After 125 years, my favorite ticket window closes

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, February 05, 2018

The Michigan Central depot at Niles, Mich., has been the public face of the railroad in the small town since 1892. Greg McDonnell photo
A friend forwarded me a news item a couple of weeks ago and the headline brought me up short: “Niles Amtrak station to cease ticket window operations March 1.”

As most who know me have heard ad nauseam, I grew up in Niles, Michigan, and the old Michigan Central station there was my hangout. In childhood. In high school. Even during the first years of my newspaper career. The building was as much a home to me as my family’s little ranch house a mile away.

So the news was a shock. No more manned ticket window? How can that be? There have been agents standing at that counter since Benjamin Harrison was president. Over the years they’ve sold tickets marked for MC, New York Central, Penn Central, and Amtrak. They’ve booked passage for people riding behind streamlined 4-6-4 Hudsons and lightning-stripe E units, for people boarding the GM Aerotrain and the French Turboliners and, in recent decades, Amtrak’s Horizon cars.

Niles still serves seven Amtrak Chicago–Detroit and Chicago–Port Huron trains every day (train 351, the morning Wolverine Service train, rolls through town because it runs so close to the schedule of 365, the Blue Water). With all that service, how can they close the ticket office?

There’s a logical answer: hardly anyone purchases a ticket at the station anymore. Most show up with either their ticket printed at home or displayed on their smartphone. The guy behind the counter just didn’t have enough work to do.

In an old postcard view, the Niles depot looks much as it does today. Kevin P. Keefe coll.
When I look back on all my Amtrak trips of the past few years, I realize I am part of the problem. I can’t remember the last time I bought a ticket from a human being. I shifted to showing the conductor my iPhone a long time ago.

To be clear, the station isn’t closing. A part-time caretaker will keep it open during daytime hours so people can use the waiting room, and the east end of the station is very much in business as the office of Amtrak’s engineering department, whose yard across the tracks is full of equipment that keeps the old MC main line in pristine, 110 mph shape. The beautiful building, a registered landmark restored in 1988 and again in 2003, isn’t going anywhere.

So a shuttered ticket office isn’t a calamity. But it’s a big moment in my little world. It’s also an opportunity to tell you a little bit about this very special place.

When I’ve taken railfan friends to the station for the first time, their reaction is usually, “How’d a little town like this get such a big station?” It’s an interesting story.

When the Michigan Central erected the depot in 1892, the railroad was at high tide, sparing no expense when it came to erecting monuments. For Niles, they hired influential Detroit architects Frederick H. Spier and William C. Rohns to design the Richardsonian Romanesque structure, which they clad in lavender Ohio sandstone and topped off with a 60-foot clock tower. The clock, manufactured by Boston’s venerable Howard Brothers firm, still works today. Some of the time, anyway.

Greenhouses at Niles supplied plants and flowers to MC facilities and trains. In this 1920 photo, an eastbound train is stopped at the depot, which is hidden by trees. Kevin P. Keefe coll.
So why did a town with an 1892 population of about 4,000 get such a big station? Local legend has it that MC wanted to make a strong impression on passengers as they headed west for Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Since MC trains reached downtown Chicago via Illinois Central tracks, Niles was the railroad’s last chance to make a big splash on its own turf. Or so the reasoning goes.

That makes some sense, but it’s also true that Niles was a division point, with frequent crew changes, a growing industrial base, and an increasingly active engine terminal. In 1919, the town would get a huge classification yard just northeast of the station. It was always an iconic railroad town.

The Niles station also had John Gipner going for it. A talented landscape architect, Gipner was a German immigrant dispatched by the MC to Niles to oversee the railroad’s sprawling greenhouse operation. Such vertical integration now seems incredible, but in those days some railroads cultivated their own flowers for use in offices, public buildings, and, of course, on dining-car tables.

For at least its first three decades, the depot was surrounded by lush gardens, with the city’s name spelled out in flowers on a knoll, visible to people aboard the trains. Behind and east of the depot, Gipner maintained a large park that included greenhouses, a separate water tower, fish ponds, and a walking path. Old postcards show the place to be astonishingly beautiful. (Today, the volunteers of the Four Flags Garden Club maintain the flowerbeds beside the station.)

All the landscaping was gone by the 1930s, when NYC fully absorbed MC’s operations. By the time I began hanging out at the station in the late 1950s, the lavender stone exterior had been turned black with the soot of thousands of passing 2-8-2s and 4-6-4s.

Illuminated by 18 flashbulbs, an Amtrak train makes a nocturnal call at Niles in December 1971. Mel Patrick photo
It was an exciting place to for a boy. There were always a few road-switchers rumbling away at the engine facility across from the station, and NYC ran enough passenger trains to keep the place from going quiet for long. Inside, I marveled at the glass-topped ticket counter, under which an ancient ornate “Niagara Falls Route” illustrated map extolled the virtues of riding to such exotic places as Buffalo, Albany, and New York City.

By 1971, I was nervous. Amtrak was forming, and I was fearful that the new carrier would choose a Grand Trunk Western routing through South Bend, south of Niles, for its Detroit–Chicago service. But the old MC got the nod and I relaxed. My beloved station seemed safe.

Ahead was more notoriety for the depot. In September 1974, I watched as writer Rogers E. M. Whittaker, a.k.a. “E. M. Frimbo,” stepped down on the platform from the inaugural trip of Amtrak’s new Blue Water. In 1976, I saw President Gerald Ford bring his campaign to town, where he spoke off the back platform of a private car. And Hollywood came calling, three times in the 1980s and early ’90s. The depot made appearances in the John Belushi romantic comedy Continental Divide, the Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin buddy film Midnight Run, and John Candy in Only the Lonely.

All that exposure was nice, but for me the defining image of the station came in September 1972, when I opened up the October issue of Trains magazine to see Mel Patrick’s masterful nighttime view of train time for Amtrak’s St. Clair, a train that ran for a while on the schedule of NYC’s old Twilight Limited.

Mel is such a gifted artist. With the aid of a number of deftly concealed synchronized flashbulbs, he painted the old station in moody light, depicting what the caption writer described as “all the flavor of hundreds upon hundreds of nocturnal station stops most of us have witnessed from platform or vestibule or Pullman berth…”

That was the Niles I knew, alive with steam rising from beneath the cars, uniformed trainmen manning the traps, the engine crew lowering their grips to the platform, the old Howard Brothers clock keeping perfect time. And, inside, a guy selling tickets.

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