The Williamston Depot building is is the third depot building to serve Williamston since the arrival of the railroad in the summer of 1871. No longer at its original location, the building was moved by local preservationists in 1979, after the C & O Railroad threatened to tear down the structure, as the last passenger service had ended in 1963. Now sitting on land donated by the city, it currently houses the Williamston Depot Museum and the Chamber of Commerce office.
The original depot was constructed by the Detroit, Lansing and Lake Michigan Railroad Company in 1871. Unfortunately, the original depot and its replacement burned. This third and final depot was constructed on the same site, at the end of Cedar Street north of the tracks between Railroad and Elevator Streets. Between November of 1892 and January 1893, Williamston native Hiram E. Higbee constructed this building that opened to the public on Monday, January 16, 1893. The depot served the Detroit, Lansing and Northern Railroad Company and cost $1200. It was constructed of southern pine purchased from nearby lumberyards.
For nearly 30 years before the coming of the railroad, Williamston was a vibrant agricultural community in Ingham County. The town was originally settled by the three Williams brothers, James Miles, Oswald and Horace; the trio first built a sawmill (1840) and then a gristmill (1842) on the banks of the Red Cedar River, just west of the current Putnam Street bridge. The town is named after James, who remained in the little village and was the community’s first mayor in 1871. The land the men chose had been farmed in 1834 by the Putnam brothers, who traveled from Jackson and planted oats near the riverbank, but never settled here. One report is that the Chippewa Indians, led by Chief Okemos, had planted an adjacent cornfield on the grounds of the current Brookshire Golf Course, which made the Putnams nervous.
In 1852 the Plank Road from Detroit to Lansing allowed travelers to reach Williamston a bit more easily and created a small business community at the four corners in town. During the Civil War, many of the local boys joined the 26th Michigan Volunteer Infantry and were regarded as the best skirmish outfit in the east and saw major action at the Battle of Spotsylvania. Incidentally, a stretch of land a few miles north of town had been dubbed “Little Africa” by area residents, as it was reported to include stops on the famed Underground Railroad.
With the coming of the railroad in 1871, the town’s positive image continued with the building of the first high school, at Putnam and School Streets, in 1874. The site and its subsequent building renovations continued to support the education of school-aged children until 1991.
The concrete paving of the Grand River Road in 1922-23 further helped Williamston remain a thriving community, as motorists stopped on their trips across the state. In December of 1962 Interstate 96 was opened to traffic a few miles south of town, ensuring that the public had continued easy access to the community.
While rural life fades across America, Williamston has been in the unique position of being able to serve both as a suburb of the state’s capital city, Lansing, and East Lansing, home of Michigan State University, while maintaining its small town charm. The downtown still features buildings and stores from the 19th Century, as horse farms and plowed fields intertwine with subdivisions, offering residents the best of both worlds. During the 1980′s and 1990′s, the town became a haven for antique collectors. Recently, Williamston has added fashionable eateries and a live theatre. In 2008, the community’s long-standing commitment to public education was rewarded when Williamston High School was named as one of the best in the nation.
Welcome to Williamston!
By Mitch Lutzke, Williamston Depot Museum Board Member and Williamston High School history teache