The last Passenger Train left this Station in 1963


Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad East Saginaw Depot, Saginaw Michigan
Date added: February 23, 2024 Categories: Michigan Train Station Passenger Station Gilbert, Bradford L.
North and west facades (1996)

The former Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad Depot is the largest Late Victorian, pre-Richardsonian Romanesque depot building in Michigan. It was designed by Bradford L. Gilbert, one of the nation's leading railroad station architects in the late nineteenth century. The depot served as the city's primary passenger station for over eighty years.

The Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad Company was organized on January 21st, 1857 to build and operate a railroad line from Flint through Saginaw to Pere Marquette (now Ludington). The laying of track began on the bank of the Saginaw River just west of the existing depot on August 19th, 1859. The part of the line extending southward to Flint was completed in December 1862, and the section westward to Ludington in 1874. Connections to Detroit and Toledo were established in 1865 and 1874, respectively.

Saginaw served as the Flint and Pere Marquette's headquarters. New York businessman Jesse Hoyt, a major financier of the railroad and a prime mover in the early development of East Saginaw, donated to the railroad grounds for its yard and for a depot. The 1877 Beers atlas shows the railroad's large shop complex, including two engine houses, a car house, a "car manufactory," a blacksmith shop, a machine shop, and a freight house, north of Potter Street where the CSX complex presently exists (some remnants of the nineteenth-century development have survived). The original, small depot stood on the north side of Potter Street just west of the west end of the present depot. Potter Street itself is almost certainly named in honor of Dr. Henry C. Potter, one of the most prominent figures in the railroad's early development and its long-time general manager.

The first news that the railroad intended to build a new East Saginaw depot was a brief note to that effect in the April 7th, 1881, Saginaw Daily Courier. The July 7th Daily Courier noted the progress of construction:

Great activity is displayed on Potter street at present in the line of building. Buildings that have stood on the proposed site of the new depot of the F. & P.M. R. R. company are being torn down, and the foundations for the large structure, which is to be 280 feet in length, was marked out yesterday a Mr. W. B. Sears, chief engineer of the road.

The Saginaw Daily Courier provided a detailed description of the new building in its October 25th, 1881, number, noting that the slate roof was then being installed. The Morning Herald of July 11th, 1882 noted that the depot "is rapidly approaching completion." Two weeks later, on July 25th, the Morning Herald reported the opening of the "new depot to the traveling public yesterday."

The new Flint and Pere Marquette depot was constructed during the presidency of Jesse Hoyt. In the early 1850s, Hoyt (1815-82), a New York businessman and investor, owned extensive timber lands in the Saginaw Valley. Hoyt purchased a one-third interest in the site of the east-of-the-river part of Saginaw which became East Saginaw and, with his partners, had East Saginaw platted in 1850. More than any other person, Hoyt financed the early development of East Saginaw, including the construction of a plank road to Flint; the development of local commercial, banking, lumber, shipbuilding, salt, and agricultural enterprises; and the building of hotels and other buildings. As previously noted, he was an early and important investor in the Flint and Pere Marquette and donated the site for the railroad's depot and yards. Hoyt became president of the Flint and Pere Marquette in 1875 and served in that capacity until his death a month after the new depot was completed. It seems likely that Hoyt was directly involved in the planning for the depot.

The structure was designed by New York architect Bradford L. Gilbert. Gilbert (1853-1911), born in Watertown, New York, the son of a civil engineer, learned the practice of architecture from New York architect J. Cleveland Cady, for whom he went to work in 1872. In 1876 he became architect for the New York, Lake Erie and Western Railroad under the company's chief engineer, Octave Channte, designing stations and other buildings for the railroad. Gilbert, according to his biography in The National Cyclopedia of American Biography, achieved "a great reputation for skill and originality through the Northern and Northwestern states" for the railroad buildings he designed during his years with the railroad. He evidently established his own practice about 1880. Railroad architecture became one of his specialties. Gilbert designed stations for at least twenty-five railroads, including ones in Canada and Mexico, from the 1870s to at least 1903. His masterpiece was the Richardsonian Romanesque Illinois Central Station in Chicago, built in 1892-93. The East Saginaw depot, designed in 1881, must have been one of Gilbert's early commissions as an independently practicing architect. His other thus far identified Michigan stations are union depots in West Bay City (demolished) and Reed City, the Reed City one serving the Flint and Pere Marquette along with another line.

The depot served an important through route across the central part of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, one with direct connections to major cities including Detroit, Toledo, Chicago, and St. Paul (the latter via ferry connections across Lake Michigan). Leading local merchants and businessmen and their families, rewarded by the railroad for their freight business with annual passes for passenger travel on the line, would have passed through the depot, along with other travelers.

