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Wednesday, July 21,2010

Is that the train, ma?

Grand Trunk depot’s longest wait may be over

by Lawrence Cosentino

When the Chicago and Grand Trunk (later named Grand Trunk Western) rail depot at 1203 S. Washington Ave. was dedicated Jan. 20, 1903, nobody cried over the shoebox it replaced.


“The old station has been demolished into thousands of pieces,” crowed a press report.


The new depot boasted “richness of material, completeness of detail and effective decoration,” according to a description from the period. It had a fireplace, a leather lounge and separate waiting rooms for ladies and gentlemen.


If the Lansing Board of Water and Light has its way, the “new” station, empty and crumbling for 10 years, will stay in one piece.


The crenellated Jacobean Revival confection will be restored as part of a $182 million project centering on a new natural gas-powered cogeneration plant. The depot will be used for BWL meetings and events, but will also be opened up to the surrounding community.


“We’re going to put that building just like it was originally,” BWL chief designer Dick Peffley said.


Until passenger service stopped in 1971, the station saw thousands of partings and reunions. At first, horse-drawn carriages dropped off and picked up passengers in the shadow of the REO automobile factory. Shoppers flocked to a bustling South Washington commercial district, before Interstate 496 lopped the area away from downtown.


The depot was the last many servicemen saw of Lansing.


It was also the scene of the worst railroad accident in the city’s history at 4:15 p.m. Oct. 7, 1941. When a train car cracked and flew into the air, 32 freight cars went off the rails, many of them loaded with cheese, apples, grapes, melons and meat. A 13-year-old boy selling magazines to waiting passengers was killed, more than a dozen people waiting for the 4:20 were injured, and the south side of the depot was squashed. Cars parked nearby were crushed like paper cups and scavengers swarmed the area, scooping up grapes.


By the time President Gerald Ford visited the depot on a 1976 whistle-stop campaign tour, the depot was a restaurant. (The president had a steak sandwich with mushrooms). The station was listed as a National Register of Historic Places in 1978, but by 2000, it was vacant and sliding downhill fast.


Broken windows, dangling boards and sliding roof tiles lent urgency to Friday’s press conference announcing the development.


“I had almost given up hope on this structure,” Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero said.


Peffley said the BWL will put out bids to restore the station soon.



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