Standish historical depot restored to the center of community life after gas station cleanup
January 21, 2020
This week, we're talking about contaminated sites with historic buildings that EGLE helped bring back to life with environmental cleanup. Standish, a small central Michigan community, restored its depot after EGLE demolished and cleaned up an old gas station next door.
What's not to love about an old train depot? They suggest the romance of steam-powered train travel in an era when life was slower and simpler. The train whistle marked time and depots were part of the town’s daily life -- until cars and trucks replaced rail travel and shipping. While the trains don't stop in the small central Michigan town of Standish any longer, its old depot was restored to the center of community life after a contaminated gas station next door was demolished and the pollution removed by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).
Trains had come through Standish since 1871. Farmers sent their crops and livestock to other cities for sale, and passenger cars took travelers to destinations across the still-new United States. Passenger travel increased as new routes were built, and the city asked the railroad for a new building to replace a dilapidated wood station. Sure, they said, we'll build it, but you need to provide the building supplies. The depot was built in 1889 with fieldstones brought to the site by local farmers.
From its new depot, a Standish resident could travel to New York City and see the newfangled lights powered by electricity generated at Thomas Edison's power plant. They could easily visit another marvel, this one in Chicago -- the world's first skyscraper. As years went by, young men kissed their sweethearts goodbye in front of the depot and went to war; grandparents went to see their new grandchildren; sons and daughters left to find adventure or work.
The area in front of the depot was the center of community life. The local history website US23HeritageRoute.org quotes a Bay City Times article from 1892: "The [Michigan Central Railroad has] done much, and are continuing the good work, to make Standish the largest, liveliest, and best town on their road north of Bay City; and have spent more than $10,000 there in the past year, their stone passenger depot alone costing $5,000." Weekly summer concerts drew visitors to Depot Park for years after the new depot was built.
Eventually, passengers abandoned train travel in favor of private cars, planes, and trucks. Standish became a convenient gasoline stop for families taking US-23 up north. At one time, 17 gas stations lined its main drag, known as "Gasoline Alley," and as many as 20,000 cars a day traveled through Standish (where there were fewer than 1,000 residents). The depot was hidden behind a new Fletcher Oil gas station and forgotten.
Eventually, the gas station's underground storage tanks leaked and contaminated the soil and groundwater. Some of the tanks couldn’t be removed without tearing down the building. When the gas station was gone, the depot became visible. One potential developer wanted to demolish the depot and build a strip mall. Community members saw better possibilities for the busy corner lot. Citizens rallied to save the historic depot from destruction and raised $525,000 to buy and restore it. The Disabled American Veterans in Standish donated $50,000 in memory of those soldiers who kissed their sweethearts goodbye at the Standish railroad depot before they left to serve. More help came from grants.
EGLE's $117,000 investment in gas station remediation paid big dividends. The Standish Depot now anchors the US-23 Heritage Route, not Gasoline Alley. The depot is a visitors’ center and local history museum. Just like the old days, community events, concerts, and the farmer’s market draw Standish residents and visitors to Depot Park.
Want to see more? Standish residents tell the depot's story in an EGLE Brownfield Flip video. Thanks to US23 Heritage Route and the Standish Historical Depot and Welcome Center for permission to use their historic depot photographs.