Welcome to Durand Union Station. The depot nicknamed the “Queen of the Rails,” was built in 1903 as a result of growing rail traffic along lines controlled by the Grand Trunk and Ann Arbor rail systems. A devastating fire destroyed the structure in 1905, and an identical station was built in its place in five months. Durand Union Station has seen the rise, fall, and rebirth of the railroading industry in Michigan.
Today, it is the home of the Michigan Railroad History Museum. The Gallery, Library, Archives, and Gift Shop are to your left as you enter the station. To the right is the Men’s Restroom and Elevator, followed by the Ladies’ Room and the Depot’s passenger lobby. Amtrak stops at the station twice a day, heading toward Chicago at 8:00 AM and returning at 9:30 PM. There are historical photos throughout both floors.
The second floor contains the offices for the Depot’s non-profit, a conference room, and the Grand Ballroom. The conference room and ballroom are available for event rentals. The museum rooms for the Grand Trunk and Ann Arbor Historical Societies are also on the second floor, open to the public on Saturdays. The Model Railroad Engineers operate out of the Depot on Saturdays as well.
We hope you enjoy your time inside the Depot and leave with the same love of it that the people of Durand have had for more than a hundred years.
Railroad Person of the Year
As part of celebrations for Durand’s second Railroad Days festival in 1977, the railroading community selected engine dispatcher Glenn Willie as their first Railroad Man of the Year. A new person has been selected every year since. The title was renamed to Railroad Person of the Year in 1980 after Ora Goul, a clerk from Durand’s Roundhouse, was the first woman to receive the award.
Pat Post was the first second-generation Railroad Person of the Year, receiving the honor in 2003 after her father, Lloyd Eicher, received it in 1987. A husband and wife were selected together in 2010 when Cliff and Marie Semple were chosen.
To date, all recipients have been employees of Grand Trunk Western or Canadian National, which is due to its prominence in Durand. People from all walks of railroad life have been chosen, from Engineers, Conductors, Brakemen, and Switchmen, to Clerks, Crane Operators, Machinists, and Carpenters. A Railroad Cook was selected in 1981 when Nobel Haver was chosen.
Those selected are given a museum display for mementos and artifacts and are the honored guest at the Depot for that year’s Railroad Days. All railroad persons of the year are presented with a custom green vest, and are invited to wear it at every subsequent Railroad Days as part of Durand’s most exclusive railroading fraternity.
The ticket cage in the Depot’s passenger lobby is an original Grand Trunk Western piece, but not THE original cage of Durand Union Station. Traveling by rail was dominant from when the Depot was built in 1903 through the 1920s, with more than 3,000 people passing through the Depot’s halls a day. After the rise of the automobile, the rail industry saw a steady decline. The advent of the Interstate Highway System and Commercial Air Travel in the 1950s further devastated the passenger rail industry.
Nobody is quite sure -when- the original ticket cage at Durand Union Station was replaced, but it is clear from the markings on the floor that a much larger one was once part of the Depot’s lobby. It was not uncommon for the Grand Trunk to swap elements of its stations as service was increasing or in decline. To their credit, the railroad thought to find a ticket counter of similar age and design to send to Durand.
While the citizens of Durand largely agreed that their Depot needed saving from the wrecking ball in 1974, time was of the essence in determining a use for the station. At the same time, Amtrak had been established to provide passenger service across the United States, with the proposed Blue Water Line between Port Huron and Chicago set to start in September. Had the Depot been demolished, Amtrak’s station in Durand would have been a simple shelter. To Norma Ward and the rest of the Depot Committee, this was a horrifying thought.
Everyone seemed to agree that the Depot should remain a passenger station. In the early days of Amtrak, there were no lights on the rail platform or parking lot. Norma and others would come down to the station twice a day, using the headlights of their cars to light the way. The Lobby had no heat, so kerosene heaters were brought in during the winter to keep waiting passengers warm. Amtrak’s loyalty to Durand and its Depot were crucial to the early years of restoration. The Depot had a reason to stay upright and open as long as Amtrak was interested in using it. Over the next decade, the Depot slowly underwent renovations and found its purpose as a museum.
