New exhibit commemorates 130-year-old depot

Iron, Steel, and Stone: The Life of a Depot
Opens Sunday, October 14, 2018
Old Depot Museum, 135 W Tecumseh, Ottawa, Kansas

One hundred and thirty years ago, carpenters were putting the finishing touches on the woodwork at the Santa Fe Depot in Ottawa, Kansas. It was a major milestone for a building that was little more than a hole in the ground for more than two years.

The Old Depot Museum’s new exhibit, “Iron, Steel, & Stone: The Life of a Depot,” explores how the depot that almost wasn’t built became a center of community life for nearly seven decades. The exhibit opens Sunday, October 14. Admission is free for all visitors that day.

“We spent months researching everything we could find about the history of the depot. We have found thousands of newspaper and magazine entries we’ve never seen before, and we really got a sense of the upheaval caused by the railroad line changing hands, community members frustrated by rumors and construction delays, and, finally, the construction process,” said Franklin County Historical Society Executive Director Diana Staresinic-Deane. “We learned that we didn’t know the story of this building as well as we thought, and we’re really excited to be able to share our discoveries through this exhibit.”

Ottawa’s first railroad line, the Leavenworth, Lawrence, & Galveston, rumbled into Ottawa just hours before their bond deadline of January 1, 1868. The railroad line reorganized and changed names several times between 1879 and 1883, when it became the Southern Kansas Railway Company, which was owned by the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad.

 “In 1885, the Southern Kansas makes plans for a grand, two-story depot, and workers began digging out a large basement and setting stones for the foundation. New telegraph poles are installed. The city is making plans to install electric lights throughout the downtown area and around the depot. Then the freight depot burns down in June 1886, and construction on the passenger depot grinds to a halt,” said Staresinic-Deane.

 For the next two years, Ottawans stared at the giant hole in the ground by Tecumseh Street, first with hope, then with frustration. The newspaper reports waffled between rumors of progress and rumors that the project would be scrapped. In 1888, AT&SF officials announce that construction will begin, but Ottawans were skeptical.

“By this point, the general feeling was, ‘we’ll believe it when we see it,’” said Staresinic-Deane.

An early undated photo of Ottawa’s Santa Fe Depot.

Built under the supervision of Ottawa architect George Washburn, the depot was in use by January 1889. It quickly became an important community hub. Sources within the depot shared interesting, funny, and unfortunate happenings with the newspapers, who reported diligently on every crime, illness, accident, or oddity.

“Because the depot was both a transportation center and a place where locals liked to hang out and people watch, it was a real microcosm of Franklin County life,” said Staresinic-Deane. 

“Thanks to the newspapers, we learned a lot about daily life at the depot,” said Staresinic-Deane.  “We were surprised to learn there was once a library on the second floor with a staff librarian, 500 books, and flowers in the windows. We learned that this depot employed women as janitors, clerks, and train callers. And we learned that at one point, the AT&SF seriously considered lopping off the second floor and ‘modernizing’ the look of the building. Thank goodness they decided it was too expensive to do.”

In addition to the story of the depot’s construction, the exhibit will include a look at daily life at the depot—how the building was maintained and changed over time, well-loved employees, famous travelers, and even crime.

“Iron, Steel, & Stone: The Life of a Depot” will be on display through March 2019. This exhibit was made possible thanks in part to gifts from the Caroline E. Hewitt Trust and the Chandler Trust.

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