Author: Grace Shackman
For a century, railroads were the heart and soul of our towns.
In 1827 most people in Michigan Territory had never even heard of a railroad. But on Independence Day that year, village founder Samuel Dexter made a speech extolling the wonders of English passenger trains that reached dizzying speeds of thirty to forty miles an hour. Dexter’s vision of the future soon proved prescient: for much of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, trains would be the lifeblood of Chelsea, Dexter, Manchester, and Saline.
Nine years after Dexter’s speech, the Michigan Central Railroad began laying track from Detroit toward Chicago. In 1837 Dexter ceded part of his pear and apple orchard so that the line would come through his village. The arrival of the first train in 1841 was the occasion for a public festival.
“Early in the morning of that day the people of the surrounding country came pouring into the village on foot, on horseback, in carriages and wagons,” according to the 1881 Chapman History of Washtenaw County, Michigan. “By 9 a.m. a large concourse of people had assembled at the depot, awaiting the arrival of the cars, which were to bring the visitors from Ann Arbor and other eastern villages along the line of the road.”
By later standards those first trains were dangerous, noisy, and smoky, but residents welcomed them enthusiastically. “We had but a few minutes to wait before the shrill whistle of the iron horse was heard, and instantly the train came in its grandeur and majesty around the curve into full view, and thundered up to the depot, when the air was filled with loud huzzas and shouts of welcome, and everyone was happy,” recalled an eyewitness.
Eight years after putting Dexter on the map, the Michigan Central reached New Buffalo on the Indiana state line. It was known as the “strap railroad,” because the tracks were made of wood with an iron strip spiked to the top.
Those lightweight rails were later replaced with modern solid steel. The original wooden stations similarly gave way to far more impressive structures. Dexter’s first depot was replaced in 1886 by a new building, on the opposite side of the tracks, that still stands today. Its designers were Spier and Rohns, Detroit architects responsible for many other depots, including the massive fieldstone station in Ann Arbor (now the Gandy Dancer restaurant).
Originally, the next stop west of Dexter on the Michigan Central line was Davidson’s Station, on Hugh Davidson’s farm about two miles west of present-day Chelsea. When that station burned down in 1848, arson was suspected. Afterward, Elisha and James Congdon offered free land to the railroad to relocate the station eastward to their farm, where a road to Manchester crossed the tracks. The first shipment from the new station, in 1850, was a 130-pound barrel of eggs sent to Detroit.
The railroad spurred the development of the village of Chelsea, as stores and businesses began to locate nearby. In 1870 tricksters tied a rope to the wooden depot and attached it to the caboose of a train. When the train left, the station fell. Ten years later the Michigan Central replaced it with a station designed by Michigan architects Mason and Rice (George Mason is best known for designing the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island).
To compete with the Michigan Central, which ran west near the present course of I-94, another railroad was built across the southernmost tier of Michigan counties. Originally known as the Palmyra and Jacksonburgh (an earlier name of Jackson), it became the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern. In 1844 a spur of this railroad, going northwest from Adrian to Jackson to connect with the Michigan Central, passed through Manchester. In 1854 a wooden station was built in Manchester at the site of the present Manchester Market.
In 1870 a second line reached Manchester--the Detroit, Hillsdale, Indiana. This line connected the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern at Hillsdale to the Michigan Central in Ypsilanti. The two lines crossed west of Manchester, and a second station was built at the site of present-day Chi-Bro Park. The DHI continued east through Bridgewater, Saline, and Pittsfield Junction. In 1910 the brick Union Station replaced the original wooden one used by the Lake Shore line. The DHI built a spur to reach the new station.
The DHI was a fairly small line, and railroad historian Sam Breck of Ann Arbor describes its Saline station, which still stands, as “a freight house with a public area on the end.” Nonetheless, Saline residents celebrated their first rail service with great fanfare. City founder Orange Risdon was among the dignitaries who spoke at the opening of the line on July 4, 1870. Eleven years later, the Chapman county history reported that the train “has been of great convenience to the citizens of the village. . . . It has opened up a market for the productions of the country, enabling farmers and others to realize handsomely on many of their investments.”
The hotels in the communities served by the railroads got much of their business from train passengers. Often there were modest hotels near the stations and fancier ones downtown. Horse-drawn carriages met trains at the station to take passengers to the downtown hotels. In Chelsea, the Chelsea House (now the Sylvan Building) was around the corner from the depot, and the Boyd Hotel (now Dayspring Gifts) was a few blocks down Main Street. Manchester’s Don Limpert remembers a boardinghouse near the Union Station, although the Green and Goodyear hotels were much more important. Dexter historian Norma McAllister says there were a number of downtown hotels over the years, with Stebbins House (now Elaine’s Gallery) the most important, and the Railroad Hotel just east of the station. “It was two stories, with a big porch where you could sit and watch trains come in,” she recalls. Converted to apartments, it burned down a few years ago. Only Saline, with its single small line, had no hotels near the station.
Many of the early passengers were immigrants. A Dexter history reported that it was not unusual for fifty to sixty to get off the train at one time and that there were always more passengers than seats. Later, salesmen and visitors accounted for most of the traffic. According to Manchester historian Howard Parr, in the days before national prohibition, when drinking was a county option, “thirsty men from Lenawee County came to drink on Saturday night. Manchester was a German town, so there were a lot of saloons. The clothes stores sold cheap cardboard suitcases, so they could load up with booze to bring home.” Several Manchester breweries supplied those busy saloons.
As the area’s industry developed, commuting workers added to the passenger traffic. Most of the employees at Frank Glazier’s stove company in Chelsea, founded in 1890, came by train, boarding with local residents and returning home on weekends. From Chelsea, workers could commute directly to Detroit or Jackson. In Dexter in the 1930s, McAllister recalls, many people who worked for the University of Michigan commuted to Ann Arbor by train.