Amtrak remains Durand Union Station’s oldest tenant in the building, operating passenger rail in Durand uninterrupted since the start of the Blue Water Line. Passengers leave for Chicago at 8 in the morning and return at 9:30 at night every day. The train runs 365 days a year, unless inclement weather physically prevents the train from moving. Durand Union Station is an unstaffed Amtrak facility, meaning no ticket agents are on site to assist customers. Those wishing to ride the rails can purchase tickets from the kiosk in the lobby, over the phone at 1-800-USA-RAIL, or online at amtrak.com.
After the Depot was built in 1903, the railroad’s presence and needs in Durand grew rapidly. Additional railroad buildings and facilities were required to meet the demands of the site railroaders now called “The Hub.” One such structure was the roundhouse, a locomotive maintenance shop with a large turntable to rotate engines into each bay for repairs. At the turn of the century, Durand had two roundhouses belonging to the Grand Trunk and Ann Arbor Railroads. The Grand Trunk’s was too small, and the Ann Arbor quickly moved to Owosso. An enormous 42-stall roundhouse was built by the Grand Trunk in 1908.
The new roundhouse was the second fully 360-degree structure in North America after Canadian National’s in Montreal. It was accompanied by a massive coal tower, a water tower, and holding stocks for cattle. Cows destined for the meatpacking district in Chicago would stop in Durand for as much water as they could drink, as the additional weight allowed cattle companies to charge more upon arrival.
The Grand Trunk transitioned from steam engines to diesel locomotives in 1961. Rather than perform costly updates to the roundhouse, the railroad assigned its employees to the shops in Port Huron and Battle Creek and demolished the structure. The railroad neglected to tell the roundhouse employees of this plan, who reported to work one morning to discover a pile of rubble.
The coal tower, however, stands to this day. When railroad demolition crews hit it with a wrecking ball, the iron ball simply bounced off of it! Rather than go through the process of tearing down such a remarkably strong structure, they removed the rail underneath it and left it where it stood on railroad property, far from the general public.
The Ann Arbor Railroad
The City of Ann Arbor had the railroad as early as the 1830s when the Michigan Central made its westward push from Detroit. With the growth of both the railroad and the University of Michigan in the coming decades, an opportunity for competition presented itself. A line between Toledo and Ann Arbor was constructed in 1878 with aspirations of running ferries across Lake Michigan. By 1885, the railroad extended north to Durand. By 1890, it had reached the port at Frankfort.
The new line served to relieve congestion along the route to Chicago. At the time, freight trains in Ann Arbor could be delayed by up to 12 hours. With the new line, freight moved much quicker at a lower cost. In its rush to build as much rail as possible, quality was severely lacking. Henry Earle Riggs, upon hiring in as their chief engineer, described it as a quote-unquote “jerkwater railroad.” Once ownership had passed to Wellington Burt in 1893, the line underwent vast improvements.
The Ann Arbor and Grand Trunk built a shared depot in Durand in 1903, which replaced much smaller depots along their lines. Feeling squeezed by the ample traffic, the Ann Arbor quickly moved its operations north to Owosso in 1908 and left the majority of Durand Union Station to its larger neighbor. It continued to use Durand as a station along its line northward.
Business was fantastic for the Ann Arbor at the turn of the century. Between 1912 and 1916, a million passengers a year rode their rails. Like other railroads, the rise of the automobile devastated the Ann Arbor’s passenger service. Despite this, the Ann Arbor held onto passenger service until 1950 before transitioning to freight-only business. Freight and carferry business continued to work for the Ann Arbor until the 1960s, when the railroad industry in general was in decline. By 1973, it was crippled and unable to support itself financially.
