Relic of the past: Kansas’ depots slowly fading away

The Stafford depot is in the process of being demolished. It is estimated that fewer than 180 depots remain in Kansas, and of those, 32 are listed on the state or National Register of Historic Places.
The Stafford depot is in the process of being demolished. It is estimated that fewer than 180 depots remain in Kansas, and of those, 32 are listed on the state or National Register of Historic Places. Courtesy photo

For more than a century, the brick train depot on the north edge of town has stood as a sentinel, marking a way of life that no longer exists.

The trains of the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway still rumble through, but the days of passenger service have long since stopped in this tiny town in central Kansas.

“Originally, the depots symbolized where all the action was,” said Dave Webb, a railroad enthusiast who owns his own depot he relocated from Ashland to Protection. “The depot was where everyone arrived and departed, where everything in the way of freight and mail arrived.”

The Stafford depot, built in 1911, is on its way out, like so many other depots of that era. Demolition has begun; windows have been removed.

A state that had nearly 2,000 depots less than a century ago now has fewer than 200, according to the Kansas Historical Society.

In Stafford, there is a last-minute e-mail campaign to try to save the old depot, but most recognize it may be a lost cause.

Efforts to save

Clare Moore jokes and says his wife describes him as the “Patron of Lost Causes.”

“So, this whole thing is a long shot,” he said. “But not dead until the depot is down.”

Moore, who grew up in Stafford County but is now a Realtor in the Wichita area, would like to save the depot and turn it into the Larabee Baking Institute, an interactive baking training facility. He contends that Kansas and Stafford is the heartland for wheat production, flour milling and baking.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Larabee family of Stafford had become one of the wealthiest milling families in the nation. They built the Larabee Flour Milling Co., which had its headquarters in Stafford and operated more than 20 mills.

The railroad, Moore contends, played a central role in developing Stafford.

But local leaders also realize they are in the 11th hour in trying to save the town’s depot.

There is a petition being circulated. … It is a beautiful building and historic. It would be wonderful to see it turned into something – but I don’t know how feasible it is.

Mary Jo Taylor, Stafford school superintendent and state senator from District 33

“Clare is very creative with his ideas,” said Mary Jo Taylor, Stafford school superintendent and a state senator. “His whole idea about saving the depot is passionate and comes from the heart.

“It is a beautiful building and historic. It would be wonderful to see it turned into something, but I don’t know how feasible it is.”

Transportation hubs

In 1920, there were 1,850 depots in Kansas. By the mid-1990s, there were 360.

The Kansas Historical Society now estimates there are fewer than 180 old depots remaining in Kansas, with 32 listed on either the state or National Register of Historic Places, according to Patrick Zolner of the Kansas State Historic Preservation Office.

Officials at BNSF say the town’s depot is a liability. They say inspections have revealed heavy termite damage and other issues with structural integrity.

Andy Williams, regional public affairs director for BNSF, wrote in an e-mail to The Eagle that BNSF officials “carefully weigh and evaluate options when deciding if and when one of our buildings should be removed.”

“The same is true for the depot in Stafford, which has sat vacant for decades. While we recognize the connection some feel to the depot, protecting the safety of our employees and the general public is paramount and precluded any future use of the building.”

Many of the grand depot brick buildings – which often replaced wood depots – were built at the turn of the 20th century in county seats or other important towns.

“It was a sign they were going to be permanent – that the railroad connection would last forever,” said Webb.

“After the laws were changed in the 1980s and deregulation happened, it is now the permanent depots that are being bulldozed and removed. The ‘temporary’ wood depots are being moved away and preserved.”

Changing times

The depot is a throwback in time.

In the late 19th century, railroads connecting towns was a sign civilization had arrived. Kansas grew from 2,013 miles of railroad track in 1872 to more than 8,859 in 1890, according to historical documents. The growth gave Kansas the distinction of being second in the nation as far as miles of track.

But after the 1890s, some railroads – due to national panics, depressions and the rise of the Kansas Populist movement – abandoned several of the lines in Kansas.

Then, as highways were built and people began purchasing cars and trucks, fewer passengers traveled on trains and fewer items were shipped by rail. After World War II, the importance of the railroad in small towns faded.

In communities with dwindling populations, the task to save the depots becomes even harder.

“Everybody has the same situation,” said Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation near Inman, an organization that helps preserve rural culture. “They have the deteriorating depots, and somebody has to come up with a plan: Do we save it, and how?

“If no one asks the question, then things don’t go forward. In many towns, the question is coming too late.”

Depot stories

There are success stories.

In Strong City, the City Hall offices are in the Strong City Depot and Railroad Park. The Bartlett Arboretum in Belle Plaine moved the Oxford depot to its location in 2013.

The large Santa Fe Railroad Depot in Atchison houses one of the nation’s most extensive displays of Amelia Earhart memorabilia. Wichita is in the process of restoring its Union Station.

The Great Overland Station in Topeka is one of the best-renovated train depots in Kansas and houses the Kansas Hall of Fame.

The tiny town of Beaumont in Butler County lost its depot decades ago but this past year built a new community center to replicate the old depot.

Dodge City, Mulvane, El Dorado and Marysville have all renovated their depots.

But when these buildings are razed or moved from the communities, residents often feel an acute loss, said Zolner, the preservation official.

Such was the case in Herington when, in 1988, the St. Louis Southwestern Railway Co. razed the town’s depot, a 101-year-old Gothic limestone building listed on the Kansas Register of Historic Places.

Despite efforts from local residents to preserve the depot, the railroad bulldozed it in the early morning hours.

The incident shook preservationists, and it strengthened state laws protecting buildings considered state or national historic sites.

End of an era

Often, it’s not that a town’s residents don’t care about the depot, they may not have the time or resources to do anything about it.

“If you save a building, you have to figure out what to do with it,” said Michael Hathaway, curator of the Stafford County Museum. “You have to ask how it would support itself in small towns.”

And in a time when farm and oil economies are sagging, rural towns struggle to keep projects moving forward.

Williams, the BNSF official, said final demolition of the Stafford depot – the last of its kind in Stafford County – will happen within weeks.

He said contractors began preparing the building for demolition, including the removal of asbestos, which has left the building exposed to the elements.

“Saving a relic of the past is saving part of your story,” said Penner of the Kansas Sampler. “The towns that repurpose or move their depots to a prime spot use them as a town anchor.

“Unfortunately, the depots are often not the city’s property. The railroad has ownership.”

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner