Thriving on the Railroad
Author: Grace Shackman
Most Washtenaw County towns were founded because of the potential water power nearby. Chelsea, in contrast, owes its existence to the early arrival of the Michigan Central Railroad.
When the Michigan Central passed through Sylvan Township in 1841 on its way from Detroit to Chicago, the present site of Chelsea consisted of four small hamlets, each of which had been started in the 1830's. The largest one was Pierceville, founded by Nathan Pierce at the current intersection of M-52 and Old US-12. (Pierce's house can still be seen at 14300 Old US-12.) On the north side of present-day Chelsea, in Lima Township, Nathan's brother Darius had started a town he called Kedron, after a river in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, two other brothers, Elisha and James Congdon, had settled on plots facing each other on either side of the present Main Street. The Congdons, who hailed from Chelsea Landing, Connecticut, called their settlement Chelsea and eventually convinced Darius Pierce to adopt the name for his hamlet, too.
In 1848 the railroad built a small station about a mile west of what is now downtown Chelsea. When this station burned down, the Congdons offered free land to the railroad for a new station. In 1850 Michigan Central took them up on their offer, a decision that guaranteed Chelsea's primacy. The same year, Chelsea became a post office, its first store opened, and the Congdons' land was platted. The businesses in the other settlements soon moved into what is now downtown Chelsea.
Thanks to the railroad, Chelsea grew and thrived. By 1881, according to Chapman's county history, Chelsea was the largest produce market in the county, shipping grain, apples, stock, and meat, and the largest wool shipper in the state. "With the exception of a day of exceedingly dubious weather. Main and Middle Streets are thronged with farmers' teams," Chapman wrote, "and the stores of these thorough-fares crowded with customers."
In 1891, Frank Glazier, son of Chelsea banker George Glazier, started manufacturing oil heating and cooking stoves in two buildings on Main Street. After a disastrous fire, he rebuilt on land north of the railroad station. He built on a grand scale, and the stove works' red-brick clock tower remains Chelsea's best-known landmark. Also active in politics, Glazier rose to become state treasurer, but was forced to resign in 1907, when it was revealed that he had deposited state money in his own bank and had pledged the same stove company stock as collateral for loans all over the state. His company went bankrupt, and Glazier served two years in prison for misusing state funds before returning to Chelsea to live out his life on Cavanaugh Lake.
Until ten years ago, Chelsea still had a small-town feel, with the stores on Main Street serving residents' everyday needs. But with the opening of a shopping center at M-52 and Old US-12, downtown stores started moving there, returning full circle to the original site of Pierceville. Almost overnight, downtown Chelsea became a more upscale regional shopping and entertainment area: The Common Grill restaurant replaced Dancer's, the quintessential small-town clothing store, and local son Jeff Daniels opened his excellent new theater, the Purple Rose.
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