The Many Owners of the Ann Arbor
The Ann Arbor existed in theory as early as 1869, without any rail to show for it. Ownership changed hands twice before James Ashley secured enough financial backing to become the first to complete track in 1877. By 1893, a recession, a strike, and poor finances led to Ashley being forced out and Wellington Burt taking over as owner. Burt sold the railroad to the Detroit, Toledo & Ironton in 1905. The DT&I promptly went bankrupt and sold to a group of investors headed by Joseph Ramsey. The Ann Arbor would operate as an independent company for the next 15 years.
During their time as a self-owned railroad, the Ann Arbor enjoyed the boom and post-war periods of profitability. This success led to the Wabash Railroad purchasing the railroad in 1925. This ownership would continue for the next 40 years.
As the railroad industry declined, major rail lines formed huge mergers around the country. The New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroads merged to become Penn Central. The Wabash, Nickel Plate, and Norfolk & Western merged, but left the Ann Arbor out of the deal. The DT&I, owned by Penn Central and itself a former owner of the Ann Arbor, purchased them for 3 million dollars in 1961.
By 1973 the Penn Central, the DT&I, and the Ann Arbor were all broke. The Penn Central collapsed, and its lines fell under the control of newly formed Conrail. The DT&I separated itself from the Ann Arbor, which filed for bankruptcy. In 1976, The Ann Arbor sold its facilities in Owosso and tracks from Durand to Ashley to the Grand Trunk Western. The State of Michigan purchased most of the remaining trackage, the rolling stock, and the car ferries. The remainder of its assets transferred to Conrail. The Ann Arbor was finished as a rail operator, but continued to run ferries across the lake under state ownership until 1982.
Much of the existing track north of Ann Arbor came into the ownership of the Tuscola and Saginaw Bay, formed in 1977 to operate rail abandoned by the Penn Central. The “Tisby” is known today as the Great Lakes Central and interchanges with Canadian National at Durand. Conrail operated until 1999, when it was purchased and split up by CSX and Norfolk Southern.
The Ann Arbor name was resurrected in 1988 by the Watco Corporation to operate a Class 3 short line between Toledo and Ann Arbor. Despite the original tracks and name, this new Ann Arbor Railroad is a completely separate entity from the original.
Michigan is a state surrounded by water. How did railroad companies like the Ann Arbor and Grand Trunk deal with this? They built ferries for train cars that would sail across the lakes and rivers! The first car ferry in the state was built by the Great Western Railway of Canada in 1867 to cross the Detroit River between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. The first ferry to cross the Straits of Mackinac was a joint operation of the Michigan Central, Grand Rapids and Indiana, and Detroit, Mackinac, and Marquette in 1888.
Due to the amount of nation-wide traffic in Chicago, trains could be stopped in the city for up to two weeks. Railroads often looked to avoid the city if possible. The Ann Arbor begun shipping freight cars over Lake Michigan to ports in Wisconsin, bypassing Chicago entirely. They were the first to run a railroad ferry across open water anywhere in the world, starting in 1892. The Flint and Pere Marquette was established to run ferries at what is now called Ludington in 1897. The origins of Durand as a railroad city started with the Detroit, Grand Haven, and Milwaukee placing a stop in town along its path to the port cities on the western shores of the state in 1856. Their successor, the Grand Trunk, began ferry service between Grand Haven and Milwaukee in 1903.
Car ferries came with unique dangers. Wooden ferries burned often, and companies adopted steel ships as early as 1897. The weight of the cars had to be balanced perfectly to ensure the ferry would not capsize, as Ann Arbor Car Ferry No. 4 did in Manistique in 1909 and 1923. Weather was also a challenge the railroad did not have to ordinarily consider. Ships caught in bad storms were in danger of losing its weight balance and sinking, as Pere Marquette No. 18 did in 1910, killing 30. The same year, Ann Arbor No. 5 was launched with a sea gate to keep high waves out. The Grand Trunk lost a ferry named Milwaukee in 1929 in a violent storm. All 42 men on board died, making it the worst ferry disaster to ever happen on the Great Lakes.
