Article: Fort Street Union Depot - The Final Days

Compiled by Jeff Feldmeier, April, 2004 from the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press.

Detroit News, Friday, 4/30/71 (front page)


Wabash Cannonball fires its last shot and a railroading era is ended

By James Graham, News Staff Writer

 A legend died today.

The Wabash Cannonball, last vestige of railroading’s golden days, left Detroit’s Union depot at 6:15 a.m. on its last scheduled run to St. Louis.

There are few survivors. No formal services are planned.

But the mourners spanned a continent.

The once mighty train, which in its heyday sported opulent parlor coaches lighted by oil lamps, smoking cars and sleepers called “Pullman Palaces,” was a mere shadow of itself at death.

A federally subsidized corporation, Amtrak (once called Railpax), attributed the Cannonball’s death to “modernity,” the streamlining of the nation’s rail passenger service.

In its last days, the Wabash Cannonball had shrunk to a diesel engine pulling a baggage car, one coach and a combination coach-snack bar manned by a cook and one attendant.

The dining car with its linen-covered tables and smiling waiters had been a casualty for some time.

Today, another coach was added to help accommodate the extra passengers who wanted to make a nostalgic last trip.

About 35 boarded the train when it pulled out of Detroit for the last time and other train buffs got aboard at such stops as Adrian, Fort Wayne, Ind., and Danville, Ill.—to ride to St. Louis, or just to the next station.

The 490-mile trip to St. Louis from Detroit took 10 hours.

Conductor W. C. Kindlesparker, a 42-year veteran with the Wabash, was on duty as the train pulled out of Union Station here.

His resonant “all aboard” was the last he will give here before being assigned to the less glamorous job of freight train switchman until his retirement next year.

Like engineer J. B. Miller, a 47-year Wabash veteran, and fireman Dennis Botts, Kindlesparker took his wife along for the last run.

In fact, Mrs. Clare Miller made the 10-minute run from the roundhouse to the Wabash yards in the cab with her 65-year-old husband.

“My husband wanted to retire with the Cannonball because any other job would be so anti-climactic,” said Mrs. Miller.  “But retirement rules will put him on a freight train for a year.”

John Bova left the ticket window at the Union Station, where he has worked for 29 years, to make the last trip.  His destination was Lafayette, where he will spend a few hours visiting his daughter, a nun, before taking the St. Louis-to-Detroit train home.

As he walked through the almost deserted depot, Bova said:

“What a far cry this is from World War II days.  Then we had 10 ticket windows open 24 hours a day, with people 10 and 15 deep at each window.  The government had the station plastered with signs asking ‘Is this trip necessary?’ in an effort to discourage civilian travel.”

Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Calvert, of Fort Wayne, had arranged their trip home to coincide with the Cannonball’s last run.

 “This is a sad time in my life to see an institution like the Cannonball die,” said Calvert, 68.  “I think people will regret the loss of trains like this.”

As he spoke, the two biggest contributors to the train’s demise, Detroit Metropolitan Airport and I-94 Freeway, were visible from the coach window.

The last tickets on the Cannonball were bought by Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kane, of Wyandotte.

Kane, a Detroit Cody High School teacher taking the day off, is the son of a 42-year veteran of the New York Central.  The Kanes were going to Lafayette to visit a daughter at Purdue University.

Near the turn of the century, William Kindt wrote a song that will become the great train’s eulogy.  In 1942, country singer Roy Acuff made the song a hit:

She’s mighty tall and handsome,

   she’s known quite well by all.

She’s the ‘boes (hoboes) accommodation

   on the Wabash Cannonball.

Kindt took a poetic license when he wrote about the Cannonball traveling from “the great Atlantic Ocean to the wide Pacific shore, from sunny California to icebound Labrador.”

Actually, there’s still some argument about where the Wabash Cannonball ran.

When the Norfolk & Western Railway (N&W) purchased the Wabash line in 1964, most of the Cannonball’s recorded history was lost, or perhaps salted away by railroad buffs.

A company official says veterans of the Cannonball recall it first ran from Chicago to Kansas City, while others say its route was Detroit to Kansas City.

