Grand Rapids, MI (GRR)
The recently opened depot features a richly textured exterior and is accented by a slim, soaring clock tower whose glowing crown is a new city landmark.
440 Century Avenue SW
Vernon J. Ehlers Station
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
Annual Station Ridership (2016): 38,782
- Facility Ownership: Interurban Transit Partnership
- Parking Lot Ownership: Interurban Transit Partnership
- Platform Ownership: Interurban Transit Partnership
- Track Ownership: Interurban Transit Partnership
For information about Amtrak fares and schedules, please call 1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245).
On October 27, 2014, city officials were joined by U.S. Senator Carl Levin and representatives from Amtrak, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and The Rapid, as well as residents, to celebrate the opening of the Vernon J. Ehlers Station in downtown Grand Rapids. The new passenger rail facility is located south of the existing Central Station served by local Rapid and intercity buses, thereby creating an intermodal hub in the heart of the city.
Due to steadily increasing ridership on Amtrak’s Michigan Services—including the Pere Marquette—city and state transportation organizations began to consider construction of a new and larger rail station in the 2000s. Groundbreaking took place on October 14, 2011. In order to locate the rail station adjacent to the bus hub, a spur track was built parallel to Ellsworth Ave. to connect with the CSX mainline to the south. The new station replaces a smaller Colonial Revival style depot with cupola built in 1996 and located about a half mile west.
The rail station is named for former Congressman Vern Ehlers, who represented the area and helped obtain federal funding for the facility. The Federal Railroad Administration ultimately contributed $4.6 million, and $1.5 million in matching funds was made available by the Federal Transit Administration, MDOT and local sources.
The modern one story building features a richly textured exterior composed of brick, concrete masonry units, horizontal metal siding and generously-sized glass walls that allow natural light to flood the interior. The waiting room has seating for approximately 50 passengers, and the building also includes restrooms and a crew sign-up room.
Over the main doors, the roof extends to form a sheltered entrance that welcomes passengers. The station’s most prominent feature is a slim, soaring clock tower with a crown of perforated stainless steel; at night, LED lights from within create a glowing beacon for travelers. Along the concrete platform, a long canopy offers shelter from inclement weather, including heavy winter snows. The site layout means that trains no longer block roadways when stopped, as had occurred at the former station. Amtrak is also able to store trains at the station overnight.
Together, Vernon J. Elhers Station and Central Station make a bold architectural statement in downtown Grand Rapids. Opened in 2004 and designed by local architects ProgressiveAE, Central Station’s bus bays are covered with a series of Teflon fabric canopies supported on a steel frame. Their billowing design is meant to evoke the river rapids from which the city took its name; at night, the canopies are illuminated with different colored lights, adding a dynamic and exciting quality to a vital piece of public infrastructure. The accompanying transportation building incorporated flooring made from recycled glass, porous paving, a green roof, and facilities for bicycle commuters. These features led to its designation as the first LEED certified transportation facility in the nation.
In cooperation with the MDOT, Amtrak initiated the 176 mile Pere Marquetteservice in 1984 to link Grand Rapids with Chicago. The line was named after a train of the old Pere Marquette Railway which in turn was named for Père Jacques Marquette, a seventeenth century French Jesuit missionary who was fluent in many American Indian languages and preached in the Great Lakes region. The priest explored the Mississippi River with Louis Jolliet and French-Indian guides during 1673—Marquette and Jolliet were the first Europeans to investigate the upper Mississippi. The group went as far south as the Arkansas River’s junction with the Mississippi River before turning back.
Grand Rapids was early connected to older settlements in the eastern portion of the state. In 1858, the town welcomed the arrival of the Detroit and Milwaukee Railway which planned to connect Detroit with Grand Haven, located on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan; the 189 mile route would span the entire width of the Lower Peninsula. From Grand Haven, ferries would ship goods to Milwaukee on the far side of the lake. The Detroit and Milwaukee was descended from Michigan’s first chartered railroad, the Pontiac and Detroit, established in 1830. Through a series of consolidations in the 1860s and 1870s, the Detroit and Milwaukee came under the control of the Grand Trunk Railway (today part of Canadian National), an important system linking southern Canada with the upper Midwest.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the rapidly growing city gained rail links to all parts of the nation through six major railroads including the Grand Rapids and Indiana (GR&I), Lake Shore and Michigan Southern, and the Michigan Central. To accommodate expanded passenger and freight service, a larger Union Station was opened in 1900, replacing an earlier structure dating to 1870. Major lines serving the station included the GR&I and the newly formed Pere Marquette Railroad.
Only five years after it opened, an estimated 750,000 people passed through the new Union Station. The Georgian Revival building was two stories, composed of red brick with a rusticated first floor. It was constructed according to the neoclassical Palladian five-part plan; hyphens connected a central projecting bay with dominant portico to two end pavilions with hipped roofs. The two-story portico with columns of the Ionic order covered the sidewalk, sheltering passengers as they arrived; the central pavilion was topped with a domed cupola with four clock faces that kept arriving passengers apprised of the time.
