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“When the trains pulled into their terminals, the migrants jostled against one another as they began to gather up their belongings. Finally, they filed onto platforms already mobbed with passengers and porters. Many must have paused, unsure of what to do and where to go, then simply decided to follow the flow of people up the stairs to the station’s grand concourses. There they faced for the first time the grandeur of the city …

“Detroit's Michigan Central Station was a Beaux Arts masterpiece, a four-story colonnade dominated by a sequence of ornate arches and glittering chandeliers…

“If they were lucky, the newcomers had friends or relatives waiting; they'd scour the crowds for familiar faces or hope to hear some voice calling their name, some voice they prayed they still might recognize. There would be the moments of reunion, hands outstretched in greeting, the sudden comforts of warm embraces. Others had no one to meet them. How terrifying it must have been to work through the waves of people alone, to step through the terminal's doors and onto the street without a guide .... Detroit's station faced a large park ringed by hotels and boardinghouses and beyond that, Michigan Avenue, the busiest thoroughfare on the city's west side .… All the streets pulsed with energy. Pedestrians, newsboys, shoeshine men, and redcaps crowded the sidewalks. Cabbies jockeyed for fares. Automobile horns blasted as drivers battled for places at the curb. Streetcars clanged by, jammed with riders. In the clamor, no one paid attention to a colored man or woman standing alone, wondering where to go and how to make his way in a new America.”


- From Kevin Boyle's biography of Dr. Ossian Sweet, Arc of Justice. 


Opened in late 1913 at Michigan and West Vernor Highway, Detroit’s Michigan Central Station replaced Union Depot, which operated at 3rd and Jefferson from 1884 to 1913.


Michigan Central Station was built about ¾ of a mile west of downtown with the hope that it would anchor additional development, which would be bolstered by increased trade with Canada through a 2.5-mile-long rail tunnel below the Detroit River. Warren & Wetmore, the architects behind New York’s Grand Central Station, designed the Michigan Central in Beaux Arts Classic style. The depot’s two-story entrance hall featured a spacious waiting room, 97 feet wide by 230 feet long, which led to a grand concourse featuring marble columns and a five-story-high domed ceiling.

DHS 16 MI Centrl Statn Waiting Rm Orig


In its heyday, the Michigan Central saw more than 200 trains leave each day and lines stretched from the boarding gates to the main entrance. When visiting Detroit, Presidents Herbert Hoover, Harry S. Truman, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, actor Charlie Chaplin, artists Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo, and inventor Thomas Edison disembarked at the depot. Thousands of Detroit-bound black and white Southerners also traveled by train to Michigan Central Station, hoping to find jobs in the city. As late as the 1940s, more than 4,000 passengers used the station every day, and more than 3,000 worked in its 18-story office tower.


By the 1950s, passenger train traffic decreased as automobile and air travel offered attractive alternatives to rail transit. Michigan Central Station’s owners attempted repeatedly to sell the facility, beginning in 1956 for one-third of its original cost, but attracted no buyers. By 1967, the depot’s arcade shops and restaurant were closed. After assuming control of the nation’s passenger rail service in 1971, Amtrak revived the Michigan Central with a $1.25 million renovation program but ultimately chose to close the station in early 1988. For the next thirty years, the building deteriorated, graffiti covered the walls, and the Michigan Central Station became a symbol of urban decay.


Given its historical significance, the Michigan Central Station has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975. For many years, it was owned by billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun, whose business interests also included the Ambassador Bridge that connects Detroit and Windsor, Canada.  In 2018, however, the Ford Motor Company purchased the Michigan Central site for $90 million and is in the process of renovating the building and developing adjacent areas to create a new campus for research, development, and testing to produce autonomous vehicles. As planned, the project will encompass 1.25 million square feet of restored space in the station and other existing buildings in addition to the development of 45 vacant acres. Ford envisions that the Michigan Central complex will anchor a tech corridor stretching west from Detroit to Dearborn, Willow Run, and Ann Arbor. Executive Chairman Bill Ford foresees that Michigan Central, and the surrounding revitalized Corktown neighborhood, will serve “as the fulcrum for the company’s push into an autonomous and electrified world”, recreating “what mobility means for the modern times."  He hopes that the campus will have the same transformative impact on the future of transportation that the investors of California’s Sand Hill Road had in creating the venture capital funds that fueled the development of Silicon Valley.

