03 February 2014

How Studebaker's reach shaped Plymouth's railroads

The new Pennsylvania Depot in Plymouth created after the railroad's acquisition of the Vandalia line
I'm knee deep in Studebaker history right now, but with a very targeted perspective of Studebaker's influence on the railroads.  I've been handed a task to justify inclusion of the two depots that lie adjacent to the former Studebaker manufacturing campus in a combined historic district.  The challenge:  prove that the depots are there because of Studebaker.  It seemed more difficult than it proved.
The Vandalia Depot on South Main Street, South Bend, c. 1910.  Studebaker's warehouse is on the right side of the photo in the background.

In the early 1880s the Studebaker brothers, along with other prominent members of South Bend, began pushing for a rail alignment to open markets in the south.  Up until this time, industry was connected to points east and west, but without direct links to the south.  So to help move the project along, a corporation was formed, with Studebaker Bros. Manufacturing being the leading stockholder, that purchased right-of-way south from South Bend through Plymouth into Logansport and points further south. Their intention was not to personally build and operate the rail, but provide the easement on which a railroad could be constructed on the route the South Bend industrialists desired.  The process moved a little slower than they had hoped, but eventually a railroad company was landed and the line became known as the Vandalia Railroad.  Where was the northern terminus of the railroad?  Immediately adjacent to the Studebaker warehouse between Main and Lafayette Streets, and immediately south of their administration building.

Later the Vandalia line was leased to the Pennsylvania Railroad which crossed the Vandalia in Plymouth.  This became an extremely important hub for the Studebakers because it provided both the southern route they desired, but also permitted another east/west route to large markets yet untouched.  It should be no surprise then, shortly after the Pennsylvania Railroad leased the Vandalia line, that a new depot station was constructed in Plymouth and their crossing even though the older Vandalia Depot in Plymouth remained.

This photo of the Nickel Plate Depot in Plymouth was taken probably the last time the building was painted, which looks to be the early 1970s.  The building is on Garro Street just west of the downtown.
But the Studebaker Corporation didn't focus their influence with just the Vandalia and Pennsy.  Clement Studebaker, the founder, shamed the Lake Shore and Michigan Railroad into building a new depot to replace an old wooden one already sandwiched between the company's expanding campus.  When Albert Erskine, who took over the Studebaker Corporation, made a speech to South Bend businessmen in 1919, he rolled out an impressive vision for Studebaker that would result in adding over 3 million square feet to their manufacturing facilities.  The primary one being the large building that forms a backdrop to Coveleski Stadium and Union Station.  In Erskine's speech, he implored the railroads to aid in the development of Studebaker by elevating the tracks, combining the Grand Trunk with the New York Central, and to build a new station.  And his words carried a great deal of weight since Studebaker was the 4th largest auto manufacturer at that time.  By the mid-to-late 1920s the tracks had been elevated and Union Station, rivaling other depots in cities many times the size of South Bend, was constructed.

Union Station and the Vandalia Depot still exist in South Bend and have found important new uses.  The situation in Plymouth isn't as bright for the city's remaining depots.  The Vandalia Depot was demolished in the early 1990s, despite having been a stop for presidential candidates and future presidents.  The Pennsylvania Depot that was built to accommodate the company's acquisition of the Vandalia line, sits vacant and deteriorating, but retains some vestige of its more elaborate past.  Plymouth has one other depot that remains, albeit in a state of abuse and neglect.  The Nickel Plate depot has seen its better days as well.  Both the Pennsy and Nickel Plate Depots should be preserved-the difficulty is in getting a railroad completely uninterested in community development or pride, to agree.

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