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


Tunnel Entrance Postcard orange tones 2012046840

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.

Ferry billowing smoke 2012020555

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.

Seven Workmen Photo 1907 2013045373

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.

MCR tunnel interior postcard 2012020668

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.

Tunnel Portal photo 2012004134

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


11 thoughts on “The Detroit River Tunnel Few Have Seen: The Michigan Central Railway Tunnel

  1. I made many trips from 1971 through 1981. Only stalled once , but was able pull through with out any help. Bad sanders.

  2. When I was a kid my friends and i walk to Canada then walked back when we got out of the tunel on the US side we got urested but they let us go after three hours good thing there was no train that evening

  3. I used to be an Urban Explorer and I have been all through those times underneath the train station when I went many of them were flooded but still crawled on top of the conveyor belt for the mail to go through and it was quite an experience you could tell that too many people have been there because it was not full of graffiti yet it was quite interesting to do that definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience exclamation point

    • Sorry, not the chief engineer. He was an engineer for the bridge, and his obit in the Journal of the Association of Engineering Societies vol 48-49 (1911) says that “To him is due in a very large measure the success attending the building of the Detroit River Tunnel.”

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