The Canadian Grand Trunk Railway
The history of the Grand Trunk is a multi-faceted one that has its origins in Canada. The Grand Trunk Railway of Canada was established in 1852 to build and operate a rail line between Montreal and Toronto. By 1859, the line had reached Sarnia and had its eye on Chicago.
Initially, the Canadians had worked with the Michigan Central Railroad to move its trains west, but the agreement broke down when William Henry Vanderbilt’s New York Central bought the Michigan Central in 1878. As a result, an American subsidiary was established from a collection of smaller lines that was named the Chicago and Grand Trunk Railway in 1880. It was during this time that the C & GT arrived at Durand, intersecting the line already built there by the Detroit, Grand Haven and Milwaukee in the 1850s. The Grand Trunk then purchased the Great Western Railway in 1882, owning both lines that crossed at Durand.
By 1900, the Canadian Grand Trunk had so many lines in Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois that they merged them into a single subsidiary company they named the Grand Trunk Western Railway, representing the western wing of Grand Trunk’s total operation. The GTW entered Ohio in 1902 by purchasing a share of the Detroit and Toledo Shore Line Railroad.
The Canadian Grand Trunk, faced with financial problems, was absorbed into Canadian National Railway in 1923. This meant all of its subsidiaries also became part of the government-owned company. Five years later, the formal merger of all of its Americans lines was re-incorporated as the Grand Trunk Western Railroad. Canadian lines tend to be named railways, while American ones are called railroads.
The “American” Grand Trunk Railroad
The consolidated Grand Trunk Western then became a powerhouse in the upper midwest, operating the main freight line between Ontario and Chicago through the golden period of railroading until it’s decline in the 1970s. During this time, Canadian National re-incorporated the Grand Trunk Western as the Grand Trunk Corporation based out of Detroit to shift its responsibilities from Montreal. For tax purposes, the Central Vermont and Duluth, Winnipeg, and Pacific were included as part of the new Grand Trunk. This did not change the overall ownership of the railroad, which remained with Canadian National, but instead separated financial responsibilities between the two countries.
Since its inception, locomotives were purchased in bulk by Canadian National and then effectively sold to itself as ownership and registration changed to the American side of the company. This explains why certain locomotive types were so popular in the upper midwest and eastern Canada. The 4-8-4 Northern, for instance, was initially designed for Canada but found popularity as a workhorse in Michigan.
The 70s and 80s were a period of consolidation and downsizing for the Grand Trunk, abandoning lines across the state and selling off others to become a profitable, efficient company. In 1991, Canadian National restructured its properties under a single brand: CN North America. As a result, all of its lines, engines, and cars were repainted to match the Canadian National style. Grand Trunk Western still exists as a railroad on paper and is the holding company of CN’s American properties, but is effectively a defunct railroad in the modern day. CN presently refers to its operations in the US as the quote-unquote “former Grand Trunk Western territory.”
History of Durand Union Station’s 2nd Floor
The second floor of Durand Union Station has a completely separate history from its grand first floor. While the downstairs was meant for the general public and designed for elegance, the upper floors were meant to be functional office space for employees and had none of the fancy decoration of the first.
The hallway used to extend all the way from the attic to the end of what is now the Ballroom, with offices on either side. The layout and use of these offices changed effectively every time a new station master came to Durand, as they would decide which office they wanted for themselves and their most necessary staff. Everyone else would relocate, which happened often. The attic is largely unchanged from its original configuration, and is still used for storage.
An interesting occurrence in the hallway involved piano wire. The station vibrates as trains approach, so Depot staff would run wire the length of the hallway and use the changing pitch to determine how close the train was.
Durand Union Station has a third floor that is currently inaccessible. Entry to the third floor was through a staircase in the attic on the second floor, which itself was limited to railroad personnel only. It was used for storage for most of the Depot’s history, with the exception of wartime. During times where soldiers were on trains to the coasts for transport around the world, layovers would occasionally happen in Durand. These soldiers were housed in bunks on the third floor. One can only imagine the discomfort in this makeshift bunkhouse, with insufficient heating or cooling and smoke and coal dust as a persistent annoyance.
