Message Mystery at Michigan Central Station
May 27, 2021
Days after unveiling the all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning, the next big reveal for Ford Motor Company is not a vehicle at all. Crews working at Michigan Central Station recently stumbled upon a pre-Prohibition-era Stroh’s beer bottle with a mysterious message neatly rolled and stuffed inside. Ford archivists removed the paper Thursday to reveal a message that is believed to have been written by two men who worked on the station’s original construction in 1913, though the entirety of the message is unclear.
Construction crews working on the station’s transformation are in the process of restoring the most high-profile areas of the Beaux Arts-style building on the ground level, including the concourse, arcade, ticket lobby, restaurant and grand waiting room, which is filled with floor-to-ceiling scaffolding. This phase includes masonry repairs and plasterwork – including re-creating the ornate faux stone appearance that added to the original luster – and it is how a crew discovered the artifact.
The bottled, stamped with the date 7-19-13 – the station opened in 1913 – was discovered at around 6 p.m. on May 4 by Lukas Nielsen and Leo Kimble, laborer and foreman, respectively, for Homrich, a plaster restoration contractor working in the station’s tea room. The men were praised for resisting the urge to open the bottle themselves.
“It was extremely tempting, it really was,” said Nielsen. “If we did anything to remove it, we would have destroyed it.”
Nielsen and Kimble were on a scissor lift to reach a high section of plaster cornice that would be removed from the wall when Nielsen noticed something behind the cornice – a glass bottle stuffed upside-down and situated behind the wall’s crown molding. Kimble was about to strike the wall when Nielsen stopped him. They stopped working and removed the bottle instead.
The men were filled with excitement as they returned to the floor at 6:45 p.m., taking the bottle straight to David Kampo, project superintendent for Christman-Brinker, the construction team leading the restoration project. Later that night, they also found a Finck’s overalls button believed to have fallen off a worker during the original construction. It too was found inside the wall. In the early 1900s, when the station was built, Finck’s “Detroit Special” overalls were synonymous with quality denim garments for laborers.
“I think the bottle was left there with the hope that someone finds it in the future,” said Kampo.
Nielsen and Kimble, who have found other vintage bottles inside the station, though without mysterious notes inside, said it’s rare to find any artifacts at construction sites because items get destroyed very easily. More than 200 items, including nearly 100 that have been used to replicate new pieces of the building, have been found over the course of Ford’s multi-year renovation.
“The items that have been found show the care that each of the individual construction workers are taking when they’re doing their work,” said Rich Bardelli, Ford construction manager for the Michigan Central development project. “They saw it and they knew it was important, so they brought it to us. My reaction was to wait to open it and make sure we do it right.”
Other recent finds include a saucer from a china set, which was recovered in the basement. During the removal of an elevator shaft, a room was discovered on an intermediate level that contained an adding machine, baby shoes, women’s shoes and other items. Old tickets and payment ledgers for bills and invoices have also been discovered. An old Shinola shoeshine bottle was found nearby, at the former brass factory next to The Factory.
The items will be relocated to Ford’s purpose-built archives space in Dearborn, to be integrated into the company’s larger collection. The paper containing the message will be delicately cared for by Ford archivists in their temperature-controlled space, including being rehumidified and placed into a storage box to cradle it.
“The main thing you have to do is slow down the deterioration of the paper,” said Heritage and Brand Manager Ted Ryan. “With the bottle, that’s easy because it’s glass, but we’ll also have to make sure the rest of the label doesn’t deteriorate. It’s just like the pieces of a classic car.”
Nielsen, a Garden City resident who has lived in the Detroit area since birth, started working at Michigan Central in February. He said he hopes the message in the bottle is something important that relates to the building. “I would drive past it and wonder what’s going to happen to the train station,” he said. “Now, we are going to be part of the history of the building. It’s good to see it being revitalized after sitting derelict for so long.”
Ford purchased the long-vacant train station in 2018 and the preservation project began shortly thereafter. It will become the centerpiece of Michigan Central, a 30-acre mobility innovation district in Corktown featuring a mix of public-facing shops, restaurants and community amenities, as well as dynamic spaces for Ford employees and the company’s innovation partners to develop, test and launch new solutions to solve urban transportation challenges.
More than 400 workers are currently on site each day, doing masonry repairs and installing roofing, flooring, windows, plumbing and electrical systems. Crews are also busy restoring the magnificent Guastavino vaulted ceiling in the old waiting room that features three self-supported arches, and fixing terracotta cornices and limestone capitals on the exterior of the building.
Construction on Michigan Central Station will be complete by the end of 2022.