But the Flint and Pere Marquette's bread and butter was the logging industry. The line passed through what became in the 1870s and 80s one of the greatest lumber-producing regions in the country. For the lumber towns and camps it passed, the railroad was an important means of transporting supplies, products, and personnel. The Potter Street Depot, built only a year or two before the peak of the lumbering boom in the Saginaw Valley, when lumber production on the river exceeded one billion board feet per year, certainly served many of the thousands of lumberjacks who passed through Saginaw by train each year in the late fall and early winter on their way to the logging camps to the north and west. John W. Fitzmaurice's The Shanty Boy (1888) provides a crisp portrait of the shanty boys on the train on the way to the woods in 1880. "The car in which he rode was full in every form of the word. The seats intended for two held three and four. The aisles were jammed with heaving, surging, roaring, swearing, laughing humanity, out of nearly every kindred, nation, people and tongue. All were full, and every man had a bottle. It was the last "drunk" of the season and it was a bouncer...."

The picture presented in that train load of men going to the woods, was a laughably strange combination of the drunkenly sublime and ridiculous. The combination was made up of Americans, French, Germans, Swedes, Irish, English, Poles and Indians. All were more or less filled with "budge," and all were hilariously noisy. Every man was using his mother tongue in snatches of song, joke and wild argument. Every one was gloriously happy, and the bottle passed from hand to hand and mouth to mouth with wonderous rapidity. As fast as one bottle was emptied, through the window it went, and another took its place.

The trip Fitzmaurice describes was on the Michigan Central (which also passed through Saginaw on its way north), but the situation on the Flint and Pere Marquette at that time of year must have been similar. With the completion in 1882 of the Port Huron and Northwestern Railroad, which provided a connection between the Flint and Pere Marquette and Canada via Port Huron, large numbers of Canadian lumberjacks joined the annual migration to the woods. In the spring after the log drives many of the same lumberjacks would have travelled back to their homes by rail. Many stopped off in Saginaw on the way or remained in the city over the summer until the camps resumed operations in the fall. Potter Street with its numerous bars and cheap hotels was one of the shanty boys' principal resorts in the city.

References to the depot as the "Union Depot" appear in the c. 1890 Twelvetrees Souvenir of Saginaw, the Saginaw directory for 1902 (only), and in Mills' History of Saginaw County published in 1918. The name was generally given to depots serving more than one line. Perhaps the name in this case resulted from the fact that as early as 1884 the depot served not only the Flint and Pere Marquette but also the Port Huron and Northwestern and the Saginaw, Tuscola and Huron railroads. After 1902 the directories refer to the building simply as the "Potter Street Depot."

Passenger service to the depot under the auspices of the Flint and Pere Marquette and the Pere Marquette and New York Central railroads which more recently operated the line continued until 1963 or 1964 when the single-car "Bee-Liner" running between Detroit and Bay City was discontinued. The depot housed some CSX Transportation, Inc. offices until 1986. Since that time the building has been unoccupied. On December 19th, 1989, CSX Transportation, Inc. sold the depot to the Saginaw Depot Preservation Corporation, a non-profit organization, which hopes to refurbish the structure. On April 16-17, 1991, fire destroyed the depot's roof and badly damaged the second story. The Saginaw Depot Preservation Corporation is restoring the building as funds permit.

Building Description

The East Saginaw or Potter Street Depot, built by the Flint & Pere Marquette Railroad in 1881-82, is an immense stone-trimmed, red brick-wall building consisting of the depot proper and an adjacent boiler or powerhouse. A fire in April 1991, destroyed the building's roof and caused severe interior damage, but the roof has been reconstructed. The two-story, hip-roof depot building is long and narrow in form, about 285 feet in length and forty in width, with nearly symmetrical street- and trackside elevations. The otherwise planar street and track facades are each broken by three sets of bays; a square-plan central one flanked by slant-sided ones, which rise to support tall hip roofs that span the structure from side to side and dominate the lower, main hip roof. A centrally positioned, square-plan, pyramid-roof tower dominates the structure. The building's exterior detailing includes Panel Brick friezes, accent bands of darker-color brick at window-sill and -lintel level and in the voussoirs of the segmental-arch head of the former central streetside entrance, sawtooth brickwork panels in the arches above some windows, and terra-cotta panels in the friezes, forming impost blocks for some window arches, and above the central street-side entrance. Broad dormers with round-arch windows and massive chimney stacks pierce the roofs. A shed-roof canopy, supported by large iron brackets, extends almost entirely around the building above the ground story. The depot's location, "EAST SAGINAW," is proclaimed by a large stone plaque in the central bay on the trackside facade. An adjacent boiler house building is a square, two-story building with a high hip roof and massive, square-plan chimney stack.

