History of the Railroad in Vernon Center
The railroad first came to Durand in 1856, when it was still called Vernon Center. The Detroit, Grand Haven, and Milwaukee was looking for a station on its route northwest. The citizens of Vernon Center made a financial arrangement with the surveyor to choose their village instead of Vernon or Gaines. Twenty years later, the Chicago and Grand Trunk, moving from Port Huron to Chicago, crossed the existing rail at Vernon Center. The intersection created Durand’s famous Diamond. In 1885, the Toledo and Ann Arbor came from the South, adding a third rail company to the mix. Growing rapidly due to the rail traffic, Vernon Center incorporated in 1887 and became the City of Durand. The city was named after the congressman who brokered the deal to get the city’s post office.
In 1900, the Detroit, Grand Haven and Milwaukee merged with the Chicago and Grand Trunk to become the Grand Trunk Railroad. The railroad business was so great in Durand at this time that the Grand Trunk and Ann Arbor railroads decided to combine resources and build a massive depot to support both companies. Durand Union Station was completed in August of 1903. The rise of the Depot was quickly followed by rapid development of Durand itself, including infrastructure that predated its neighbors like city-wide electricity and sewer systems. The railroad was king, and Durand Union Station was the Queen of the Rails.
“Hey, where does that track lead to?”
Durand is in a unique position in the state, forming a railroad intersection in all directions. Across the front of the Depot, tracks to the East take you toward Flint, Lapeer, and Port Huron, and then under the St. Clair river into Sarnia, Ontario. To the west of Durand lies Lansing, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, and later, Chicago.
The tracks that move alongside the Depot lead South to Detroit and Ann Arbor and North toward Owosso and Saginaw. At one time, the tracks from the South split off around the Depot where the parking lot currently stands. This arrangement of tracks created eight diamonds around the Depot. Six on the main lines to the north, and two behind the station to the south.
In the 1960s, Durand was a station on five separate Grand Trunk subdivisions: Flint, Holly, Grand Haven, Grand Rapids, and Saginaw. Over time these subdivisions have been sold off to short lines like the Ann Arbor or Great Lakes Central. Others were outright abandoned. Pulling up rail was a business decision, made as passenger and freight service declined.
Disaster struck the Depot on April 17th, 1905 when a fire in the boiler room grew out of control. Firefighters had nearly extinguished the blaze when orders from the railroad came to remove the hoses from across the rail. Despite their objections, an incoming express train was deemed more important and was allowed to proceed.
The express train was late. By the time it came through, the fire had grown to the point where the building was lost. Using the blueprints from the original station, rebuilding began immediately. Remarkably, the new depot was completed in just five months, re-opening in September of 1905.
Since the Depot has undergone its restoration in 1982, the boiler has been replaced with seven furnaces and three air conditioners. Fire hydrants are now on-site.
Railfanning at the Depot
Because of its location and how close one can get to the rails, Durand Union Station is an attractive venue for train watching. People who watch, photograph, or film trains as a hobby call themselves “rail fans.”
The Depot is also one of the most photographed train stations in North America and is a destination for photographers in its own right. On rare occasions, it is possible to get photos of the Queen of the Rails as the Pere Marquette 1225 comes through from Owosso.
For your safety, we ask that all visitors stay within the boundaries of the fencing at the Depot and do not walk onto or cross the tracks for any reason.