M. Jean Sloan
Dr. Marie Jean Brinkman Sloan was an educator, lawyer, and crucial part of the history to save the Depot. Prior to her arrival in Durand, Sloan earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in History and Education Administration and Supervision from both Marygrove College and Wayne State University, respectively. She notably earned two doctorates within a week of one another in 1966, completing both a Ph.D. in Education from Wayne State and a Juris Doctorate from the Detroit College of Law. She was named the first ever Distinguished Alumni Award winner from her undergraduate alma mater, Marygrove College in Detroit.
Dr. Sloan taught in Detroit and Germany before taking a researcher role in the US Office of Education in 1967. While in Washington DC, she taught graduate classes in education at the Catholic University of America. In 1969, the then Dr. Brinkman married Peter Sloan, a lawyer and local politician from Michigan. The Sloans then moved to Flint, where Jean took a position as an administrator with the Flint public schools.
In 1975, Dr. Sloan became the first administrator to hold a doctorate in the history of the Durand Area School System. She served in a variety of positions but is most widely known as the long-time and beloved principal of Robert Kerr Elementary School, retiring in 1997. Despite all of her academic and legal accolades, Jean considered her work with young people to be the defining actions of her life. A devout Catholic, Sloan also served as an educator or coordinator for many religious studies programs around the state, including at St. Mary’s in Durand.
During the bicentennial, the Sloans became heavily involved in the efforts to save the Depot from the wrecking ball. Working alongside founders like Norma Ward, Margaret Zdunic, and many, many others, Jean became the first president of the board for the Durand Railroad Historical Museum, operating the baggage car museum. When the depot was saved, Sloan continued to support Durand Union Station as a passion project for the rest of her life. Jean Sloan passed away in 2008, and is now the namesake of the Depot’s conference room in her memory.
Henry Earle Riggs
Henry Earle Riggs, born in 1865, was the chief engineer of the Ann Arbor Railroad from 1890 to 1895. Under his leadership, the Ann Arbor was completely reconstructed from hastily-built rail into a transportation line that ranged from Toledo all the way to Frankfort, where ferries shipped railcars across Lake Michigan.
After his tenure with the Ann Arbor, Riggs worked as a consultant for most of the major rail operators in the state, as well as public utility companies. In 1912, Riggs became the professor of civil engineering at the University of Michigan, serving in that role and as chairman of its engineering program until 1930, when he retired and started a private civil engineering practice. In 1937, he received an honorary doctorate in engineering from the University of Michigan. Riggs passed away in 1949.
In 1997, with the support of the Riggs family, the research library in the Michigan Railroad History Museum was named after Henry Earle Riggs in dedication to his impact on Michigan’s railroading history.
When the Depot was constructed, it predated the widespread use of dining cars. Passengers on longer journeys could only find food at the stations they stopped at. Durand Union Station included a dual-use Restaurant and Diner, in the room the museum gallery currently resides. The restaurant was designed to the standards of the rest of the Depot’s opulence. Its menu and staff were carefully constructed to feed passengers quickly, as most had only thirty minutes between trains.
The Diner, separated by a dividing wall, was a much less fancy affair. A large U-Shaped counter sat in the center of the room to serve as many railroad employees and local residents as possible. If you look at the floor in the museum gallery, you can still see the circular grooves carved into the floor from years of diner stools! The diner specialized in food that was quick to cook, like hamburgers and hot dogs, or cold sandwiches that were easy to grab quickly. It was a common site to see a train stopped outside the depot, with its crew quickly dashing in and out of the Diner for a cold lunch and a hot thermos of coffee.
As dining cars became more prevalent on the rails, the usage of the Depot’s restaurant declined, leading to its removal during the late 1920s. Its old room saw use as a telegraph room, and later, an office. The diner continued to operate as Durand was still an active station with plenty of staff to use it. It closed at the end of the 1960s when Grand Trunk Western transitioned its business out of Durand.