 Bill Ford 180606 HR1CX ford0628Bill Ford at MI Central Station

Two hundred members of Ford’s Team Edison, its electric and autonomous vehicle business unit, moved into the “Factory,” a renovated building nearby on Michigan Avenue, prior to the announcement of the Michigan Central Station purchase. The Information Center at the Factory opened in late 2019 and provides the public with updates on the autonomous vehicle program and building renovations. As many as 2,500 Ford employees and an equal number from partner firms could work at the five-building campus when it is completed in 2022. In addition to Ford’s $740 million investment, some $250 million in public-sector tax incentives will support the project over a thirty-year period.


Click to view:

Train Station Will be Place of Possibility Again, a June 2018 Detroit Free Press feature that includes a 45 - image slide show of the history of Ford and the Michigan Central Station, architectural renderings of the completed project, and reports from the ceremony celebrating its rebirth.


Bill Ford’s Corktown Vision, a Detroit Free Press video from the ceremony (4 minutes) 



WRL.5 Immigrants lArrivals at Michigan Central Station (Date Unknown)


While the Guide has a strong focus on the area’s industrial and labor history, its tribute to the neighborhood’s auto legacy would be incomplete without shining a spotlight on the people who came from near and far to power the area’s manufacturing operations. Michigan Central Station was a key point of entry for those seeking employment in the Detroit auto industry. It seems only appropriate that their stories appear on this page.

Many of those who came to Detroit during the early years of the auto industry were single men, who often moved from job to job, looking for the best wages and the opportunity to work at all, given the industry's unsteady production schedules. Families arrived as well, and women often contributed financially by taking in boarders and doing laundry, baking, doing housekeeping and other chores in wealthy families' homes, or working in local businesses that developed in ethnic communities. People in those communities established churches, benevolent societies, and small businesses that reflected the cultural heritage of their countries of origin and of America’s Deep South.

Before presenting those accounts, it should be acknowledged that this area was known to Native Peoples as Waawiyaataanong, the ancestral and contemporary homeland of the Three Fires Confederacy. These sovereign lands were granted by the Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi, and Wyandot nations, in 1807, through the Treaty of Detroit.

Before year’s end, two essays will be posted that inaugurate the Guide’s survey of the diverse communities that called Southwest Detroit home in the course of its auto century. The first essay is by Dr. Louise-Hélène Filion, a visiting scholar and lecturer at the University of Michigan’s Residential College. She outlines the challenges of undertaking these inquiries when time and suburbanization have so drastically altered the neighborhood’s landscape. She also cautions that future discussions must highlight the voices of those of who have been overlooked in traditional narratives of the industry.

The second essay, by Aimee Shulman, a doctoral student at Wayne State University, traces the shift in policy in the 1950s that pressured Native Americans to relocate to the city, from their reservations on Northern Michigan and other areas, to find employment (without the benefit of social services that could have eased such a challenging transition). The Guide Team hopes to work with Native American leaders to provide additional context and detail to complement her essay.

The Guide Team has collaborated with activists in the Latino/a community to chronicle the stories of those who came to Southwest Detroit from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Latin America. That effort has benefitted considerably from a study being conducted by the City of Detroit’s Historic Preservation Advisory Board and consultants from the Kraemer Design Group. That project seeks to identify a historic site that can be nominated for recognition by the National Park Service’s Register of Historic Places. It is hoped that an overview essay tracing Southwest Detroit’s Latino/a’s auto roots will be posted in early 2024.

The launch of the Guide sets the stage for conversations with activists and scholars from the African American, Arab American, Irish, Maltese, Polish and other Easter European communities that will allow the Guide to complete its tribute to the neighborhood. To learn more about these efforts, email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..