This week, Northfield’s last standing railroad depot will move — so that it can stay.
The old brick train station, built in 1888, will be slowly, carefully wheeled to its new home across the street, capping years of work to save it from decay and demolition. The nonprofit in charge of that effort, Save the Northfield Depot, is heralding the short trip as a huge step.
“If we did not move it off the property, it was going to be destroyed,” said Alice Thomas, a board member for the group. “The community now has the opportunity to complete the depot transit hub complex.”
About 4,000 depots once dotted Minnesota’s cities and countryside, said Bill Schrankler, author of “Shadows of Time … Minnesota’s Surviving Railroad Depots.” Today, just 400 remain.
“They’re disappearing,” Schrankler said. “So I’m really happy that the folks down there who have worked so hard are able to preserve that one.”
Northfield once had five depots as part of a rail network that transported products and people, including students to and from St. Olaf and Carleton colleges. In 1908, presidential candidate William Taft made a campaign stop at the depot that’s still standing. Dwight Eisenhower’s campaign train stopped there in 1952.
Keeping the depot means “preserving a lot of history and heritage,” said Mayor Dana Graham. But it also could jump-start a project for Northfield’s future, he said.
The city envisions the depot becoming a visitor and information center of sorts — part of a bigger complex, with a pavilion and baggage room, based on a 1917 proposal drawn up by Milwaukee Road but never built. It also could become a transit hub, the home base for a passenger rail line that would run between Minneapolis and Northfield. The development of that line remains under debate.
“I do believe that eventually, if we can get passenger rail going again, it’s going to be extremely important to the growth of Northfield,” Graham said.
The effort to save the railroad depot began in 2008, when a few residents found out that the building was in jeopardy: Canadian Pacific had asked the city whether the fire department might want to burn it down for practice. The residents formed a nonprofit, Save the Northfield Depot, and held public meetings in 2010, asking three questions: Is the depot worth saving? Where should it go? How should it be used?
“All three of the answers were pretty clear,” Thomas said.
After hearing support for saving the building, the group spoke with the city about a long vacant, blighted piece of land between 2nd and 3rd streets. The city agreed to sell the depot for $1 once the group had raised enough money to repair and move it. The nonprofit closed on the property in October.
The city is now debating whether to support the project through tax increment financing. In December, the Northfield Economic Development Authority recommended that the City Council provide $99,000 in such funds for a parking lot, sidewalks and lighting, among other things.
Save the Northfield Depot has raised almost $300,000 for the project. The EDA and other local and state agencies have given about $50,000 in grants. But more than half the total came from individual donors: $157,000 from more than 1,000 people.
About 60 of Minnesota’s remaining depots are on the National Register of Historic Places, Schrankler said. Another 115 are being used as museums, businesses or homes. Some are tucked away on farms. Others are being used for storage. “I had a hard time finding some of them,” he said.
The Northfield depot will be set just 15 feet from the railroad tracks, Thomas said, on a block where the other depots once stood. “So this is going back home in some sense.”