A Wabash timetable from 1888, calling the train the Omaha Cannonball, showed a route from St. Louis to Omaha.

The name disappeared until an 1893 newspaper advertisement called it the Wabash Cannonball, traveling from Kansas City to St. Louis.

Many years ago, the name was switched to the train making the run between Detroit and St. Louis.

Now the Wabash Cannonball has gone the way of other great trains like the 20th Century Limited and Michigan’s Wolverine.

The beginning of the end started in 1966 when Norfolk & Western said the Cannonball was losing money and applied to the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) for permission to discontinue the train.

The ICC denied the petition but the Post Office Department contributed to the train’s eventual demise in 1967 when it stopped the shipment of mail by rail.

Two years later, the railway tried to get rid of the Cannonball again, but this time it had to do battle with a redoubtable little nun from Siena Heights College in Adrian-Sister Ann Joachim, OP.

Using her training as an attorney, the 68-year-old stunt pilot rallied supporters and convinced the ICC that the train was sorely needed.

She still refuses to acknowledge the Cannonball’s death.

“I’ve collected 15,000 signatures from coast to coast of people who want to see the Wabash Cannonball saved,” she said.

She is hoping Congress will approve a bill to provide $250 million to add more trains to the Amtrak system and save trains like the Cannonball.

“It’s an American heritage,” she declared.  “The government is subsidizing everything but passenger trains.  Why should freight be more important than people?” 

Listen to the jingle, the rumble and the roar

As she glides along the woodland

   through hills and by the shore.

Hear the might rush of the engine,

   hear those lonesome hoboes squall.

While traveling through the jungle

   on the Wabash Cannonball.

Detroit Free Press, Saturday, 5/1/71

Cannonball rolls into history

From the dimly lit, nearly empty Union Depot, the Wabash Cannonball pulled out of Detroit on time at 6:15 a.m. Friday on its last southbound run to St. Louis.

It carried about 45 passengers, most past middle age, who wanted once more to ride one of the most fabled trains in railroad history.

No special ceremonies marked the demise of the Cannonball, which is being eliminated under the new nationwide Amtrak system.

There were some pretty sad faces around here,” said John T. Sawicki, a 60-year-old ticket agent at the depot.  “We’ve seen it go in and out of this depot for many years.”

The once mighty popular train, which in its heyday sported plush parlor coaches, diners, smoking cars and sleepers called Pullman Palaces had fallen far.

A diesel engine Friday pulled a baggage car, two coaches and a combination coach-snack car.

The snack car rolled where once there was a diner with spotless tablecloths and full-course meals were served with silverware and finger bowls by eight to 10 white-coated waiters.

Mrs. John B. Milton, wife of the engineer on the run, and Mrs. Dennis Botts were among those taking the run to hear for a last time the Cannonball’s warming whistle as it roared through Michigan, Indiana and Illinois.

Souvenir hunters and railroad buffs were anxious to get mementos.  Fred Bauer of Dearborn got the train’s medallion.

The early history of the train is lost in legend.  Around the turn of the century William Kindt wrote the song—“The Wabash Cannonball”—and country singer Roy Acuff made into a hit in 1942.  The song will last among railroaders as the train’s eulogy.

“I’d like to see a reprieve for the Cannonball, but I guess it’s too late for that,” said one railroader.  “There’s a certain amount of fascination to it and it gets in your blood.”

[The News article has the engineer of the last run as J. B. Miller while the Free Press has John B. Milton.]

Detroit Free Press, Saturday, 1/26/74

Another Landmark to Fall

By Dennis Tereshinski, Free Press Staff Writer

When the wrecking ball descends Monday on the sandstone-and-red-brick building at Fort and Third, Detroit will lose another important link with its architectural past.

The Union Depot, built in 1891-93, is scheduled for demolition because the owners, the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Railway say it is more economical to tear it down than to make the necessary improvements to keep it standing.

The station, vacant nearly three years, has become a haven for vagrants, and fire-setting vandals, making it a public hazard.

