The Sidetrack-A History

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Fall 2009,
Fall 2009
Original Images:


Author: George Ridenour. Lyle McDermott

The Sidetrack Bar and Grill – A History
By George Ridenour & Lyle McDermott

In 1838 the first train arrived in the newly founded Ypsilanti. Around the depot and freight house area a new part of Ypsilanti developed that has been referred to over the years as “Depot Town.” The Ypsilanti City Directory of 1860-61 lists the Pavillion Saloon at the location that later became 56 East Cross Street where the Sidetrack Bar and Grill is now located. City directories for the years 1861-1873 are rare and we were unable to find the history of the bar during those years.

1873-1874: William Leach had a saloon and Restaurant at the SW corner of East Cross and River Streets. At that time in Ypsilanti history there were no street numbers.
1878-79: Ms. Siva Leach had a dining hall at the same location.

Now listing as 56 East Cross Street the following businesses and time-line:
1892-1910: Nicholas Max Saloon.
1910-1918: Joseph Hock Saloon.
1919-1920: With Prohibition name changed to: Joseph Hock soft drinks/lunches.
1921-1924: Louis Caldwell Soft drinks/lunch.
1926-27: Mike Smith Soft drinks and lunch.
1928-29: Niel Holk soft drinks and lunch.
1930-1933: George Cristos soft drinks and lunch.
1934-1954: George Cristos Tavern and Restaurant (Repeal of Prohibition).
1955-1979: Central Bar & Tavern.
1980- present: Sidetrack Bar &Grill.

In 2000, 54 East Cross Street was added as “Frenchies” which was a banquet facility and overflow for the Sidetrack Bar and Grill.

Local Legends, Lores, Lies and Possibilities: Buffalo Bill stepped off the train at the Ypsilanti depot on a July, 1900 morning. He had 46 box cars to unload. Among his most famous performers was Miss Annie Oakley. They arrived for a one day only show. The parade route was almost three miles long! He arrived a little more than 100 yards from our saloon. Again, he returned in 1910 for his Farewell Tour. He again brought tons of equipment and a cast of hundreds to entertain the locals. We found as well that he had “shirt tail” relatives in the area that we were able to verify he visited at times when he came to Michigan.

Bill was known to have loved his libations. The saloon, only a hundred yards from the train station, would be a tempting site for a man fond of his drink. Having carloads of hungry and thirsty actors and stage hands and being greeted by the local dignitaries gives rise to speculation. Speculation that perhaps Bill came in for a cool one to help relieve his anxieties and tension at all the commotion going on out in the streets…….maybe?

Next door to the Sidetrack during the early 1900’s “The Horse Exchange,” a betting parlor, was housed. The walls, covered in blackboards, welcomed a daily exchange of up to 80 gentlemen (every day on the 2:00 pm train) from the Detroit area to place wagers on horse racing tracks around the country. The results would come in via the wire and fortunes were made and lost on this early form of “off track betting.”

Next door was our saloon where these gentlemen could have drinks, food, and relaxation from the gaming establishment. If a gentleman was so disposed to want fillies of a human kind or “sporting ladies,” Ma (Mary) Bush’s Boarding House on the second floor could provide entertainment for a nominal fee. The gentlemen, at 5:00 pm boarded the train and returned home to Detroit after a day of work at the Horse Exchange. Such was life in Depot Town.

A Day in Sidetrack History: Local historian George Ridenour recounts the day the train hit the Sidetrack-as told by a pet canary who witnessed it all.

“My name is Bobbie. I survived the train wreck of 1929. I am a pet canary. I was sitting in my cage in Mrs. Caldwell’s apartment on January 21, 1929. I was sipping a little water, eating some seeds, and singing my heart out. Mrs. Caldwell, the owner of the building where the Sidetrack is now located was lucky, as she had just gone out of the building and was next to the garage away from the building and to the rear of our building. BAM, BAM, the lights went out and the whole room turned upside down. I was tossed out of my cage and was falllllllllliiiiiinnnnnngggg.

A freight train was just passing through Ypsilanti when the 12th car of an 85 car train went off the tracks! It jumped the track just west of the main depot. The car, carrying a load of lumber, broke its coupling, lurched across the Cross Street intersection and crashed into the restaurant on the first floor of the building owned by Mr. & Mrs. Ollett.

The building (where the Sidetrack is now housed) was severely damaged. The Ypsilanti Press of January 21, 1929 reported: “The East wall was caved in, all effects in the building strewn in the street; the roof of the building was sagging precariously. It fell in about an hour after the accident, leaving only the Cross Street wall standing which was torn down soon afterward. The basement was opened and many of the bricks were tossed into the basement as part of the cleanup.

Oh, yeah, back to the important part. They found me about 4:00 pm, seven hours after the accident, bruised, trying to sing, and lying in a heap of rubbish. When you sit on the patio next to the track you are in fact sitting where the train hit on January 21, 1929. Oh, not to ruffle your feathers, but could it happen again? (Bobbie, the canary, 1929).

Finally, GQ Magazine rated the burgers at the Sidetrack Bar and Grill in the top 20 in the United States. All you have to do is try one and you know why the Sidetrack Bar and Grill in Depot Town, Ypsilanti, Michigan is “the place” not only to eat but to be seen and to see the who’s who of Ypsilanti and the surrounding community.

(Lyle McDermott and George Ridenour are both volunteers in the YHS Archives and regular contributors to the Gleanings.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: If you look close at the building on the right you will see the building attached to the “Sidetrack” that was destroyed in the 1929 train wreck.

Photo 2: This picture shows the “Sidetrack” after the corner building had been removed following the train wreck of 1929.