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.