The Whistlestop Park & Grass Lake Depot
The little stone depot that is the kingpin of Whistlestop Park was almost lost to the community in 1988. Its story before that year and afterward is an interesting one.
The Central Railroad (later the Michigan Central Rail Road, or MCRR) came through Grass Lake in 1842, and the community’s first depot was built that year. The price per acre for a building site was reportedly $2.00 at the location of Grass Lake Center. A resident one-and-a half miles west offered land for $1.50 an acre and that’s where the new wooden depot was erected! The town of Grass Lake began to grow up around the new depot, and the “old town” was abandoned. Some of the buildings at Grass Lake Center were actually moved to the new town site.
Forty years later, the MCRR was replacing many of its old stations. Ann Arbor got an impressive new stone depot in 1886, designed by the Detroit firm of Spier and Rohns, with stone from a quarry at Foster’s Station, northwest of Ann Arbor. The next year, Grass Lake was awarded a stone depot designed by the same architects and with stone from the same quarry – a small version of Ann Arbor’s station! It opened in December 1887.
Rail traffic proliferated during the next 50 years. In 1911, 21 trains passed through the Grass Lake area with seven of them making stops. Mail was sorted on board as trains sped through. However, as bus and auto traffic began to prevail, passenger travel declined. By 1929, five trains stopped in Grass Lake; by 1933, three, 1947, two, and just one by 1953. The handwriting was on the wall; the New York Central Railroad (parent of MCRR) began selling off unprofitable stations. Grass Lake’s was put up for sale in 1956 (by then the only train that stopped here had to be flagged) but sat empty until 1962. The price was reported at $5,000, and Robert and Bobby Mather used the building to publish the Grass Lake News.
The paper pulled out in 1976, the building was sold, and it again sat empty. In 1980, an arsonist (never actually identified) set fire to the depot, and afterward it existed as a forlorn scorched shell (the roof was removed for safety reasons) for eight more years.
Just at the time the village was going to condemn and tear down the eyesore, the Township Supervisor led an effort to get the village to buy the property. The vote was “no”. Phil Willis, who later became the first president of the Whistlestop Park Association, tried to set up an alliance to buy the depot, and at the last minute, he was advised the property had been bought by a developer who was going to build a gas station on part of the property. Luckily for all concerned, that party, Mike McKay was willing to sell enough of the property to allow the depot and a large park to be renovated and developed.
Things moved rapidly after that. The Whistlestop Park Association was established and incorporated in October 1988. The deed was signed over in December. The first grant was provided to the organization in February 1989.
Volunteers worked on the building for the next three years. A new structure was built inside the remaining stone walls so the old 1887 walls bear no weight but their own. The new interior structure holds up the roof. Luckily, plans of the roof were available so the building could be made to look absolutely authentic. Dedicated volunteers also brought the adjacent park back to life using a plan drafted in 1991. A gazebo was added shortly thereafter as well as an original maintenance shed.
The depot was first reopened in 1991 and dedicated in 1992. For the dedication, an AMTRAK train was run from Ann Arbor to Grass Lake to make a special stop here – the first in 36 years. A guest on that train was Maritta Wolff, former Grass Lake resident and author of the novel Whistle Stop while a University of Michigan student in 1940. She lived in California and was invited to come back for the dedication event. Many Grass Lake residents went to Ann Arbor by school bus and rode back on the train with her. The title of Maritta’s novel was the inspiration for naming the organization that owns the depot and park.
Since then, the depot has been a village jewel. Part of the upkeep of the building has been funded by the selling of engraved bricks, many of which came from the original platform around the building. The depot is primarily used for rentals, including wedding receptions, reunions, social gatherings, and other community events. Many hours of volunteer labor and $250,000 in grants and contributions saved the building. Now it is earning its keep! Organizations or groups who wish to rent or tour the depot may contact the Whistlestop Park Association for specific restrictions, requirements and rates.
Heritage Day in September highlights the depot every year with an Open House. We invite the community to be involved with Whistlestop Park, including buying a membership and a brick. The 1887 Michigan Central Rail Road depot is active again. Visit it, use it, and enjoy it!