They were sidetracked but never derailed. They huffed and puffed but kept chugging along. Six years after saving the last train depot in Blair from demolition, preservationists are on track to pull the project into the station and let off steam today.
The 1880 depot — forgotten and ignored for decades, except by historians and railroad enthusiasts — has made the grade as a 21st-century park pavilion with ties to its steel-and-steam past. A community picnic will celebrate the depot's revival.
The former Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha Railway depot is considered the last remaining link to the railroad era that brought Blair to life in 1869, said Dawn Nielsen, president of the Blair Historic Preservation Alliance.
“It's part of Blair's identity because we're such a crossroads,” she said. “Preserving the depot is a way to celebrate that, whether it's the railroads, the Lincoln Highway or today's bike trails.”
The rustic structure has a new coat of red oxide paint and brown trim for its life as a park shelter, gathering place, art show venue, performance stage and central hub for the city's trail system.
“It's history, but it has a new purpose,” Nielsen said.
The depot's new home in Lions Club Park is steps from the former bed of the Omaha Road — one of the rail lines that the building served for 30 years — and 300 yards northwest of its original location. Whistles from Union Pacific Railroad trains passing nearby provide blasts from the past.
Nielsen envisions performances by community bands, choruses and theater groups on a platform on the park side of the building.
The original track side faces Nebraska Street — the old Lincoln Highway path through town — and the U.P. line two blocks away. The building may be used for interpretative transportation displays showcasing the city's early rail history and its link to the Lincoln Highway, the nation's first transcontinental road.
The primary goal when the project started in 2007 was to rescue a piece of Blair's history and put it to good use, said Martin Rump, who was president of the preservation group at the time.
The structure is 24 feet by 64 feet. About a third of the depot was a passenger room. The remainder stored freight and baggage. The depot still has most of its original Douglas fir floors and bead board paneling. Original wood brackets are tucked under the eaves. The reconstructed bay window was used by the station master to watch for approaching trains.
“But it's not just the wood, it's the people who came through here,” Rump said. “It's neat to think of the ghosts.”
The depot was Blair's front door for 30 years until it was replaced by a larger brick structure. The wood building was moved a few blocks away and used for storage and freight. Another move and the passage of time left the 19th-century depot in the shadows as a seed and feed company storage shed with boarded-up windows.
The historic preservation group highballed into action after Mathiesen Grain Co. announced plans in 2007 to build a large bin on Front Street land where the relic stood. The company was sensitive to the historic significance of the old depot and offered it at no cost if it could be moved.
Preservationists sought donations to help pay for moving and restoring the depot. The Blair City Council pledged up to $25,000 from keno and city lodging tax funds. The original projected cost of stabilizing and revitalizing the depot was $32,000, which counted on volunteers to clean, patch and paint.
The depot moved for the third time in its existence to the park.
“Then we said, 'Now what?' ” Nielsen said.
A $456,000 federal grant, a $160,000 match from the city and other grants answered the question. The funding repaired walls and floors, built two chimneys, replaced doors, windows, siding and roof and provided four-season weatherization. Exterior, elevated patios resemble old train platforms.
The Omaha architecture firm of Alley Poyner Macchietto designed the renovations. Calabretto Construction of Omaha was the general contractor.
Rump said the finished product isn't an entirely accurate re-creation of the 133-year-old depot, but that wasn't the objective.
“Preservation sentiment aside,” he said, ''it's now a usable structure for the community again.”