 City officials ordered the railroad to keep the vagrants out or face court action last fall.

A C&O spokesman explained that the company had been unable to keep the vagrants out because as soon as the railroad boards up an entrance someone tears it down.

“From an engineering standpoint, the longer the station stands the worse its condition will become,” the spokesman said.  “It would cost more to renovate the building than to rebuild it.”

The station, with its massive four-clock tower, once was the home of the famed Wabash Cannonball.  It has been described by experts as monumental and gutsy in a solid aggressive style.

 “We’re losing a period in architecture in this city,” Suzanne Hillberry, a curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts, said Friday.

 “Ten years from now it will be very boring in Detroit if the only architecture we have is from the 1970s,” she complained.  “I don’t want to stand in the way of progress but I think it’s a mistake if we don’t blend the old with the new.”

The C&O said it regretted tearing down the building, but that no one had offered to purchase it.   When it was the site of the proposed downtown sports stadium a few years ago some prospective buyers stepped forward.

The Southeast Michigan Transit Authority has expressed an interest in the property for possible use as a station for commuters from Ann Arbor and Plymouth, but studies on the project would not be completed for another six months.

A workman summed up the future for the depot best when he told a passerby:  “You better take a good look at it, because come Monday the wrecking ball will be swinging.”

Detroit News, Sunday, 1/27/74

Demolition scheduled   

Save heart of depot, history buffs urge

By Douglas Glazier, News Staff Writer

A last-minute attempt is being made to save at least part of Detroit’s old Union Depot, although demolition has begun at the unused railroad station.

History buffs reacted immediately when they learned a final demolition schedule was set for the 83-year-old structure at West Fort and Third in downtown Detroit—once the home of such famed passenger trains as the Red Arrow, Ambassador and Wabash Cannonball.

“We can’t completely sidetrack the wrecking crew now, what with almost on one knowing of the demolition plans until a few days ago,” said Solan W. Weeks, director of the Detroit Historical Museum.

“So we’re seeking to spare the core of the old structure, and if that fails we seem assured of rescuing some of the depot’s rare architectural features for museum display. Union Depot truly is an important historical structure.”

The volunteer Historical Preservation Committee of the Detroit Historical Society recently recommended that Union Depot, which was built in 1891, be listed as a national landmark, Weeks revealed Saturday.

However, he said there was not sufficient time to forward the 200-volunteer committee’s report to Lansing or Washington.

Weeks said Union Depot is important because it is one of the last two old railroad stations in Detroit.  It is also one of the city’s two examples of the Richardson style of Victorian architecture.

 “It’s much older than the Penn Central Station and it’s a more unusual example of this particular style of massive red sandstone architecture than is the First Presbyterian Church,” he said.

“This is apart from its importance as the last vestige of a turn-of-the-century rail, ship and wagon transportation center which stretched down Third Street from Fort to Jefferson and the Detroit River.”

Weeks said Union Depot’s use as a transportation museum was contemplated after its closing in 1971 and there were alternative ideas for developing it into a restaurant, a cluster of retail shops or an ornate entrance arcade to a proposed sports stadium. 

“Pressure to find an immediate means of preserving Union Depot was reduced when plans to put a downtown sports stadium on that railroad property ran into financial problems recently,” Weeks admitted.

We were taken totally by surprise when we learned this past week that the C&O (Chesapeake & Ohio Railway Co.) already had contracted for demolition of the old depot to start.”

The C&O ordered the depot demolished because of increasing vandalism problems.

“Vandals and scrap scavengers apparently have done a lot of damage to the old depot in the past couple of months, pulling out its plumbing and removing copper flashings from its roof,” Weeks said.

 “This convinced the C&O that the depot was unsafe because loosened roof slates might fall on the public, so the company decided to tear down the whole building without the city realizing the extent of the problem.”

Weeks said he was appealed without success to a local C&O executive for a delay in the depot’s destruction, and meant to make a similar appeal to the company’s national officials.

“Our best bet is trying to get a purchaser interested in the depot as a restaurant or commercial setting, perhaps with the help of such agencies as the Community Development Commission and the American Institute of Architects.”

