Pat Flahaven was among train buffs, the nostalgic and those simply curious who were following a local author on a tour of the St. Paul Union Depot on Saturday amid a celebration of railway history.
As author John Diers pointed out where the ticket window and a restaurant once operated, and where the gate signs and where a bank of pay phones once stood, Flahaven, 70, recalled exactly how they looked. His father and uncle were conductors and he used to ride the Great Northern Line as a boy.
“I have a lot of good memories of the depot itself,” said Flahaven, who was Minnesota’s secretary of the Senate for 36 years, until 2009.
His father was a conductor on the Great Northern’s Red River streamliner, which began running from St. Paul to Grand Forks in 1950, said Flahaven, of the Great Northern Railway Historical Society.
He expressed gratitude for the “beautiful” depot restoration by the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority.
“This is now a hub for modern-day travel,” Flahaven said of the station, served by Amtrak trains, Metro Transit light rail, and intercity buses.
From Flahaven to retired Great Northern conductor Gary Nelson to toddler Colten Just, throngs turned out Saturday for a celebration of railway history at the newly reopened East Metro transit hub.
“What you are seeing here is a historic landmark that’s been brought back to life,” said Dick Mullen of the Minnesota Transportation Museum.
His grandfather was a conductor and he, too, saw much of the countryside from a train as a boy. Mullen, 73, said he saw how the railroads enabled people, and scattered farm communities, to connect.
‘Lifeline to America’
With trains running since 1862 in Minnesota, seven out of 10 communities were built along the tracks, Mullen said.
“It was a lifeline to America,” Mullen said.
He was there to help show visitors a classic locomotive, coach car and caboose on loan from the Great Northern Railway’s historic Jackson Street Roundhouse, a former steam engine maintenance facility.
The Hustle Muscle is a 400 locomotive that went into service in 1966. Also there: a Great Northern 56-passenger coach and the Soo 31, a 1968 caboose.
Diers is a local historian and author of a 2013 book, “St. Paul Union Depot.” Also on hand was author Bill Schrankler, who used to come to Union Depot as a boy. He spoke about his recent book, “Shadows of Time … Minnesota’s Surviving Railroad Depots.”
Depots provided a nexus for the towns, with people coming and going, mail and newspapers delivered, and farm products being sent out, Schrankler said. Telegraph operators were often located in depots, providing instant communication.
There are 250 to 300 passenger depots scattered all over Minnesota, including on farms. Many are disappearing. Six still provide service, he said.
His mother and maternal grandmother came to Minnesota on orphan trains. Between 1854 and 1929, thousands of children were put on the trains, mostly in New York City, and shipped to adoptive families around the country.
Schrankler’s mother arrived as an 18-month-old at a small station in Madelia, Minn., where he’d later visit his adoptive grandparents. That station and a radio show he’d listen to about Grand Central Station ignited his lifelong love of depots. They represent more than brick and mortar, he said.
“It’s the stories that are connected with them,” Schrankler said, “and what they meant to our state, our country.”
Saturday’s events included a public screening of a documentary by Greg Ellis, “Back on Track: The Rebirth of St. Paul’s Union Depot.”