If these walls could talk: the depot

As we've been 'virtually' traveling, from article to article, through buildings of historic note in Culver during this series, our journey has taken us most recently along the north side of Lake Shore Drive's business district. We would be remiss, however, to skip over one of the most notable and historic structures, which lies across the street.

The old depot-train station on the 'lake' side of the street, long part of Culver's town park, has a rich and varied history such that our article here can't do it justice. I should also point out that an entire series of articles -- a book, for that matter! -- could be written about the larger topic of the railroad in Culver more generally. So if you feel we've left a great deal out of the story, it's due to the specific focus here on the depot. We'll also tackle the park property itself in a future installment.

Judi Burns, in her Maxinkuckee history website, has uncovered some tidbits very helpful to filling in some historical blanks in the story, since the early days of the depot predated the launch of The Culver Citizen newspaper (much of Judi's research prior to that year comes from the Logansport newspaper).

The Vandalia line of the Pennsylvania Railroad was completed to Culver by 1884, and would eventually run from Terre Haute to South Bend. The depot building itself, however, was completed in what was then the town of Marmont on April 11, 1885 and featured a 200-foot platform and concession stand. The open-walled waiting shelters -- converted since then to picnic pavilions on the east and west end of today's town park, respectively -- would likely have been installed as part of this endeavor.

To be historically accurate, we could skip over the first depot building, since it was located several yards east of today's brick structure (on what would today be the park's parking lot). But the current building was obviously a replacement of the first, so we'll count it!

In June, 1887, the Logansport Pharos Tribune reported the depot -- which at the time was a wood frame, and not a brick, structure -- would be enlarged.

It's worth noting that the depot area, during the 1880s and 1890s, was actually considered to be outside the town proper, as the portion of town west and south of it hadn't yet grown to meet it.

"Marmont is gradually growing towards the railroad station," said the July 16, 1889 Logansport Pharos Tribune. "It will not be many years before the bulk of the business will drift in that direction."

In October, 1914, the depot was completely wired for electric lights for the first time. "A number of small lights have been distributed throughout the building," it was noted, "and one of the large 100-watt lights has been placed under each shed beside the depot."

The Culver Citizen of January 14, 1920 reported that "The Vandalia depot stands a charred wreck, the result of a fire which virtually destroyed it Monday Morning."

Mrs. Schweidler, across the street, had been awakened by an explosion at 2:45 a.m., and by the time the fire truck arrived it was too late and the building and contents, with the exception of four trunks, were destroyed.

"It is the general supposition that coals from the open door of the stove in the agent's office fell out upon the floor and that the fire soon caught the desk and the ticket rack with their inflammable contents," wrote the Citizen.

Ironically, on Jan. 12, 1921, a year to the day after the old Vandalia depot was destroyed by fire, the temporary depot caught fire, the paper reported.

It's interesting to contemplate that it took five years for Culver to receive a new depot, though it should be remembered that the tourist boom which once brought thousands via trains to the station for Lake Maxinkuckee excursions, had largely dried up a decade earlier, as automobiles broke people's dependence on the railroad system.

In August, 1923, the Citizen noted that Culver had been assured of a new railroad station, according to a report from the superintendent of the South Bend division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Appropriation of funds has been made and actual construction will begin before very long.

In September, 1925, it finally happened. "The new depot," said the Citizen, "is an edifice of which the entire community can be proud."
Other than the general foreman of construction and the brick layer foreman, the entire work of building the edifice was done by local people, and the office was "well equipped with the modern conveniences."

At the east side of the ticket office was a small window where trainmen received their orders without bothering at the ticket window at a busy time. Two large ticket sales windows were provided, which would "take care of the rush which occurs at many times during the summer months."

"The waiting room has been finished in a light yellow, which contrasts beautifully with the dark finished wood work," reported the Citizen.

"The furniture of this room will consist of three tiers of seats finished in a light oak...through a little hallway leads one into a private rest room for the women. This will be furnished with one long bench and three comfortable leather rocking chairs."

At the north side was a stairway leading to the basement, "where the old records of this station will be stored. It is here also that a large coal bin has been built and the furnace has been installed. The basement does not extend under the entire building but merely under the baggage room. The furnace is an over-size of the American Radiator Company."

The town of Culver's 1935 purchase of the old Vandalia park property in 1935 did not include, yet, the depot property, and business chugged along (if you'll pardon the pun) more or less as usual at the depot for the next several years, though life outside continued to change, gradually reducing use of the building and the tracks in accommodated.

Passenger rail service to Culver ended after Thanksgiving, 1947, though the 'Academy Special' (which dated back to about 1897) survived until after spring break of 1956, originating from a side track near the power house on the academy campus.

In 1959, it was reported the first coin operated laundry was on its way to Culver. The waiting room area of the depot was transformed into a laundromat (operated for part of this period by a family named Jones) until the mid-1970s, after which the building sat empty for a while.

In 1969, the local depot was closed, though the occasional freight train ran through town until 1979, when the Vandalia line was finally completely abandoned (the Farm Bureau Co-op at the east end of Jefferson Street, which had been the last user of the old rails, had burned in October, 1978). The Pennsylvania Railroad had declared bankruptcy in June, 1970.

In December, 1984, the town purchased the depot and adjacent land for $42,500, which was finalized in April, 1985. By then, the depot was in terrible condition, after years of abuse and neglect. It hung precariously between life and death until Culver's Lions Club stepped up to rescue it, and rescue it they did, initially by way of a feverish fund-raising effort combined with an immense amount of individual and collective sweat equity.

In the years since, the Club, which technically leases the building at $1 per year from the park, has continued to make improvements on the structure -- windows, roof, kitchen, and more -- and has done so with an effort to maintain a sense of the historicity of the building.

For years, the depot has been as much a community building as Culver has, and has filled a vital role, with the Lions not only using it for their regular meetings and events, but also handling rental and event prep (and follow-up) for private functions and public purposes such as voting, non-profit fund-raisers, and overflow meeting space for municipal gatherings. If ever there were a textbook study of successful salvation of a historic structure for the benefit of an entire community, surely the ongoing vitality of Culver's beloved depot qualifies.