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


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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