Penn Central needed money. Detroit restaurateur Chuck Muer needed a building in which to open a restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan. More than 40 years later the intersection of interests continues to hold implications for rail passengers.
At the center of the story is a grand Romanesque railroad station opened in 1887 by the Michigan Central Railroad.
Designed with castle-like walls by Detroit architect Frederick Spier, the station was called the finest on the MC’s route between Chicago and Buffalo, New York.
But by 1969, Penn Central passenger patronage in Ann Arbor had shrunk to about 25 a day.
The financially beleaguered PC didn’t need a grand depot to serve the nine trains a day that used the station. some of which were commuter runs to Detroit that didn’t operate on weekends.
When Muer offered to buy the station, Penn Central agreed to sell it and in 1970 a seafood restaurant named the Gandy Dancer opened there.
At the time, many viewed Muer as a hero for saving a building in which much local history was vested and which had been neglected by the New York Central and Penn Central.
Former Ann Arbor Mayor Lou Belcher recalled walking the site with Muer and looking at what would later become the restaurant’s main dining room.
He described it as nothing but dirt, poles, railroad ties and equipment.”It was filthy,” Belcher said.
As for Penn Central passengers, they were forced to use a former express office just east of the Broadway Bridge.
“It had a ticket office, restrooms and a waiting area furnished with an old wooden bench with seating for 12 passengers,” said Clark Charnetski, an Ann Arbor resident and former chairman of the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers.
At the time, the outlook for intercity rail passenger service, particularly on routes operated by Penn Central, was bleak.
PC announced in March 1970 that it would end all intercity passenger service west of Buffalo and Pittsburgh.
The Interstate Commerce Commission stalled that plan, but in June when Penn Central filed for bankruptcy protection, Congress moved to create Amtrak.
When Amtrak took over on May 1, 1971, it kept just four trains between Chicago and Detroit. Penn Central continued to operate the Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter trains.
And passengers continued to wait for trains in that tiny station area in the former express building.
Then Amtrak improved the service and patronage quickly grew.
In 1975, the Michigan Department of Transportation agreed to fund the Detroit commuter trains and Amtrak agreed to operate them.
Named the Michigan Executive, the trains began originating in Jackson and also served Chelsea and Ypsilanti.
In truth, those trains had always originated there because Penn Central had a crew base there. The trains just deadheaded between Jackson and Ann Arbor.
MDOT also built a 75-space parking lot west of the Broadway Bridge where the present Amtrak station is situated today.
Patronage kept growing and the small station, which was cramped even during the Penn Central era, became even more crowded.
Then Muer said he wanted to expand the former Michigan Central station. Battle lines were being drawn and something had to give.
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Many in a community tend to get nostalgic when talking about their city’s railroad station even if they have never used it for train travel or haven’t been in it for many years.
Ann Arbor is no exception and many continue to extol the virtues of the past for a building that has been extensively re-purposed.
Of course, there was a time when the Michigan Central station played a central role in Ann Arbor life.
A historic marker at the station grounds says that enthusiastic crowds gathered to see presidents, prominent politicians and visiting dignitaries, some of whom spoke from the rear platforms of trains.
University of Michigan football teams left from there to play games in far-flung stadiums in the Big Ten conference.
Cheering crowds welcomed home or sent off troops in shows of patriotic fervor. Distinguished lecturers and concert artists arrived to perform at the University of Michigan or other venues in town.
In the 1960 presidential election, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon both spoke at the depot.
Also making whistle stops in Ann Arbor over the years were Teddy Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland, William Howard Taft, William Jennings Bryan and even Winston Churchill.
The station’s interior featured ornate waiting rooms, an elaborate ticket booth, red oak ceilings and trim, French tile floors, stained glass windows and a large terra cotta fireplace. The grounds outside included a garden with a fountain.
Two smaller buildings, a railway express office and a baggage facility, were connected to the depot by a metal canopy.
That is how the station is often described and while it looked like that during the heyday of rail travel, it was much less attractive by the late 1960s.
“Some local historians say that Muer saved the old station, but it is my understanding that there was never any threat to its existence,” Charnetski said. “Similar stations in Jackson, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo and Niles were never torn down. With the exception of Battle Creek, those other stations are now used by Amtrak.”
Amtrak was painfully aware of the limitations of the station facilities that it inherited from Penn Central.
Some thought that Amtrak was eyeing taking over the former Michigan Central station, which was designated a historical site by the Michigan Historical Commission in 1974 and then entered on the National Register of Historic Places.
A city commissioner even warned Muer at a ceremony to “watch out for the Amtrak wolves who might want the station back.”
Amtrak was testing French-built Turboliners on the Chicago-Detroit route and permanently assigned the new equipment there on April 10, 1075. When a second Turboliner was added on April 27, Amtrak launched a third Chicago-Detroit roundtrip, bringing service between the two cities to six trains a day.
Passengers liked the equipment and ridership in May 1975 was up 40 percent over that of April. By July, so many wanted to ride the Turboliners that as many as 100 had to stand in the aisles on weekend trips.
The growth in the Chicago-Detroit corridor coincided with a plan by Muer to build an addition to the station, a plan that divided the folks of Ann Arbor between late 1975 and 1976. The city council ultimately voted to allow the expansion, despite protests from historic preservationists.
Muer expanded the Gandy Dancer’s dining and kitchen facilities by enclosing the space between the main building and the former baggage station, which was then used for storage.
He also installed a new glassed-in dining area beneath the metal canopy on the track side.
The expanded restaurant opened in September 1976.
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For its part, Amtrak sought in 1978 to enlarge its waiting room by glassing in the canopy between the express building and the depot in a manner similar to what the Gandy Dancer had done with the restaurant portion.
