Ford"s train depot purchase has ties to founding family"s heritage

DETROIT -- Ford Motor Co."s purchase of a blighted former train depot in Detroit as the centerpiece of an urban technology campus carries symbolism that likely factored into the automaker"s decision to undertake such an ambitious rehabilitation project.

The depot, abandoned 30 years ago, is in a part of Detroit known as Corktown, which has ties to company founder Henry Ford"s Irish heritage. Corktown is Detroit"s oldest surviving Irish neighborhood, and thus a natural place for Ford Motor to play a role in the city"s revitalization.

Ford ancestry

Most of Henry Ford"s ancestors left Ireland in the early 1800s. Ford"s grandfather, John Ford, and father, William Ford, were among the 1 million U.S. immigrants from Cork, Ireland, in 1847. Henry Ford, born in 1863 in what is now Dearborn, Mich., grew up with a curiosity for machines amid Detroit"s industrial boom.

Henry Ford"s heritage influenced even his early automobile business decisions. He selected Cork as the site for the first purpose-built Ford factory outside the U.S. in 1917.

Much of the Cork factory was dedicated to Ford tractor production. The last Model T ever built, Ford"s most iconic contribution to the auto industry, came from the Cork factory"s production line in the 1920s, along with the Model A, Model BF, Model Y, Prefect, Anglia, Escort, Cortina and Sierra.

Though the company name has since officially changed from Henry Ford & Son, it still uses that moniker in Ireland — the only place in the world it does so.

Ford also has the biggest network of dealers of any automotive manufacturer in Ireland, the company said in a statement, with 52 dealerships across the country. Bill Ford, Ford Motor executive chairman and a great-grandson of Henry Ford, celebrated the company"s centennial in Ireland last year.

"Ford has deep roots in Cork, not only through my family"s historical connection, but also through the impact that the Ford factory has had as an engine for prosperity for the area over many decades," Bill Ford said in a statement during the family"s travels to Ireland last April.

The last train pulled out of the Michigan Central Station in 1988, shortly before the Honda Accord became the best-selling car in America, a humbling milestone for the city and its top industry. Photo credit: Tom Worobec


Bill Ford spoke nostalgically of that connection last year, when Ford Motor revealed plans to put about 200 employees into a former hosiery factory in Corktown that it bought and renovated.

More than 30 years after Ford closed its Cork factory in 1984, the company is re-emphasizing its cultural heritage, but this time in Detroit.

"Henry Ford is synonymous with Detroit," former Detroit mayor Roman Gribbs once said.

The train depot Ford bought, known as Michigan Central Station, opened in 1914, 11 years after Henry Ford started his automobile company. Both entities thrived in parallel for much of the 20th century, though Ford"s success in making cars more accessible to people contributed to the eventual decline of rail travel and the station"s closure.

Ford and sons Nick, left, and Will in 2017 visited The Henry Ford Tavern in the family’s ancestral village of Ballinascarthy in County Cork, Ireland. Ford was there in April to commemorate the automaker’s 100th anniversary in the country.

The train station isn"t the only Corktown property in which Ford has expressed interest. It has promised to reveal its plans for the area in more detail next week. The family that had owned the depot since 1995 said on Monday that it began having discussions with Ford in October.

Ford, whose headquarters in Dearborn are seven miles west of the depot, has many ties to Detroit that go far beyond Corktown. Henry Ford"s Piquette Avenue Plant, known as the birthplace of the Model T, is on the city"s east side. Detroit"s Renaissance Center, a series of 1970s office towers fronting the Detroit River that now house General Motors" headquarters, was conceived by Henry Ford"s grandson, Henry Ford II, and financed largely by Ford Motor.