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Commentary: Saving the Northfield Depot

Posted in the Prior Lake American: Thursday, January 21, 2016 2:45 pm

By John Diers

A century ago, every village, town and city in Minnesota of any consequence had a railroad depot and at least one passenger train a day that called on it.

That era, the trains, even the tracks in some places, are long gone, and the depots demolished. A few were preserved and survived. Still others were abandoned to vandalism and the elements. Such was the fate awaiting Northfield’s depot until dedicated preservationists along with the community, business and city government came together to save it.

Before the automobile and improved roads, the railroad depot was the center of town life and the gateway to the community. It welcomed travelers of every stripe and station in life; families, businessmen, entertainers, students going to and from school, soldiers, preachers, politicians, journalists. Every item of express, package, parcel, mail order catalog and sack of mail passed through it.

The long distance telephone did not come into widespread use until after World War I, and in an era when communication was by telegraph, the railroad station agent was the community’s only link with the greater world. Each station had its own call sign and the agent-operator had to be alert for its two or three letters signaling, amid the constant clicking of the telegraph sounder, that there was incoming traffic for the station. It might be routine railroad business; train orders from the dispatcher, a switch list, or confirmation of a Pullman reservation, or a Western Union Telegram. The local newspaper relied on the depot telegraph for news reports, election results and market quotations. Official time signals were sent out on the telegraph wire.

Northfield’s depot opened in 1888. It was the second depot on the site, succeeding an earlier structure constructed shortly after the railroad built through town in 1865. The railroad, a predecessor of the Chicago Milwaukee and St. Paul, was among the oldest in the state, opening the first direct link to Chicago in 1867 and hosting the state’s first long distance overnight train, “The Eastern Express.”

At the end of World War II, Northfield’s depot had six daily arrivals and departures from the Twin Cities for Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Dallas, and, through a connection at Des Moines, Omaha, Denver and Los Angeles.

Northfield saw its last passenger train in 1969. Thereafter, the railroad used the depot for storage for a few years and then boarded it up to await an uncertain future. In 2008, the railroad offered the depot to the city as kindling for a fire department training exercise.

That didn’t happen. A citizens group came together and persuaded the city to negotiate with the Canadian Pacific Railway to sell the building to the city for $1 with the provison that it would be moved to a new location. The group, “Save the Northfield Depot” (http://www.northfielddepot.org/), was formed as a 501 (c)(3) to raise funds and lead a restoration project. It engaged the city and gained widespread support in the community. Plans came together in 2010 to move the depot a short distance off railroad owned property for renovation and reuse as a visitor information center, transit hub, and possibly a railroad depot if passenger service is restored between Northfield and Minneapolis. That possibility has support in Northfield, Savage, and other communities in Dakota and Scott counties, but it would require legislative action and funding.

“Save the Northfield Depot” has raised nearly $300,000 for the project. The city’s Economic Development Authority along with local and state agencies contributed $50,000 in grants. The city is currently discussing using tax-increment financing to continue the project. In December, the Economic Development Authority recommend the city provide $99,000 for infrastructure improvements on the site. But, importantly, and as an indicator of community support, more than half the amount, $157,000, came from more than 1,000 people in the community who were committed to the project and the depot’s preservation and reuse.

On Jan. 6 and 7, “Save the Northfield Depot,” the city and dozens of local volunteers and supporters celebrated the move of the depot to its new location and with it restoration and a 21st century role for the 1888 building.

Locally, we occasionally hear, or read, the term “pulling together” associated with growth and economic development or civic boosterism, but real “pulling together” needs both an object and a catalyst, whether it’s saving a depot, an historic site or a neighborhood. That’s what unites a community. Northfield shows how it’s done.

Please read more from the Prior Lake American:
John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com. (Editor’s note: Diers is a community columnist and not employed by, or paid by, the newspaper.)