The Caboose was a mobile office on the railroad. Conductors did their paperwork from the caboose and used the window at the top, or cupola to keep an eye on the train from above. Based on what they saw, the Conductor could relay information to the Engineer, Switchman, and Brakeman. For long-haul journeys, cabooses with bunks, kitchens, or restrooms were used.
Cabooses were made obsolete as technology improved. Switches are now operated remotely and the train relays its own information to the Engineer. Today, Conductors do their paperwork from inside the engine.
The caboose on display in Durand was built in 1928 for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad. It was rebuilt twice by the ATSF before the Grand Trunk Western purchased it in 1969. Upon delivery, it was re-numbered to 75003 to match the local standard. This caboose was used around the Durand area until 1988, when it was sent to Port Huron’s yard and retired in August of 1989. Shortly thereafter, it was purchased by Jim and Laurie Kapp and donated to Durand Union Station.
Durand Union Station Restoration
The American Bicentennial was a crucial event for the Depot. Communities all across the United States were using the 200th birthday of the country to preserve and celebrate their local history. Restoring the Depot became the project for the citizens of Durand. The process, however, was slow. The Grand Trunk Western had abandoned the Depot in 1974 and was preparing it for demolition. By the time President Gerald Ford visited Durand in May 1976, nearly every window in the Depot he spoke in front of had been broken. The railroad was reluctant to sell a structure that had become a target for vandals and an eyesore.
While negotiations to acquire the Depot were ongoing in 1975, Durand’s Bicentennial Committee raised money to purchase a Baggage Car from the railroad. Ironically, the Grand Trunk manager in charge of the sale was named Durand! The Baggage Car was placed between the Water Tower and Fire Hall, and used as a museum. Four years later, a gate tower was acquired by the Baggage Car Museum and placed nearby. In 1991, the Gate Tower, Baggage Car, and its collection were gifted to Durand Union Station when the Michigan Railroad History Museum was established inside the Depot. The gate tower and car are now owned the City of Durand.
The Baggage Car was built by the Pullman Company in 1919 to be used as a Colonist Car for Canadian National Railway. It was used to transport immigrants from the eastern cities of Montreal and Toronto west into the Canadian prairies. It was then sold to Grand Trunk in 1938 and converted to move luggage and mail. The car was retired from service in 1971 and used as a yard office until 1975.
The grand opening of the Baggage Car Museum on April 30th 1976 was celebrated as Durand’s inaugural Railroad Days Festival. Today, Railroad Days serves as the focal point for the community’s celebration of its railroading heritage. Railroad Days Royalty and a Grand Marshal are selected for the annual parade, and a Railroad Person of the Year is elected by their peers in the railroad industry. Railroading and Durand’s famous Depot are celebrated annually the weekend after Mother’s Day.
History of Durand Union Station, Inc
The history of Durand Union Station, Incorporated begins with the American Bicentennial. Towns across the country were forming committees to preserve a piece of their local history in celebration for America’s 200th birthday and Durand was no exception. Efforts to save the Depot were slow, and were not finalized until 1979. After 1976, the Bicentennial Committee was renamed the “Depot Committee.”
When restoration began in 1982, the city felt a non-profit was best suited to oversee the project. Many members of the Depot Committee were also members of Durand Railroad Museum Incorporated, operating the Baggage Car Museum. As such, when DUSI was established in 1985, many citizens and supporters were members of both organizations.
For a time, there were two non-profits in Durand with similar goals. While the Baggage Car group worked to preserve Durand’s railroad heritage, DUSI worked to stabilize and restore the Depot. Many ideas were offered for how to use the structure, including turning it into a restaurant or cafe. In the end, the most popular choice was to turn it into a museum, and rent open space for events. In fact, the Ballroom where you are currently standing was created out of office space for the Grand Trunk Western Railroad!
