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Vintage Train Depots | The cargo & travel hubs of the 1800s-1900s

Updated on April 24, 2013
Message holder used to hold messages outside along the tracks for passing trains to pickup
Message holder used to hold messages outside along the tracks for passing trains to pickup
Signal operated inside the station by levers would signal on coming trains if they needed to stop.
Signal operated inside the station by levers would signal on coming trains if they needed to stop.
Levers used to operate the tower signals
Levers used to operate the tower signals
Baggage and cargo holding room
Baggage and cargo holding room
Baggage Agent Desk
Baggage Agent Desk
Phone and telegraph key was the train agents only communication.
Phone and telegraph key was the train agents only communication.
Agents Log Sheet
Agents Log Sheet
Vintage magazine for baggage agents
Vintage magazine for baggage agents

Soon after the first Union Train Station opened in 1853 in Indianapolis Indiana train depots quickly expanded across the country.

The train depot or train station as many called them soon became the main hub for a community and surrounding area to accommodate people, the US Mail and cargo destined to distant destinations.

There’s confusion of what actually should be called a station or depot. The country folk seemed to have it figured out. The big city had the fancy train station while the small train stop back home was always called the depot.

For this article I will just stick with this common sense designation and focus on the small town depot.

As the railroad’s expanded on west going by train became the logical and more comfortable and safer way to travel then previously done by stagecoach.

The shift from wagons and river barges to trains took a major upswing from the 1830s -1860s as manufactures could now transport heavy machinery and products by rail that couldn’t of otherwise been transported any other way.

Ranchers found the railway a much better mode to transport cattle to the Midwest markets over the previous long and dangerous cattle drives.

The railroad took over the US Mail transport and was able to move large cargo much faster and with less damage than using a team and wagon.

Depots also served non travelers with Western Union Telegraph services and shipping drop off points for local citizens. All types of small businesses and shops developed around the depots to cater to travelers.

Railroads not only provided the steam engines to move the people and products, they also provided the steam behind the industrial revolution.

To keep trains rolling on time stations were set up along the routes to efficiently load and unload passengers and cargo.

In the larger cities were several tracks converged from different destinations, large elaborate stations were built with fine marble and Victorian style interiors.

Along the routes through smaller towns, many brick and mortar depots were built, but the majority were simple wooden frame structures.

Even though the wood frame structures were far from the elaborate city train stations, they did have their own special charm and construction styles that seemed to be mirrored across the country.

With a little help from local citizens many of these wood frame depots have out lived the more structurally built brick and mortar city structures. Even after 150 years they are still standing tall waiting to serve the inbound trains that no longer run or stop.

From the 1920s-1930s the railroad industry began to see a drop off in travelers and cargo as the automobiles, trucks, buses and planes began to take their market share.

The Great Depression also caused a decline in travel and goods to be transported.

With the start of World War II the railroads and train depots started to thrive again with passing thorough of cargo and troops.

After the war ended the rail industry began to decline once again. As jets were introduced the travel from point A to B became much faster.

As the Federal Interstate Highway system began to be open American motorist began to enjoy faster travel, which also impacted train travel.

With declining revenues train depots weren’t very well maintained and kept clean either. At one time train depots provided services to all social classes including the most elite who traveled by private coaches.

In the later years, the train became a second class travel option for those who couldn’t afford airfares or automobiles. Then bus service started to pull those remaining customers away.

Depots were not very comfortable either, the wooden benches were sectioned off with arm rest to keep people from lying down and making the benches a bed. Like today’s bus stations, train depots also dealt with drifters, panhandlers, hobos and others who were not actual passengers.

Before forced air furnaces, depots were heated with coal stoves in the center of the waiting area. In many of the Southern states two waiting areas accommodated for segregation.

Smoking was common, but what was even more common was chewing tobacco. Trains and depots were equipped with spittoons that were labeled as railroad property as people would often steal them.

Spitting tobacco was a rather nasty habit that this era dealt with. It was a time when ladies also wore long flowing dresses and undergarments that drug along the floor and sidewalks.