Workers tore off the glass entrance to the small Amtrak station and poured concrete footings for the addition.
But Muer objected to the work, saying the number of passengers using the station had grown to 250 a day by 1975 and there wasn’t enough parking. In response, the city issued a stop-work order and a small station became even smaller.
Many passengers were forced to wait for trains outside in the cold and snow.
As a makeshift solution, Amtrak bought an old surplus portable classroom building from the Ann Arbor schools and installed it beneath the Broadway Bridge to serve as an overflow waiting room.
In 1979, MDOT asked the Michigan passenger advocacy group if Ann Arbor needed a new station. By now Ann Arbor was the second heaviest used Amtrak station in Michigan. Of course it did, but where would it be located?
Following a June 1979 meeting between MDOT and city officials, a committee was formed to recommend a station site.
On the committee were representatives of the city, MDOT, Amtrak, the University of Michigan, Greyhound and other interested parties, including the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers.
Pollack Design Associates of Ann Arbor conducted a 98-page study that was released in November 1979.
It examined a number of locations, but the parking lot for commuters that MDOT had built on Depot Street was favored.
Congressman Carl Pursell obtained a federal earmark for the new Amtrak station, which was built in 1983. The site included a 100-space parking lot across the tracks.
A year later, the Michigan Executive was discontinued. Since then, Amtrak service through Ann Arbor has remained at six trains a day. For the past several years, the service has operated under the Wolverine Service moniker.
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Although on the small side, the 1983 station is still used and is the busiest Amtrak station in Michigan, seeing 147,093 passengers in 2014, a 31 percent increased over a decade earlier.
In many ways, Ann Arbor is in the same situation it was in the late 1970s with an Amtrak station that many, including the current city administration, views as inadequate to meet the city’s present and future needs.
MDOT purchased from Norfolk Southern the tracks between Dearborn and Kalamazoo used by the Wolverines and has launched a track rehabilitation campaign to boost train speeds and cut the running times.
State officials are talking about expanding the number of trains between Chicago and Detroit with up to 10 roundtrips a day the long-term goal.
There also are discussions about restarting Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter service, although that is not imminent.
The city is again studying sites for a new station, which is expected to largely be funded by the federal government and built in 2017-2018.
“Today we have a similar choice of what to do,” Charnetski says of the process of studying potential sites for a new Amtrak station.
One of those options would be to do what some feared Amtrak wanted to do in the middle 1970s and take over the former Michigan Central station.
Because the station is privately owned, taking it over and re-configuring it for transportation use is not all that simple.
But the idea continues to glow in the minds of some with those dreams driven in part by nostalgia.
City Council Member Sabra Briere said she’s fascinated by the idea of having the depot becoming a train station again.
“There were a lot of really bad decisions made in the history of time, and many people would say that was a bad decision,” she said of letting the depot become a restaurant.
Former mayor Belcher understands the affinity that many have for the former station because it is part of the city’s history.
“I know at one time it meant a lot to the whole city, because that’s basically where all the U of M alumni, students, football traffic, everything else, came into Ann Arbor,” he said. “So many people who first came to Ann Arbor used that train station.”
But Belcher opposes converting the depot back to a train station and expressed doubt that the currently owner of the restaurant, Landry’s Inc., would agreed to it.
“It’s a hell of a place to eat,” Belcher said of the Gandy Dancer, noting it’s packed on Sundays for brunch, and patrons cheer and clap whenever trains pass.
“My view of historical buildings is that if a lot of people use them and enjoy them and revel in their history, that’s historical preservation,” Belcher said. “They can build another train station anywhere they want. That’s the Gandy Dancer now.”
Rail advocate Charnetski takes a similar position. He thinks that the best solution would be to build a new station on Fuller Road.
“I personally favor the Fuller Road site, mainly because of its location on the most important bus transit route in Michigan and its proximity to the [University of Michigan] Medical Center,” Charnetski said.
The Fuller Road site is also along the proposed route of the Ann Arbor Connector, a high-capacity intracity transit system that’s in the planning stages.
Acknowledging that three decades ago he favored a Depot Street location, Charnetski noted that the Fuller Road location would require using city parkland. But he said circumstances have changed and so has his opinion.
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Eli Cooper is Ann Arbor’s transportation program manager. He said the city is looking at using the former Michigan Central station because the FRA asked it to do so.
“They requested the same level of concept planning and cost estimation as the other sites remaining in the analysis,” Cooper said.
But that also includes the current site of the existing Amtrak station on Depot Street. Although there has been talk for years of a new Amtrak station in Ann Arbor, the latest efforts only began in 2014.
The city had ruled out using the former Michigan Central station and instead focused on the Fuller Road site or the existing Amtrak station site.
Then the FRA handed down an edict to include the former Michigan Central station in the study.
Cooper said the project team had already included a study of the MC station location as part of the environmental review process.
“We submitted materials to the FRA including information about the (Gandy Dancer) site,” he said. “The FRA requested we continue to evaluate this location as part of the environmental review. They asked that we develop concept plans and costs associated with use of the (Gandy Dancer) as one of the alternatives.”
A reporter for the Ann Arbor News has sought comment from the owner of the Gandy Dancer, but has yet to receive a reply.
The city recently submitted to MDOT a preliminary report about sites for the proposed new Amtrak station.
But officials are being tight-lipped on which site they favor, saying that they expect to hold public hearings this fall.
Chuck Muer, the restaurant owner who started this process decades ago by buying the Michigan Central station from Penn Central, won’t be around to see the outcome.
Muer, whose fine dining restaurant empire grew to more than 20 seafood restaurants, vanished in 1993 after setting sail from the Bahamas in a 40-foot sailboat. No trace of him and his boat, Charley’s Crab, were ever found.