Junk in the Trunk

November, 2009.

One day Crawly and I decided to take a road-trip up into Michigan's "Thumb" area, since I had never really explored it too well. There was a large industrial complex in Port Huron that looked like it might be abandoned, so obviously I had to go mess with it. I soon found out that it was the Grand Trunk Railroad's Port Huron Car Shops; in other words, where they sent their locomotives and rolling stock for repairs.

Port Huron is Michigan's easternmost city, and it sits at the mouth of the St. Clair River, at the southern end of Lake Huron. Port Huron's origins stretch back to the year 1686 when the French built Fort St. Joseph here. The fort burned, and the garrison decided to relocate to the Straits of Mackinac in 1688.

This area began to see permanent settlement again in 1790, and in 1814 Fort Gratiot was constructed where Fort St. Joseph had been. The town around it was renamed Port Huron in 1837. One webpage calls it "A Port City Built by the Railroad" because after the era of fortification was over, the town continued to thrive as an important crossing on an international trade route.

As I briefly explained in an earlier post, the Grand Trunk Railroad was completed between Detroit and Port Huron by 1859. Via a car ferry across the St. Clair River to Sarnia, it also stretched 800 miles east to Portland, Maine. As MichiganRailroads.com explains, the Grand Trunk then began branching out across southeastern Michigan:
In 1869 the Grand Trunk built west from downtown Port Huron towards Flint. Other roads to reach town were the Port Huron and Northwestern from Bad Axe in 1879, the Pere Marquette's Almont branch in 1882, and the Port Huron and Northwestern from Saginaw via Marlette in 1889. Later in 1916, the Detroit, Bay City & Western reached the city from Bay City in 1916 and its related road, the Port Huron & Detroit went south from town in 1918.

It was also in 1859 that a young Thomas Edison got his first job working as a newspaper boy on the Detroit to Port Huron line, where he was exposed to the use of the telegraph. Edison grew fascinated by the technology and decided to become an inventor himself. By 1879, the Grand Trunk had reached Chicago, and the era of American steam railroading was in full swing.

This particular room looked like maybe a stripping or painting area:

Luckily there is no shortage of people interested in the obscure ins and outs of railroading, so there are plenty of websites chronicling the histories of each railroad, and the Grand Trunk itself even has a few dedicated to it. One such website says the Grand Trunk (GTRR) was among the last railroads in North America to run steam locomotives. Unfortunately, most railfan pages are dedicated to the roads, the locomotives, and the depots--not so much the mundane buildings like these.

Suzette Bromley wrote that the GTRR built their first car shops in 1882, actually on the site of the former Fort Gratiot, but that large impressive complex was nearly demolished by the Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913. What remained standing of the ten-acre complex was subsequently annihilated in a devastating fire two weeks later. 

According to the HAER's Lower Peninsula of Michigan Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites, the replacement car shops you see here were built on new land donated by local citizens in 1915-1916, when a public appeal raised $110,000 for the GTRR to rebuild after the disaster. I find it incredible that citizens would be throwing money at a railroad company, but okay.

The GTRR decided to rebuild the facilities at this location, which was adjacent to the railyard that served the St. Clair River Tunnel. The address of the offices was 2801 Minnie Street.

The wooden construction of these older buildings on site had me thinking they could date as far back as the 1860s, but apparently I was way off:

Google Books turned up a mention of this facility in the January 12, 1918 Railway Review, at which time construction of the new car shops was almost complete. The article said that this new home was much bigger than the old works that was destroyed by fire.

It had a powerplant, two passenger car shops, a shop for steel freight cars and one for wooden freight cars, a cabinet shop, a blacksmith & machine shop, woodmill, dry lumber stores, general stores, dry kiln, paint store, battery charging house, repair track yard with 200 car capacity, and of course the offices. Construction of the project was overseen by the GTRR's Chief Engineer, Mr. H.R. Safford.

MichiganRailroads.com says that this complex closed in 2001.

Before the St. Clair River Tunnel between Port Huron and Sarnia was built, the Grand Trunk's link to Canada was hampered by having to unload cargo from the train cars and put it aboard a ship to the other side of the river. In order to streamline this logistics hurdle, Bromley said that the GTRR came up with something called the "Swing Ferry," which could take the railcars themselves aboard, eliminating the need to unloading and reloading at the shore.

Furthermore it operated uniquely by employing the river's strong current; the ferry was attached to a cable that was anchored near Fort Gratiot, and when released from mooring, would drift downstream to a dock on the opposite bank. It was the first ferry of its kind, and stayed in use until 1867.

This large shop with its immense traveling crane was where the major repairs and rebuilds were carried out. 

This chamber was almost undoubtedly a sandblasting booth:

The screw conveyors visible in the floor I presume were for collecting waste sands and residues, and moving them to disposal bins:

We found most of the buildings to be wide open, so going in and out of them was pretty easy. I was still wary however of the fact that we were essentially in or adjacent to what could be an active railyard, so we exercised a full measure of discretion. My ass didn't feel like getting peppered with rock salt today.

This facility has been demolished since my visit. Here is an aerial view showing what the site used to look like:

Image from Google Earth


  1. I grew up in the neighborhood just east of this rail yard and did a lot of exploring as a kid/teenager. Manage to climb to the top of the big building before it was demolished beautiful and unforgettable view of Port Huron. Love the pics ❤ Jennie R.

  2. i did not know this place existed even though I was born in port Huron in 2005 we never whent down that way because that part of town is extremely dangerous we moved in 2016 to escape the crime and drugs wish i could of made it in in time but hey the domtar plant is closing bout time we get a cool abandoned hangout ��

  3. Recently, I became interested in a 4 genration home that my ancestors lived in. It was located in the N.E. corner of G.T.W. tracks and Alfred St. I've come to understand trenching Dequindre St. was to prevent deaths and vehicle accidents as well as accelerate the flow of traffic. In reading I've appreicated your perspective, adventures, historical knowledge, humor and photographs. I'm personally researching how building, expansion and grade change surrounding G.T.W. Railroad impacted home, property, farm and businesses owners. Thank you for sharing your talents and efforts.


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