In the early twentieth century passenger trains ran all the time; Manchester had twenty a day. People took trains to bigger towns, such as Jackson, Adrian, or Detroit, for shopping, entertainment, and excursions. Parr recalls hearing from his father that the local baseball team would take the train to Clinton to play. Saline historian Wayne Clements has seen old ads for special excursion trains to the Hillsdale County Fair. For U-M football games, Saline residents would take the train to Pittsfield Junction and transfer to the Ann Arbor Railroad. But riding on the DHI had its disadvantages. “They used to call it Old Strawberry, because it was so slow you could get off and pick strawberries,” laughs Clements.
Eventually all the local railroads became part of the New York Central system. In 1881 the former DHI (which by then was the Detroit, Hillsdale, South Western) was leased in perpetuity to the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern, which in turn was linked to the New York Central in 1915. The Michigan Central became part of the New York Central in 1930.
In wartime, trains played a major role in transporting troops and supplies. Civil War troops left from Dexter and Chelsea to convene in Adrian. During World War I, a banner supporting the soldiers was hung on the Welfare Building across from the Chelsea station.
Even more troop trains came through during World War II. Johnny Keusch of Chelsea remembers traveling back to Chicago as a soldier: “The train was so crowded by the time it reached Chelsea, I had to stand between cars all the way.”
Passenger trains usually included a post office car. “The mail would stop and unload,” recalls Robert Devine, who was stationmaster at Chelsea after World War II. “If it didn’t stop, they’d just pick up the mail from a crane and throw what they had off on the platform.”
Carrying passengers was an important service, but freight was the moneymaker. Manchester, Dexter, and Chelsea each had a separate freight house to handle incoming goods. When farmers could ship produce quickly and cheaply, they could go beyond subsistence farming to cash crops. Those with farms between the Michigan Central and the Lake Shore benefited from a price war between the two lines.
Farmers would bring goods into the station by horse and wagon and unload them into storage bins that would hold their produce until there was enough to fill a boxcar. Sheep--big business in Saline, Manchester, and Bridgewater--were herded into pens near the stations and eventually led up ramps into cattle cars. Dairy farmers used the train to get their output to creameries, such as the one in Manchester.
The railroad also delivered equipment and supplies. Parr’s family got hatchling chicks from Klager’s Hatchery in Bridgewater. “We’d get a postcard to go down to the station and pick them up,” Parr recalls. Keusch’s father, a grocer, depended on the train for much of his inventory. “We’d get bread from Ann Arbor every morning,” Keusch says.
Frank Glazier sent his stoves all over the country by rail. At the company’s peak, its buildings stood on three sides of the Chelsea depot. During Devine’s time the line into Chelsea had spurs for Chelsea Milling, Chelsea Spring, Central Fiber, Chelsea Lumber, and several coal and oil dealers. In the 1950s Devine’s duties were increased to include Dexter; he recalls that there was less industry there but that D. E. Hoey, right across the tracks, was among several nearby lumber and coal businesses that relied on rail deliveries.
In the nineteenth century Manchester had a lot of manufacturing, including several barrel-making factories. A large gravel pit outside of town sent loads daily by train. As late as 1950, when Delbert Ludwick was stationmaster, the Manchester station had spurs on either side of the main track, one of which served two nearby gas stations. There was also a wool shed “where they brought in the wool and bagged it. When they had enough for a carload, they’d send it out,” recalls Ludwick.
Saline had a ribbon of industry opposite its depot--a blacksmith shop, a planing mill, a concrete block making operation, and the Saline branch of the Manchester Bat and Handle Company, which made baseball bats. These businesses used the train both for receiving raw materials and for sending out finished products. Across the street, Mercantile Delivery had storage facilities for farm products.
After World War II people and companies began to prefer the door-to-door convenience of automobiles and trucks. The stations in Saline and Manchester, which had lost passenger service in 1938, nursed a dwindling freight business. By 1951 the old DHI line was down to two freight trains a week, and it took eight hours to get from Ypsilanti to Hillsdale. Even that service was discontinued in 1961.
Chelsea and Dexter, on the main line across the state, kept going a little longer. In 1947 they were still served by four passenger trains a day, two each way. Although the New York Central connected to transcontinental lines, by then people were making most long trips by car and used the train mainly for local travel. “I’d occasionally sell a ticket to someplace else, to California or Texas or Canada,” recalls Devine. Passenger service in Dexter stopped in the 1950s. The station closed, and freight was limited to full boxcars delivered directly to spurs.
The New York Central halted passenger service to Chelsea in the 1960s, but a small commuter train continued to stop there until the early 1980s. There was no stationmaster after 1975, so people wanting to board had to hoist a flag indicating they wanted to be picked up.
The Manchester station has been torn down, but the Chelsea, Dexter, and Saline stations are still being used. When the Chelsea station closed, concerned citizens formed the Chelsea Depot Association to acquire it. Today, the west half is the Chelsea History Museum, while the east half is used for a meeting room. Dexter’s depot is occupied by the Ann Arbor Model Railroad Club, which is building a model of the Michigan Central line from Detroit to Chicago.
Saline’s depot, also a local history museum, is enhanced by a caboose and a livery stable moved to the property. The Boy Scouts plan to construct a windmill, of the type that would have been used to draw water for the DHI’s steam locomotives. Saline’s model railroad club also meets there, and there is talk of someday turning the whole depot into a railroad museum and moving the other Saline exhibits to another site. In each of the four towns, the local interest in railroad heritage continues to be strong, a generation or more after the last trains left the station.