The Detroit River Tunnel Few Have Seen: The Michigan Central Railway Tunnel


Tunnel Entrance Postcard orange tones 2012046840

Color postcard depicting the Michigan Central Railway Tunnel, 1910.

The Michigan Central Railway Tunnel connecting Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario under the Detroit River is over 100 years old, and remains in daily use.  Because the tunnel is closed to the public, it is less well-known than its younger cousin, the Detroit – Windsor vehicular tunnel.

Prior to construction of the Michigan Central Railway Tunnel, railroad cars were loaded onto ferries for the trip across the Detroit River.

Ferry billowing smoke 2012020555

Color postcard depicting the ferry Lansdowne carrying railcars in winter, 1909.

In 1906, the Detroit River Tunnel Company, controlled by the New York Central Railroad, began construction of the tunnel.  The tunnel was constructed utilizing the immersed tube method in which tunnel sections are prefabricated and then sunk to the bottom of the river.  Immersed tube construction is generally faster and cheaper than the alternative of boring a tunnel into the earth.  The Michigan Central Railway Tunnel was the first immersed tube tunnel to carry traffic.  The tunnel, built at a cost of $8,500,000, is 1 3/8 miles in length from portal to portal.

Seven Workmen Photo 1907 2013045373

Black and white photograph depicting seven workmen operating machinery to build the Michigan Central Railway Tunnel, 1907.

In July, 1910, the tunnel was completed.  By year-end the tunnel had replaced the ferries for transporting railcars across the border.

MCR tunnel interior postcard 2012020668

Color postcard showing westbound tube of the tunnel, c. 1920.

In the early 1990’s, the tunnel’s north tube underwent a $27 million enlargement to permit passage of stacked container railcars and multilevel auto carrier railcars.  In June, 2015, the Continental Rail Gateway investment group announced that its plans to build a new $400 million Detroit River rail tunnel are on hold.  The existing Michigan Central Railway tunnel will continue to handle an annual volume of approximately 400,000 railcars for the foreseeable future.

Tunnel Portal photo 2012004134

Black and white photograph of the Detroit portals of the Michigan Central Railway Tunnel, c. 1920.


17 thoughts on “The Detroit River Tunnel Few Have Seen: The Michigan Central Railway Tunnel

  1. I made many trips from 1971 through 1981. Only stalled once , but was able pull through with out any help. Bad sanders.

  2. When I was a kid my friends and i walk to Canada then walked back when we got out of the tunel on the US side we got urested but they let us go after three hours good thing there was no train that evening

  3. I used to be an Urban Explorer and I have been all through those times underneath the train station when I went many of them were flooded but still crawled on top of the conveyor belt for the mail to go through and it was quite an experience you could tell that too many people have been there because it was not full of graffiti yet it was quite interesting to do that definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience exclamation point

    • Sorry, not the chief engineer. He was an engineer for the bridge, and his obit in the Journal of the Association of Engineering Societies vol 48-49 (1911) says that “To him is due in a very large measure the success attending the building of the Detroit River Tunnel.”

  4. Been through the tunnel many times as a kid. Getting to Michigan Central in the middle of the night to catch Canadian Pacific passenger train. Going to Grandma’s house in Canada.

  5. The official completion date of the Michigan Central Railroad (M.C.R.R.) Detroit River Tunnel was July 1, 1910, 109 years ago today.
    The new tunnel determined the location of Detroit’s landmark Michigan Central Station (MCS), which opened 3.5 years later on December 26, 1913.
    The tunnel insured that M.C.R.R.’s “Niagara Falls Route”, running between Chicago and Buffalo NORTH of Lake Erie (via Canada Southern Railway’s double-track “speedway” running across southern Ontario) was actually shorter, faster and less-congested than New York Central Railroad’s “Water Level Route”, running between Chicago and Buffalo via Toledo, Cleveland and Erie. Through shipments bound for New England destinations could even avoid potential delays at Buffalo, via the M.C.R.R. bridge at Niagara Falls. Today, most of this “shortcut” is long-gone.
    The land once occupied by M.C.R.R.’s railroad car ferry terminal in Detroit re-opened as West Riverfront Park in 2014. After the tunnel opened, the ferry slips were filled-in. Today’s park includes the tunnel’s Detroit Ventilation Tower, completed in 1953 when a fleet of ten Diesel-electric “tunnel motors” replaced the aging electric locomotives running along the former – Detroit / Windsor Electric Zone (July 1, 1910 through December 29, 1953).
    The tunnel’s Electrical Substation (located next to the ventilation tower, and unused since 1953) somehow survived into the late-1970s. New York Central Railroad’s Detroit Produce Terminal had been completed around the substation in 1929 — when the newer building was demolished, the old substation, featuring Beaux-Arts styling (similar to MCS), was all-too briefly revealed.
    A 1976 photo of the substation shot by P.D. Price) is retrievable from the Online Collection at (

  6. Shortly after the tunnel opened in 1910, only Michigan Central Railroad (M.C.R.R.) and Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) had access to the tunnel.
    M.C.R.R. sold most of its laid-up railroad car fleet to Wabash Railroad (WAB), which continued to run ferries across the Detroit River for most of the 20th century. One former – M.C.R.R. ferry, DETROIT of DETROIT (built 1904, two years before tunnel construction started) continued to serve WAB and successor Norfolk & Western Railway (N&W) until June 2010 (one month shy of the tunnel’s centennial), when the propeller-driven ferry was scrapped at Windsor ON.
    Pere Marquette Railway (PM) and successor Chesapeake & Ohio Railway (C&O) also maintained Detroit / Windsor railroad car ferry service. PERE MARQUETTE No. 10 entered service in 1945.
    The first railroad car ferry on the river, GREAT WESTERN (built 1867), survived long enough to prove useful during the late-1950s St. Lawrence Seaway construction project. Owner Great Western Railway (GWR) became part of Grand Trunk Western Railway (GTR) in 1882. Other GTR ferries, including HURON (1875) and LANSDOWNE (1884), continued to shuttle between Windsor and Detroit until 1976, when a decision by the U.S. Interstate Commerce Commission granted GTR-successor Grand Trunk Western Railroad (GTW) access to the tunnel.
    LANSDOWNE was scrapped at Buffalo, after serving a short retirement as a floating restaurant docked at Detroit’s Cobo Hall. HURON sank and was re-floated several times — she currently lies sunk in a slip located in River Rouge MI, where she came to rest for the last time c. 1886.

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