The two just didn’t go together very well. Signs would be posted prohibiting people from spitting on the floors sidewalks and the train platform.

Prior to electricity lighting was provided by oil lamps. Special oil lamps were also used after dark in signal lanterns for the trains.

After the depots were electrified one single bulb would hang down from the ceiling in the middle of the room. This was also very common in homes during this era.

During the late 1960s and 1970s many routes were abandoned or used solely for cargo transport between larger cities. Many depots were closed and left to fall victim to neglect.

Some deteriorated so bad that they became a hazard and had to be torn down. Local historians with a passion and creativity to preserve this critical part of American history were able to rescue and move some of the depots off railroad property to be used for museums and tourism offices.

Depots were also purchased by local businesses to serve as offices, stores, and restaurants.

Unfortunately many community leaders no longer considered an abandon train depot something that should be held on to and just had them demolished. Many would be hard and expensive to convert to higher commercial building standards for handicap access standards.

In the larger cities some stations were located on prime real-estate that was no longer needed by the railroads, they were sold torn down and replaced with newer structures.

Some were converted to shopping malls or kept as a historical entryway into other newer structures or sport complexes such as the Houston Astros stadium.

On the rural routes the depot buildings would be constructed close to the track(s) in order to provide loading docks for cargo and passengers.

A large overhang would reach out to help protect passengers during inclement weather. In order to support such a massive roof overhang structure the depot would have fancy support beams built out from the buildings on each side along the full length of the building.

This design rubber stamped the train depot image and made them very recognizable as a train depot even today after they have been repurposed or moved away from the tracks.

Each depot would also have a sign displayed on each gable end of the structure to provide the name of the town.

The depot would have a set of bay windows or a jet out of windows that allowed the station agent to see down the tracks in both stations.

Considering today just how complex and all the elaborate computer equipment it takes to run a fast paced hub, the train depot was very simple. One phone, one telegraph key, a log book, ticket book, one manual typewriter, a safe, a schedule board and some file bins was all that it took for the station agent to function.

Back in the baggage and cargo room you would have also found another stand up desk for the baggage agent, a cargo manifest, shipping labels and logs.

Despite the simplicity and manual systems these train depots were highly functioning networks in a nationwide system.

The station agent received his information off the telegraph key. Sometimes it contained important messages that needed to be communicated to oncoming trains, such as a train derailment or speed reduction requirement on tracks under repair.

Up until the 1960s steam engines were the main source for locomotive power. They often needed to be refilled with water making train stops more frequently. During these stops the conductor could converse with the station manager and be caught up on the issues that the train may have on down the tracks.

Other trains that didn’t need to stop would pass on through. The station agent had control levers that would control signals outside the depot located up on a tower to tell the engineer if they had passengers or needed to stop.

If the train didn’t need to stop the depot agent would attach important messages on a “V” shaped wooden frame hooked by a string. The message was attached by a special pull open knot.

The device was set into special brackets next to the tracks. As the train was passing the conductor would reach down with a pole and retrieve the device.

With a quick pull on the string they could read the message to see if it contained important information that may cause them a problem down the tracks, such as a derailment.

Bags of US mail were also transferred onto moving trains by a similar grab and go system. The bags of mail would be hung onto a pole system that allowed the train staff to reach out and grab the bags with a pole equipped hook.

As we travel across Texas we have found some of the most preserved and refurbished train depots that we have seen in any other state.

These small Texas towns apparently are holding tight to these American icons that was once seen as the most important part of any cities economic future.

What is simply amazing is to be able to stand on the same wooden floors in these old stations over 150 years later and just reflect on all the legends and high profile individuals both good and bad who also stood before you to shape American history.

It’s rather sad and disappointing to think that train stations and travel are still a vibrant travel source for some European countries with stations and depots much older than these still standing in the US.

Pictures are courtesy of Cottage Craft Works .com a back-to-basic general store featuring old time products from the vintage American history.


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