The depot stands along the south side of the CSX (former Flint & Pere Marquette) rail line and yard at the point where the line passes closest to Saginaw's central business district, located about a half mile to the south. The building's trackside facade faces north on the railroad and its main streetside facade south on Potter Street a short distance east of Washington Avenue, the major entrance into downtown Saginaw from the north. The south side of Potter Street opposite the depot contains numerous late nineteenth-century commercial buildings that probably served businesses catering to the large railroad workforce and travelers. Many of these buildings are abandoned and deteriorating. An old residential neighborhood -- containing many vacant lots but also some large and substantial Italianate, Queen Anne, and Colonial Revival houses; separates Potter Street from the city's downtown.

The main depot building and adjacent boiler house are constructed with walls of red-orange brick. Darker brick is used in single-course bands which outline the top and bottoms of beltcourses at window-sill and -lintel level and form alternate voussoirs in the arch above the central streetside entrance. The "EAST SAGINAW" plaque, window sills and lintels, chimney beltcourses and other trimmings, and the gables of the dormers are of grayish sandstone. Small panels of yellow-buff terra cotta decorate the frieze at the building's angles and above the piers separating the windows and serve as impost blocks for segmental arches spanning the lower-story window openings. The capitals from which the arch crowning the window in each of the gabled front and side dormers springs are of the same material and color. Capitals that frame the segmental-arch-head opening of the central streetside entrance as well as the pediment spanning the entrance are of dark orange-red terra cotta. The canopy which virtually surrounds the entire building is supported by massive iron brackets of ornamental design, and I-beams support the lower ends of the wood rafters upholding the canopy roof. The main, tower, and dormer cornices are of copper. Much of the main cornice was lost in the fire. Wooden trusses with metal tension rods spanning the depot from north to south supported the roof, which was most recently clad in green-colored asphalt shingling but originally in slate; most of the roof structure was burned away, leaving charred remnants of trusses and sections of intact roofing here and there along the eaves. During 1995-96 the depot, except for the dormers, was re-roofed with a felt-covered plywood roof on a conventional wood truss system. The dormer roofs and asphalt shingling for the entire roof structure await the raising of additional funds.

The depot housed passenger station facilities and freight storage downstairs and depot and railroad offices in the second story. Centrally positioned entrances along the broad north and south sides aligned with the tower provide access to a two-story hallway. Staircases flanked on either side by passageways rise from each end of the hall, just inside the entrances, to a square-plan landing in the center, from which shorter flights extend east and west to the second story. Balustrades with simple turned balusters flank the staircases and front a passageway extending around the stairwell at the second-story level. The staircases' upper handrails are charred.

The depot's western end contains in the street-level men's and women's waiting room areas and lavatories, ticket and telegraph office space, and passenger baggage room. Located directly west of the stair hall, the men's waiting room spans the building from north to south and has an entrance from the outside on both the street and track sides. An arched entranceway opens into the stair hall on the east and another on the west leads through a short corridor to the women's waiting room. The women's waiting room also has entrances from the outside on the street and track sides. A large lavatory room fills the southeast corner of the space.

Flanking the corridor on the north is the ticket office, which has a single segmental-arch head ticket window facing into each waiting room and onto the corridor and a bay window for the telegrapher on the track side giving him a clear view down the track. The women's lavatory forms the corridor's south side. At the west end of the building is the passenger baggage room. This has two large sliding-door entrances on both the street and track sides.

The waiting rooms are finished similarly, except that the women's has a fireplace with brick mantelpiece, while the men's has none. The mantel is described in an article on the depot in the October 25th, 1881, Daily Courier as being of "Philadelphia brick, and red Terra Cotta, eighteen feet high, ten feet wide" and having a fireplace six feet wide and five high. Both waiting rooms have floors, walls, and ceilings finished in narrow beaded boarding. The walls have a diagonally boarded dado, with vertical boarding above, while the ceilings are finished in diagonal boarding laid symmetrically on either side of a cased and paneled beam running east-west through the room's center. In each room, two round iron columns with florid Late Victorian capitals support the beam. The doorways and windows have molded trim with bullseye-decorated angle blocks.

The east end of the first story has been altered more than the west. A brief description of the building in the April 27th, 1882 Saginaw Weekly Courier noted that the first story contained a dining room forty by fifty-five feet in ground dimensions and two express rooms, each fifteen by forty feet in size. The plan of the depot's first story as it existed in 1901 is illustrated in that year's edition of the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of Saginaw, Michigan, volume 1, plate 78. The dining room occupied the west half of the east wing, from the central stair hall on the west east to and including the area fronted by the bay windows. Two doorways each on the street and track sides provided access. Next east, occupying about half the remaining length of the wing, was a kitchen. Beyond lay an express room and, at the east end of the building, the depot master's office.