Behind the station was a large train shed built by the GR&I in 1890. 112 feet wide inside the pillars, 600 feet long, and 56 feet high at the ridge of the roof, the structure was supported by 31 iron trusses. The shed sheltered seven tracks and as many as seventy passenger cars. In 1958-59, the State Highway Department demolished Union Station for the construction of an expressway; the train shed was dismantled and today portions of it have been reassembled by private owners and are in use as warehouses.
The area around present-day Grand Rapids was inhabited almost 2,000 years ago by the famed Mound Builders who farmed in the rich soil of the Grand River’s floodplain and constructed earthen burial mounds to honor the dead. More recently, the Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Potawatomi peoples settled western Michigan; Ottawa villages were arrayed around the river rapids of “Owashtanong,” or “Far-away-water,” a reference to the river’s 260 mile run. It was not until the Chicago Treaty of 1821 that the young United States gained the land south of the Grand River from American Indian groups and began to survey it in preparation for settlement.
By 1825, Baptist missionary Isaac McCoy and fur trader Louis Campau established the first European-American settlement at the rapids, where the river fell eighteen feet on its way to Lake Michigan. Campau purchased a 72-acre tract of land for $90 in 1831—named Grand Rapids—that would become the heart of the modern city. Although the city’s name reflects this natural condition of the river, subsequent engineering of the waterway greatly subdued the original rapids. A large group of settlers from New York arrived in 1833, building the first frame houses and establishing a government and school.
Tapping into Michigan’s rich stands of oak, maple, basswood, walnut, ash, beech, and pine trees—33,000 acres a year were cut between 1870-1890—early entrepreneurs William Powers and Ebenezer Ball set up a furniture factory in the 1850s, unknowingly giving birth to an industry which would define the city world-wide.
Over the next few decades, numerous saw mills and furniture, carpet, and cloth mills opened; the increased rail links carried the products far and wide. Local shopkeeper Melville Bissell invented the carpet sweeper in 1876 at the suggestion of his wife. 1876 would be a pivotal year for the nation and city: at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition celebrating the first century of the United States, three furniture manufacturers exhibited their goods and won prizes for the quality and beauty of their work.
The resulting publicity made Grand Rapids famous and gave it the moniker of “Furniture City.” Manufacturers set up showrooms in cities throughout the country and demand rose for both domestic pieces as well as office furniture. In 1883 a logjam over five miles long roared down the Grand River, destroying bridges and other impediments; the city quickly recovered and by 1900, fifty furniture factories employed roughly half of the city’s workforce. Furniture manufacture remained a mainstay of the economy until the Great Depression, when half of the existing factories closed their doors.
Those interested in Grand Rapid’s intimate history with furniture make a beeline for the Grand Rapids Public Museum where the history of the industry is presented through pieces of locally made furniture. A stroll through the historic Heritage Hill neighborhood—placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971—is a walk through the city’s past. Leaders in manufacturing and civic affairs built their homes in a variety of architectural styles representing the fashions of the day.
Michigan’s “Second City,” Grand Rapids is today the center of a diversified economy with a focus on automobile manufacturing, health care facilities and research, and education as indicated by its numerous institutions of higher learning; it also remains a leader in the production of office furniture. As the primate city of western Michigan, Grand Rapids is a culture and entertainment destination for the region. Residents and visitors flock to the Festival of the Arts held on the streets around Vandenberg Plaza on the first weekend in June. Musical performances, diverse food vendors, and art exhibitions make for a lively scene.
The life of the Grand River and its people is marked in September with fireworks, concerts, and a food festival on the weekend after Labor Day. Nature-oriented travelers will enjoy an escape to the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park which includes a 30 acre outdoor sculpture park with works by Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Mimmo Paladino, and others. Those interested in a trip around the world might veer toward the tropical conservatory—the largest in Michigan—and the Arid Garden exhibiting species accustomed to some of the driest landscapes on earth.
Young rail fans might best know Grand Rapids for Chris Van Allsberg. A native son, he wrote the Polar Express, now considered a Christmas classic, in which a young boy boards a magical train to the North Pole. The steam locomotive depicted in the book’s rich illustrations is thought to be modeled after one from the Lima Locomotive Works in Lima, Ohio; this locomotive type was also used on the Pere Marquette Railway. Commentators have seen other railroad references in both the book and movie.
Amtrak does not provide ticketing or baggage services at this station, which is served by two daily trains. The Pere Marquette service is financed primarily through funds made available by the Michigan State Department of Transportation.
Station image courtesy of The Rapid.
- 40 Short Term Parking Spaces
- 40 Long Term Parking Spaces
- Accessible Platform
- Accessible Restrooms
- Accessible Waiting Room
- Accessible Water Fountain
- Dedicated Parking
- Enclosed Waiting Area
- Pay Phones
- Quik Trak Kiosk
- Wheelchair Lift