Weeks said he has received a promise of some cooperation from Sarko Equipment, Inc., the Dearborn contractor which will dismantle the depot.

“The wreckers have agreed to start work on two low wings which the structure possesses, leaving the core of the depot and its clock tower standing for a few weeks longer,” he said.

“And if we still can’t do anything to save the central structure in that time, they have agreed to let us designate what architectural items we want them to haul to our museums.”

One item worth saving, say historical buffs, might be the depot’s four-faced clock—considered an important downtown ornament in the years before skyscrapers appeared.

Some expressed the opinion that the clock, operated with a three-story pendulum, was more efficient than an electric replacement proposed for the depot in the 1930’s.

Union Depot started 83 years ago as the local station for a combination of railways, including the old Wabash, the Flint and Pere Marquette, and the Detroit, Lansing and Northern.

Union Depot’s first arrival was on Jan. 21, 1893, and its last departure was May 1, 1971.  It was a hustling place through World War II and received a $1 million modernization in the middle 1940’s.

The depot avoided a threat to tear it down as part of early 1950’s plans for what became Cobo Hall and the Detroit Civic Center.  It also survived tunneling under its tracks for the Lodge Freeway.

Detroit Free Press, Tuesday, 1/29/74

An Old Friend Bids City Goodby

By Louis Cook, Free Press Staff Writer

The sounds began coming out of the old Union Depot Monday afternoon, a jumble of little noises that had been contained within the old red sandstone railroad station walls since 1893.

It didn’t take much.  On the Fourth Street side the wrecking ball would have been overkill.  A clamshell bucket, with teeth gaped on it like a giant jack-o-lantern, did very well.

It bit into the ceiling where trains used to back in and it ravaged the approaches to the rear of the waiting room, and the sounds began to pour.

Click-clacks of high button shoes.  The clomp of combat boots.  A jingle of zoot-suit chains.  A swish of ostrich feathers.  Buster Browns.  A click of copper-toed shoes hitting a stair riser.

A torrent of words difficult to sort out.  Shop talk about Kragg-Jorgensens, Springfields, M1s, M16s.  Whispers of Cuba and Germany and Nam and Nicaragua and Pancho Villa and the Philippines and the Dominican Republic.

A phrase here and there.  Twenty-three skidoo.  But oh you kid.  Kaiser Wilhelm on a sour apple tree.  Crucified on a cross of gold.  But carry a big stick.

Sticks to buggies…Henry’s talking through his hat.  If God wants the Wrights to fly He’ll have to give them wings.  He kept us out of the war.

Happy sounds, like laughter and the smack of a kiss.  Sad sounds; people crying.

A hiss of air brakes.  A clang of a locomotive fire door.  The toiling of the bell of a six-eight wheeler.  Abooooord.  First stop, Lansing.

They tumbled out through the gaps in the old walls and floated for an instant in the hush of the merciful snow.  Then they were gone and there will never be any more at Third and Fort.

Detroit Free Press, Wednesday, 1/30/74 (Editorial)

As We See It

City Should Ask Reprieve For Historic Union Depot

The hour is very late to halt the destruction of Detroit’s old Fort Street Union Depot.  But few people would be inconvenienced by a pause to think about whether it would be for the good of the community.

The wreckers are already at work on the old building.  But they have acceded to a request that they start from the rear to permit a last-minute effort to reassess the value of keeping the main structure.

Time has almost run out.  Solan Weeks, director of the Detroit Historical Museum, and representatives of the city planning commission have been meeting with officers of the owners of the station.  But the options to save the station are few, and what may be needed is the speedy presence of an individual or an agency with realistic plans for preserving the depot and a fast means of raising money to buy it.

A good case can be made for it, if the building is still structurally sound.  When it was planned in 1889 its architects, James Steward and Co. of St. Louis, Mo., chose a style very popular at the time called Romanesque Revival, based on the concepts of Henry Hobson Richardson, a Boston architect.

