Then & Now: The Railroad in St. Joseph

December 4, 2015 5:01 pm Published by

Welcome to Then & Now, our blog series where we feature some of the amazing historic photographs in the collection of the Heritage Museum and Cultural Center. By comparing these photos to the same location in the present day, we can learn a little bit more about the history that’s all around us. 

Silver Beach Then and Now

This composite image by staff member Jennifer Richmond combines a 2015 photograph of the depot with a historic photo of the 1914 structure from the collection of the Heritage Museum.

Today, the distinctive railroad swing bridge and historic depot are such iconic structures of the St. Joseph harbor, we thought the railroad would make a perfect subject for our first “Then & Now” blog series entry.

St. Joseph was not able to secure a railroad line until fairly late – 1870, in fact. Earlier lines bypassed St. Joseph in favor of a more direct route to Chicago.  This was a source of great consternation to Twin City residents who believed that a direct rail line could spur the region’s growth.   When voters finally approved construction of the Chicago & Michigan Lake Shore (C&MLS) Railroad Company in 1869, area residents went wild in celebration!

Pearl Harbor 071

This photograph from April 1960 shows the Railroad bridge looking west to the harbor.

The first depot and swing bridge were constructed in the early 1870s to service the C&MLS line.  The original depot on Water Street, beneath the bluff, serviced two trains each day traveling between New Buffalo and St. Joseph.  The original swing bridge extended the rail line North all the way to South Haven.  Unfortunately, the C&MLS struggled to make a profit hauling freight and passengers, and the major recession of the late 19th century further crippled the company.  In 1899, it was consolidated with the Grand Rapids and Western Railroad under the Pere Marquette Railroad Company.

The Pere Marquette Railroad became a fixture in many West Michigan towns.  It was the Pere Marquette company which replaced the depot and swing bridge with the iconic structures we recognize today – the bridge in 1904, and the depot in 1914.  By then, the Michigan Central Railroad was also running a North-South line through the area.

With the growth of highways and interstates throughout the twentieth century, passenger and freight rail service declined.  Rail companies like the Pere Marquette and Michigan Central merged with larger corporations or closed altogether.  After a 13-year period with no passenger service at all in St. Joseph, Amtrak resumed service to Chicago and Grand Rapids in 1984.

When we talk about the history of railroads in America, it’s important to remember that rail lines were just as significant in the communities that struggled to get and keep them as they were in the communities that became great hubs of rail service.  St. Joseph citizens celebrated in 1869 when the first lines arrived – they must have also wondered how their town might have been different if the trains had arrived sooner.

Holiday Greeting Pere Marquette 002

This mid-20th century holiday photograph shows the southern end of the depot building prior to expansion.


Do you have a St. Joseph or Benton Harbor location you’d like to see featured in Then & Now? Let us know! Call the Heritage Museum at (269) 983-1191, or e-mail our Upton Fellow, Claire Herhold, at