The east end now contains one room extending from the central stair hall east to just west of the doorway to the west of the bay window. A larger room then extends eastward beyond the bay window to a wall between the two sets of sliding doors at the building's far east end. The space at the east end which once housed the depot master's office remains intact. In the two larger rooms, partitions run partly across the space in an east-west direction have been constructed about fifteen feet from the north wall. The partitions do not extend up to the ceiling. Extending out about ten feet from the north wall in both rooms is a mezzanine level or gallery, its front enclosed with windows that rise up to the ceiling. No furnishings or equipment relating to the dining room/kitchen functions have survived. Despite the apparent major revision of the floor plan in this area, the finishes are similar to those in the west wing. Like the rooms in the building's west end, these rooms also have walls and ceilings finished in beaded boarding, but with the walls boarded vertically from floor to ceiling.

It appears that the dining room originally had two large segmental-arch-head doorways from the outside on both the street and track sides, near the stair hall and next to the bay window. The one next to the stair hall on the street side has been made into a window, while the more narrow window directly to its east has been made into a doorway. On the street side of the former kitchen area, one large, square-head doorway has been cut through the wall just east of the bay window where two windows previously existed and, farther east, a second, similar doorway has been cut through, replacing a single window. On the trackside in the kitchen area, a third similar doorway has been constructed, replacing a single window. The bricked-in upper portions of the window openings and the terra-cotta impost blocks and brickwork spanning the former segmental-arch-head openings survive. Near the east end of the building paired original sliding doors on the street and track sides, originally providing access to the express room and depot master's office, remain.

In the second story, a corridor extends east and west through the center of each wing from arched entrances at the heads of the central staircases to large rooms at either end of the building. A series of generally small rooms; all finished with plastered walls above vertical-board dados, boarded floors and ceilings, and door and window trim like that downstairs; flanks the corridors on both sides. Several rooms have brick-walled vaults with metal doors opening from them. A large room extends across the far west end of the building.

From the south side of the second floor, east corridor just east of the archway separating it from the stair hall, a narrow, enclosed, double-flight staircase running south, then back north, provided access to the third or attic floor. In the central part of the building, a large room flanked the upper part of the stair hall on each side. At one time the stair hall was open through the third story to the base of the tower and a narrow walkway that surrounded the well was fronted by a balustrade similar to that at the second-floor level. However, a ceiling was long ago installed above the second story. The attic space in the rooms in the central block and in the lower east and west wings was finished with plain boarded floors and plastered walls and ceilings. Substantial quantities of old railroad records were stored in the attic and were lost in the fire.

Before the fire of April 16-17, 1991, the depot building was surprisingly little altered. A few exterior windows were bricked in and several exterior doorways on the street side cut through or widened. Several of the original wood exterior doors, the surviving ones have panels of vertical or diagonal beaded boarding, were replaced with modern makeshift ones. The depot's first story remains very much intact, but has suffered much warping of the boarding from water damage from the time of the fire and the loss of the roof. In the second story, many rooms, particularly along the street side, remain largely intact, with the dados and door and window trim still retaining green paint, even though the roof and ceiling have been almost entirely burned away. The third or attic story was totally destroyed.

Adjacent to the depot's east end, and separated from it by a narrow platform, is the former boiler house/power plant building. A rectangular-plan, two-story building topped by a high hip roof, it matches the depot in general exterior style. The building's furnace, connected to a square-plan, sixty-five-foot-high chimney at the east end, provided the depot's heat and hot water. The building also contained quarters for railroad workers. The 1901 Sanborn map shows a frame, one-story wing which, extending to the east, contained paint and carpenter shops, an ice house, and a storage room. This long ago disappeared. A flat-roof, one-story, red brick, rear extension, and coal bin added later remain. The boiler house building was not damaged by the April 16-17, 1991 fire.

Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad East Saginaw Depot, Saginaw Michigan South and east facades (1996)
South and east facades (1996)

Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad East Saginaw Depot, Saginaw Michigan East and north facades (1996)
East and north facades (1996)

Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad East Saginaw Depot, Saginaw Michigan North and west facades (1996)
North and west facades (1996)

Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad East Saginaw Depot, Saginaw Michigan North facade (1996)
North facade (1996)

Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad East Saginaw Depot, Saginaw Michigan Doors to baggage room at west end of south facade (1996)
Doors to baggage room at west end of south facade (1996)

Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad East Saginaw Depot, Saginaw Michigan West wall of women's waiting room, showing brick fireplace (1996)
West wall of women's waiting room, showing brick fireplace (1996)

Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad East Saginaw Depot, Saginaw Michigan Cast iron column and ceiling detail, women's waiting room (1996)
Cast iron column and ceiling detail, women's waiting room (1996)

Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad East Saginaw Depot, Saginaw Michigan East wall of men's waiting room (1996)
East wall of men's waiting room (1996)

Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad East Saginaw Depot, Saginaw Michigan West wall of men's waiting room (1996)
West wall of men's waiting room (1996)