The Backstory: Laying tracks to Ann Arbor

These days, you can hop in a car and get to Florida in about a day. You can get to the airport, board a plane, and land on another continent in less than eight hours. You can even use a combination of a plane and boat and get yourself to Antarctica.

Such travel would have been unthinkable to early Ann Arborites. The city's founders, John Allen and Elisha Rumsey, took more than a week to travel from Detroit to here, using horses and a sleigh. The arrival of the train in Ann Arbor was not only a first step toward faster travel times, but the beginning of a transportation revolution, one that would connect the two coasts of our country.

The first local, printed mention of a transcontinental railroad appeared in a paper called The Western Immigrant of Ann Arbor* in 1832. Later that same year, the Detroit & St. Joseph Railroad was chartered, planning a railway that would span our state. In 1833, the Erie & Kalamazoo Railroad laid the first tracks in Michigan between Adrian and Toledo. Three years later, the railroad company went to Detroit and began laying track headed west. The trains reached Ypsilanti by 1838, and Ann Arbor in October of 1839. A train trip from Detroit to Ann Arbor took about 2.5 hours, compared to an entire day by horse and buggy.

The Michigan Central Railroad incorporated in 1846, and six years later the tracks reached Chicago. The first depot in Ann Arbor was built in 1845 and is lost to history. Fortunately, the one built 41 years later continues to delight passersby today.

In 1886, architect Frederick Spiers collaborated with William C. Rohn to build the beautiful structure at 401 Depot Street. The style the men used was called "Richardsonian Romanesque," which has been described as an incorporation of 11th and 12th century French design. The elegant depot used stones that were mined at Four Mile Lake, and was called "the finest station…between Buffalo and Chicago." Pictures and written descriptions from the era confirm this compliment. Inside the depot, travelers walked on French tile floors. They looked up at stained glass windows and red oak ceilings. Outside, people enjoyed flower gardens and a fountain.

In addition to carrying people, the trains carried goods. The importance of this interstate commerce cannot be understated. In the mid-1800s, having a railroad depot could literally make or break a small community. Ann Arbor not only had the MCRR line, but also had the Ann Arbor Railroad, familiarly called "the Annie." This rail service began in 1878, ultimately providing transportation between Frankfort and Toledo. A small train depot was built at 416 South Ashley Street. And Ann Arbor can thank that street's namesake, James "Big Jim" Ashley for this north-south railway.

Big Jim started thinking about a north-south railroad line when he realized that he could only visit his sons in Ann Arbor by traveling to Detroit. He bought up stock in a defunct railroad company, and then resold the stock to local investors. The railroad reached the city on May 16, 1878. After that, Ashley kept building the line in the northwest direction. Ultimately, the tracks led to Frankfort, then known for its harbor service.

Meanwhile, back in Ann Arbor, residents enjoyed taking the Annie up to Whitmore Lake for dancing or sunbathing. The summer traffic was so heavy that eight trains a day ran between the two cities; the run was named the "Ping Pong Special."

Today, part of the Ann Arbor Railroad is owned by the state, and part of the rails are owned by a private company. Amtrak uses the former MCRR route as part of its east-west line, running the Wolverine passenger train three times each day. Built in 1983, the Amtrak station sits just to the west of the original depot, and recently had a major upgrade when an ADA compliant platform was added.

Currently, there is debate about where to put a new train station, with options including Depot Street on in Fuller Park. Lucky for us all, that majestic 1886 train depot has been maintained as the upscale Gandy Dancer restaurant since 1970.

We don't know what the future of travel will hold. Our ancestors likely found it pretty cool to cut their travel time from Detroit down to less than three hours. What would they think about how we can fly to Florida in roughly the same time?

Perhaps a woman in 2186, used to traveling via teleporter (or some technology we can't even imagine), will stumble across this article in some future version of the internet archives. She may even be awestruck that it took more than a few minutes to get from place to place. And all the better if she is reading the article while lunching on Soylent Green in our beautiful, 300-year-old train depot that still stands on Depot Street.

*This newspaper has an interesting back story. Like many young towns, Ann Arbor had a thriving group of Masons. The bright red structure at First and Huron Streets—nicknamed Bloody Corners—held the first Masonic Lodge in the late 1820s. Unfortunately, an incident in New York led to an increasingly negative view of Masons. William Morgan claimed that he was going to publish the secret of the Masons to the general public. When he disappeared later that same year, the Masons were blamed. Men around the country renounced their membership and publicly distanced themselves from all things Masonic. Closer to home, John Allen and Judge Samuel Dexter published the Western Immigrant as an anti-Masonic newspaper.

Patti Smith is a freelance writer. Her first book, Images of America: Downtown Ann Arbor, was published by Arcadia Publishers. It is available on her website,, as well as local bookstores.
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