The Dexter Underpass

Author: Grace Shackman

Commuters cursing delays at the narrow railroad underpass on the west end of Dexter should direct their anger at Charles Warner’s cow.

The bridge over Dexter-Pinckney Road was designed in 1890 by Frederick Blackburn Pelham, the first African American to graduate from the University of Michigan in engineering. But it might never have been built if Warner’s cow hadn’t calved on Sunday morning, March 20, 1887.

When Warner didn’t show up for church, his parents, Dennis and Martha Warner, became concerned. That afternoon they walked from their house in the village toward Charles’s farm, which he had taken over from them years before. As they began to cross the tracks, the Michigan Central’s Limited Express roared around the curve at forty-five miles per hour. Dennis Warner made it across, but his wife did not. “Mrs. Warner evidently became slightly confused, hesitated an instant, and just as she stepped from the track was struck by the pilot [cowcatcher] of the locomotive, throwing her head against the cylinder, crushing her skull and killing her instantly,” reported the Dexter Leader.

To be going so fast, the train must not have stopped at the train station at Third and Broad, rebuilt just a year earlier. But an inquest determined the railroad was not at fault. The Michigan Central, which ran from Detroit to Chicago, had been rolling through Dexter since 1841.

The Warners were early Dexter settlers. In 1837, when the crops failed on his farm, Dennis Warner came into town and found work shoveling gravel on the embankment being built for the railroad. He also started making shoes, and parlayed that into a general mercantile business. At the time of his wife’s death, he owned a whole block of stores on the south side of Main Street.

The accident cast a “pall of gloom over the entire community,” reported the Leader. After the funeral, held at the Congregational church on Fifth Street, townsfolk began petitioning the railroad to build a bridge at the crossing. At the time the Michigan Central was making improvements all along the line, and the railroad assigned Pelham, a young civil engineer whose specialty was bridge building, to design new bridges over the road and over Mill Creek. Both elegant stone structures are still there, the latter behind the fire station at the end of Warrior Park.

Pelham began working for the Michigan Central as an assistant engineer the year Martha Warner died, shortly after his graduation from the U-M. Born in 1865, he had grown up in Detroit, the youngest of seven children of Robert and Frances Pelham, who had moved from Virginia. Robert Pelham was a stonemason, and his son often worked with him on projects around Detroit.

Frederick Pelham excelled in math. According to The Michigan Manual of Freedmen’s Progress, published in 1915, he graduated at the top of his U-M class. The Dexter underpass was the most unusual of the twenty bridges that Pelham designed in Michigan because of its skew arch, a design used when bridges are not perpendicular to crossings. Before putting in the stone arch, the workers dug under the rail bed and put in a temporary wooden frame. They used the soil they removed to raise the banks of Mill Creek and straighten it out, filling in an old millrace so that the creek wouldn’t harm the new bridge.

Stone bridges were the best available at the time for durability, strength, and easy maintenance, but only wealthier railroads could afford them. “The enormous amounts of labor needed--especially the skilled labor of stonemasons--made this type of bridge costly,” explains Charles Hyde, author of Historic Highway Bridges of Michigan.

For the Dexter bridges the masons collected stones from Mill Creek and sized them by hand. One of the stonemasons was Peter McGinn. “He worked on viaducts in Ireland; he knew how to cut stone,” said his granddaughter, Alice Vencil, in an interview in October, a month before she died. According to Vencil, her grandfather came to Michigan to work with the railroad on bridges all around the state.

Neither McGinn nor Pelham has his name among those engraved under the bridge; the persons so honored are higher officials--H. B. Ledyard, the Michigan Central president, and L. D. Hawks, the railroad’s head engineer.

After graduating from the U-M, Pelham returned to Detroit to live with his parents. He did some work on the interurban system there, taught Sunday school at Detroit’s Bethel AME Church, and was a member of the Michigan Engineering Society and the YMCA. Pelham died at age thirty in 1895.

Longtime Dexter residents recall that it used to be common for engineering students from the U-M to make field trips to study Pelham’s bridge and its skew arch. For decades, the underpass was fine for pedestrians and horse-drawn buggies, and later for automobiles. But as the area’s population has grown and traffic has increased, it has become more of a bottleneck, especially during rush hours.

Officials are considering two possible solutions: building a bypass from Parker Road to Dexter-Pinckney Road west of Gordon Hall, or building a new underpass just to the south and retaining the current one for pedestrians and bicycles. But altering Pelham’s masterpiece isn’t on the table.