Most of his own work in Detroit is long gone, but the Bagley Memorial Fountain on the Campus Martius remains, and there are touches of his ideas still standing in several churches and the Detroit Club.

W. Hawkins Ferry, in his “The Buildings of Detroit,” describes the station as of “robust plastic composition.” Ross and Carlin mention it proudly in their “Landmarks of Detroit,” published before the turn of the century, as “an ornament to the city.”

The Detroit Historical Museum and the city planning commission have been trying to keep an eye on Union Depot.  Detroit Renaissance had an option to purchase it for a while, hoping to work its sturdy stone into the plans for the riverfront stadium.

Those plans fell through when the stadium project encountered legal difficulties and—all of a sudden, there were the wreckers.

Detroit’s only procedure for assessing historic sites and areas is complicated and seldom used.  So far two areas, Indian Village and the Canfield area, and three buildings, the Detroit Cornice and Slate, Orchestra Hall and St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, have been put under city protection against demolition and disruption by expressways and other planning.

Considering the richness of Detroit’s history and the number of architectural witnesses to it, this does not represent an adequate inventory of protected areas and buildings.

But judgments vary on what is truly worth keeping.  Obviously the community cannot rescue every old structure that is threatened by the wrecker’s ball, nor should it.

There should be a reprieve, however, for the Union Depot until some seasoned consideration is applied to its merits and possibilities for future use.  Once it is down it can never be replaced.

Detroit News, Thursday, 1/31/74

Hands stolen from old Union Depot clock

Glass face of historic timepiece ruined

By Beverly Eckman, News Staff Writer

Someone has four sets of eight-foot clock hands and a guilty conscience.

Either “plunderers or misguided preservationists” took the clock hands from the tower of the old Union Depot, Solon [sic-Solan] W. Weeks, director of the Detroit Historical Museum, said yesterday.

In doing so, they destroyed the glass face of the clock which had ornamented the building at West Fort and Third since 1891.

And they destroyed any possibility of preserving the clock exterior intact for future use on another site.

The four-sided clock and other architectural details were promised to the city for preservation by Sarko Equipment, Inc., the Dearborn contractor which is dismantling the depot.

“I was down there looking at them Saturday, and Monday they were gone,” James Conway, curator of Urban History for the museum, said of the clock hands.

“I’m really saddened at how low people will sink in terms of theft and vandalism.

“We hope they’ll bring the hands back—leave them on the museum’s doorstep—we’ll welcome them back.

“We wanted to save the dials intact.”

Weeks had hoped the depot could be saved from demolition and restored, but those hopes were extinguished, he said, following a meeting Tuesday with officials of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Co.

The railroad had let the contract for demolition, Weeks said, because vandalism and looting had made the building unsafe and an insurance liability.

“Plunderers,” as Weeks termed them, had pulled out the plumbing and wiring and removed copper flashings which secured roof slates.

“If you want to talk about blame,” Weeks said bitterly, “put the blame for the building coming down on the people who are going in and plundering and stripping these buildings.

“The Union Depot was privately owned.  It could have stood for many years, until an adaptive use was found for it.

“Plunderers stripped the copper and opened up the roof to deterioration, which meant increased liability to the railroad.

“When it got to that state, the only rational decision for the railroad to make was that it had to come down.”

The volunteer Historical Preservation Committee of the Detroit Historical Society had recently recommended that the Union Depot be listed as a national landmark.

“But we always get called at the last minute, when the wrecking ball is already there,” Weeks said.

“Even if we could have delayed demolition two weeks, there was no assurance we could have accomplished anything.”

Weeks believes that the loss of the Union Depot should be a stiff lesson for the Detroit area.

“They talk about the rising number of rapes in the city—what about the rapes of buildings?

“There are many good buildings.  The only thing wrong with them is that they are vacant—until the plunderers come in and strip them.”

He believes much more time and money should be dedicated to the cause of historic preservation, which he says is named for the first time as a public purpose in the new Detroit City Charter.

“We’re squandering the resources of our city every time one of these landmarks comes down,” Weeks said.

“Restoration and preservation of the old buildings is as important to the renaissance of this city as new construction.”