Archive for Monday, June 23, 2008

Train depot plans stir memories

June 23, 2008


Tomorrow the Lawrence City Commission will meet to take up the matter of the Seventh Street train depot. It seems the city can acquire it for a dollar. BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway) is willing to make the donation, or sale - if you want to call $1 a sale.

Depot Redux, the group dedicated to the preservation and restoration of this mid-century specimen of architectural practicality, has worked hard to get the parties to this point. If the city accepts ownership, the process of getting the structure on the historical register is made easier. And with that designation, federal funding for restoration becomes possible.

So I thought I'd go down there. See if I could stir up some ghosts from June 8, 1966, the day I first came in to that station, ironically on a bus, not a train. I had boarded the train in Dodge City, headed for summer session at KU, as my father stood by solemnly and my mother dabbed at her eyes with a "hankie." Still a teenager, I had never before ventured so far from home alone. My parents were ambivalent about it. I was thrilled. As I traveled east on tracks of steel, my excitement was mixed with anxiety. I was going to a place where I didn't know a soul. I had no idea what lay ahead for me. But I could never have imagined what would happen that evening.

The skies had grown dark. Then a few miles outside of Topeka, the train stopped. We didn't move for an hour, and no one told us why. Finally, the conductor came on the loudspeaker and announced that a massive tornado had destroyed much of Topeka, including the tracks ahead. Buses would come to take us off the train to get us to the Topeka depot where other passengers had to be picked up and then on to Lawrence and points east until passengers could be put on another train.

As the bus attempted to find its way around downed trees and toppled buildings into Topeka, we remained silent, in shock as we looked out the windows. Topeka was dark except for the pulsing red lights of emergency vehicles. Quiet except for the wails of sirens. The city looked like the documentaries of war-torn Europe. Buildings lay in rubble. But the worst of it, injured people were everywhere, some being carried on stretchers, others waiting their turn on street corners. Sixteen people died that evening and 450 were injured. I will never forget one man sitting on the curb, a makeshift blood-soaked white tourniquet wound around his head. Nevertheless, blood was running down his face, onto his arms and chest. He sat on the curb, staring straight ahead, dazed.

After picking up passengers at the depot, and the bus picked its way around debris, finally making it to the edge of town and on to Lawrence. Once I disembarked at the Lawrence depot, I was relieved to see a taxi waiting, even though it was the middle of the night. "Do you know where Miller Hall is?" I asked. Those were probably the first words I'd uttered in several hours.

But on this June day, 42 years and eight days later, the depot still stands, locked in a kind of time warp. Speaking of locked, it's only opened briefly twice a day when Amtrak chugs in (5:45-ish in the morning eastbound from California, and well past midnight westbound from Chicago). The depot has been preserved by "benign" neglect - thankfully, the lack of remodeling over the years has saved most of its original 1956 features.

I don't remember much about the depot in subsequent years, though I went through it repeatedly. For me, the place became a Star Trekkian transporter platform. That's because I boarded past midnight, usually dead tired from finals, and moments after finding a seat I would fall asleep. The next instant, a conductor would be calling out Dodge City, sometimes having to shake me awake. In the first streaks of a lovely western Kansas dawn, I'd stumble off the train, and my parents were always there beside the tracks beaming.

How lucky I was to be so loved, so awaited.

I could get on that same train tonight, I have half a mind to do it. However, no one will be there for me at the other end. There will be a lovingly restored 1898 depot in Dodge City, but my greeters are gone. Fortunately, this depot is still here to reassure me that my memories are not illusions and time does not wipe out all good things.

I hope the city of Lawrence is willing to spend that dollar.

Elizabeth Black is a writer living in Lawrence. A southwest Kansas native who attended Kansas University, she recently returned to Lawrence after living in Chicago and then on the East Coast for more than 30 years.


canyon_wren 9 years, 11 months ago

I really enjoyed this too--and have enjoyed all of Elizabeth Black's "reminiscences" in past articles. I arrived at the Union Pacific depot a couple of times to attend KU in the late '50s-early '60s, coming from California, and also rode the Santa Fe down to Emporia once or twice to visit my husband's grandmother.I recall the rather cranky baggage clerk at the UP depot. There was a sign over his work area that said "Ask us about shipping..." something or other, and someone had printed in bold letters above that wording, "JUST YOU..(ask us, etc.)" There may be a poster or two out there who is old enough to remember that sign!The UP and Santa Fe trains' whistles were very different, and you always knew which was which.

Tyson Travis 9 years, 11 months ago

Nice story, it's interesting to note feelings about the 1950s depot which is well-preserved, while I can still remember from my childhood the 1880s Victorian A.T.& S.F. depot which was razed to make way for this one. Wish the historic preservation movement had been more active back then, the old station would have been a nice "bookend" to the slightly later depot in North Lawrence which is now the Lawrence Visitors' Center. (And fortunately was preserved.)

pimarkos 9 years, 11 months ago

Thanks for the article by Elizabeth Black. It was very well done and certainly brought back many memories. Many Christmases, during World War 2, my parents were at this station waiting for me to arrive from California. The article brough back many happy memories.

Dan Edwards 9 years, 11 months ago

I think this is one of my favorite articles ever published in the LJW--so well-written and heartfelt. I have a real fondness for old train stations and bus depots. If their walls could talk!Every time I drive by the Lawrence train depot I think about all the many people who must have passed through there over the years & their life stories. Thanks Elizabeth for sharing a bit of yours.

TopJayhawk 9 years, 11 months ago

Thanks Elizabeth. That also took me back. In 1966, I also lilved in Dodge City. It was a happy time in my life, and a good town to grow up in in the late fifties and sixties. My Father worked for the Santa Fe, and I spent a lot of time in that depot, and surrounding area. I like a lot of the preservation work they have done on the depot there. Making the old Harvey House a community theater.

cato_the_elder 9 years, 11 months ago

Hawk, whether they pay her or not, common sense has at least prevailed in today's J-W editorial.

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