The Saline railroad depot

Published In:
Community Observer, Winter 2006,
Winter 2006

Author: Grace Shackman

A hiking trail turns old tracks to good use

In the nineteenth century, the area around the railroad depot was the noisiest, busiest spot in Saline. Steam engines puffed in six times a day to drop off and pick up people and freight. Nearby were a busy grain elevator, two barns, a blacksmith shop, and a lumberyard.

Today the tracks are gone, replaced by a quiet walking trail. On September 24 a ribbon-cutting ceremony marked the official opening of the path that runs along the old railroad bed from Ann Arbor Street to Harris Street past the former depot, now a museum operated by the Saline Area Historical Society. Though the path is less than a quarter mile long, there's hope that it will be the fast leg of a much longer trail.

Saline's first train arrived in 1870 on the Detroit, Hillsdale, and Indiana line (DHI). "Detroit" and "Indiana" were both wishful thinking: the line ran only from Ypsilanti to Bankers, a little town west of Hillsdale. But it connected with the Michigan Central Railroad in Ypsilanti, the Ann Arbor Railroad at Pittsfield Junction south of Ann Arbor, and the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern in Hillsdale.

Although not a major line, the DHI was important to Saline, allowing local farmers to ship wheat, oats, apples, wool, and livestock to larger markets. Saline was the state's busiest shipping point for animals during the nineteenth century, says Saline historian Bob Lane. Livestock were herded down unpaved Bennett Street and held in pens on the south side of the depot. In 1875 the Saline Standard Windmill Company began making windmills and pumps, and the railroad made it a nationwide business.

The barn closer to the station is listed on maps as a hay and fertilizer warehouse. The other was operated by Gay Harris and Willis Fowler, who would buy wool from local sheep raisers and store it until they had enough to send a train car load to wool mills. In mediate nineteenth century Washtenaw County was the nation's leading producer of wool.

A windmill between the station and the first barn pumped water into an underground tank, and from there to a water tower across the tracks. Steam engines filled their tanks from this tower. Around 1900, an electric pump replaced the windmill.

E. W. Ford's lumberyard was west of the station, occupying most of the land from there to the intersection of Ann Arbor and Bennett streets. South of the tracks, Hy Liesemer's grain elevator faced Ann Arbor Street According to an 1888 map, it could hold 10,000 bushels. North of the tracks was Feuerbacher's blacksmith and welding shop, run by John Feuerbacher, who came from Germany in 1870, and his son Edward. The Feuerbachers also bought and sold scrap iron behind the shop, shipping it out by train.

During the twentieth century, rail service declined. The depot saw its last passenger train in 1931; shortly after that, the passenger lobby was removed. Freight operations continued, but in 1961 the depot was closed completely.

Today all that survives is two-thirds of the depot. The wool barn burned down in the 1940s. The hay and fertilizer building has also disappeared, as have the windmill, water tower, lumberyard, grain elevator, and blacksmith shop. There's a small commercial area where the lumberyard stood, and an auto parts store at the blacksmith shop location.

In 1980, after a few years of intermittent use by a couple of businesses, the old, dilapidated depot was given to the Saline Area Historical Society. It looked like a shack, but the society lovingly restored it and made it into a museum.

Today the entrance is through a door that was once the interior entrance to the station agent's office. The bigger room beyond the office, originally the baggage area, is used for displays and meeting space.

The historical society brought in a real caboose, which schoolchildren love. A ten-foot windmill, similar to one that was there originally, was installed as an Eagle Scout project. Across the tracks you can still see traces of the water tower foundation. The society's president. Wayne Clements, would like to move another water tower there or reconstruct one.

Where the hay and fertilizer barn once stood, the historical society has moved a livery barn from 101 North Lewis Street, where Orange Risdon. the founder of Saline, once lived. A real Saline Standard windmill is stored inside.

The idea of a walking path along the old rail bed percolated for years, but it took a while for the society to reach agreement with the Ann Arbor Railroad, which owns the tracks. In November 2005 the society signed a lease with the railroad, and the project quickly gained support; its backers include the health promotion group Pick Up the Pace, Saline!

To cut costs, the organizers abandoned plans for lighting and paving the trail and used some volunteer labor. Washtenaw County Public Health contributed $18,170 from a state grant. Saline CARES (a millage that provides funding for recreational programs) awarded $8,000, while the City of Saline agreed to help cover interim costs.

Heritage Lawn Care, a landscaping firm on Wagner Road, offered a discounted price for installation. The company created a walking trail alongside the tracks by clearing out trees and other obstacles, leveling the ground, installing a landscape fabric, and laying six inches of limestone on top. The finished path is suitable not only for hikers but also for bicycles and wheelchairs.

The area between the rails was also cleared and filled with larger stones. "We thought delineating the tracks would make it more attractive," says David Rhoads, who led the volunteer effort. Hikers can see the challenge the work crews faced by looking at how much vegetation has overgrown the remaining sets of tracks to the north.

The clearing also made it possible to ride the depot's one-person handcar, which train employees used to check the tracks. Rhoads and Clements plan to work on repairing the switch at the Harris Street end of the trail so that the handcar can make a round trip from the depot.

Future plans include adding benches and trash receptacles along the trail. The Saline Garden Club is preparing to plant a perennial garden made up mainly of native plants in a clearing next to the tracks. Other ideas in the talking stage include installing art along the path and putting in bike racks that look like steam engines.

The organizers hope to extend the trail east to the Saline District Library on Maple Road and west to Mill Creek Park. The western end would run near Brecon Village Retirement Community and pass a gorgeous trestle now hidden in the woods. Some neighbors along the route have objected, though, so the plan's future is uncertain.

—Grace Shackman