “It’s just really hard to make that money work.”

However, there is optimism in the air as plenty of old Detroit buildings have been restored in the last few years. “If Detroit can turn around this symbol of its decay and turn it into a symbol of its rebirth, I mean that would just be such a story for Detroit,” he said.

Credit Michigan History Center
The "salvaged from the garbage" as built plans for the Michigan Central Station. Now archived at the Michigan History Center.

Check out these videos for more on Michigan Central's history.

This segment is produced in partnership with the Michigan History Center.

Stateside originally aired this segment on January 3, 2018.

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