In 1991, the State of Michigan designated the Depot as its official Railroad History Museum. As a result, the Baggage Car group dissolved, gifting its entire collection and its baggage car to DUSI. Durand Union Station Incorporated owns the collection of the museum, but the Depot itself is owned by the City of Durand.
DUSI continues to maintain and restore the 115-year old structure. It works hand in hand with the City of Durand to ensure the building is safe, secure, and accessible for everyone in the community.
Doctor Robert Cañas held a medical practice in Durand for fifty years. Born in El Salvador in 1917, Cañas graduated from its University Medical School in 1942 and then worked as a surgeon for the United Fruit Company in Panama.
Cañas moved to the United States in 1948, serving his internship in Phoenix, Arizona and then in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In 1952, he went into private practice in Birmingham, Alabama. There, he met his future wife Norma. Robert and Norma moved to Flint, Michigan in 1966 and finally Durand in 1967, where he established a medical practice on Saginaw Street. That office stayed open until his retirement in the early 2000s. Cañas was a consultant for the Reagan Administration in the early 1980s on matters pertaining to El Salvador, its political climate, and American foreign policy related to the Central American nation.
In addition to his status in the community as a local doctor, Cañas was a prolific artist and musician. His artwork can be found all over Durand, including in the Depot’s Grand Ballroom. Other murals, sculptures, and paintings can be found at the First Methodist Church, the VFW, the Chamber of Commerce, Durand High School, and outside of the clock tower downtown. He is also an author, publishing an autobiography of his first 100 years.
As of 2019, Dr. Robert Cañas is enjoying retirement with his family in California.
Freight Room and Scales
Railway Stations were the economic hub of rural communities like Durand. Smaller depots had rooms that combined service for freight and baggage, but Durand Union Station was designed as a larger hub.
Freight rooms like this were used to track and ensure proper fares were charged for shipments. To accomplish this, large scales were used to weigh a small sample of each train’s cargo. In fact, the original scales for the Depot are still beneath the wooden platform in the breezeway! Once the weight was recorded, it would be multiplied by the number of loads onboard by the going rate for the freight’s destination. This would be checked against the waybill, and the total fee would be charged to the railroad.
If a mail room was not present, mail service was handled in the freight room. In Durand’s case, bags of mail were sorted for destinations all over the state. In addition, Durand was a distribution center for major magazines.
At its peak in the 1920s, Durand Union Station saw 42 passenger, 22 mail and 78 freight trains a day. 140 trains making stops created organized chaos that required separate, specialized rooms for freight and baggage. Unlike in Europe, passengers in America paid for their luggage to be cared for as part of their fare.
While the freight room handled all shipped cargo on the rails, workers in the baggage room made sure the luggage of hundreds of passengers was accounted for. Most passengers took a connector train at Durand en route to their actual destination, so baggage switching was necessary. While passengers were enjoying a quick meal in the Depot’s restaurant or having a smoke in one of its two elaborate lounges, porters were hard at work sorting and loading the bags for the next leg of their journey.
Depots with large baggage and freight facilities were hubs of employment for the local community. At one point, nearly every family in Durand worked for the railroad or for someone who did. A station like this would have as many as twenty or more clerks, porters, gate keepers, and other personnel to move mail, cargo, and luggage from train to train. To assist travelers and customers, these employees were expected to uphold the highest standards of personal conduct. Depot employees had to maintain a vast amount of knowledge of the railroad’s schedules and operations.
Baggage and Coffin Carts
The carts you see around the Depot were used for many purposes. The smaller cart with the spindle was pulled by a horse and used to transport firehose. The larger flat carts were used for baggage and could be connected to one another with pins to create a small train. The baggage cart with partitions was modified to carry coffins.
As a major rail hub in an era before flight or long-distance automobile travel, respectful handling of the deceased was a serious consideration for all Depot staff. A coffin cart with multiple spaces is a sobering reminder of the impact of war, as soldiers did not always return home under their own power. Durand was still a major hub during both World Wars.
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.