During the era when railroads were the main method of transportation in the Great Plains, the railroad depot was both the economic and social gateway to the community it served. The railroad station, whether a roughly hewn shack or an ornate masonry structure, was the place where people could assemble to board a train for faraway places or welcome arriving travelers. It provided a central delivery point where a community's life-sustaining goods could be shipped or delivered by rail. And in the period from approximately 1865 to 1920 it served as a place where people could come to hear the news of the day, socialize with others, or simply be entertained by the daily arrival and departure of the trains.
When railroad builders first pushed their lines west across the Plains, they realized the importance of establishing railroad stations approximately every ten miles. The concept of having closely spaced stations made sense at a time when farmers used horse-drawn wagons to deliver their goods for shipment by rail. These stations also served as communication points for dispatching trains, fueling facilities for steam locomotives, and potential town sites that could provide future revenue for the carrier.
For isolated communities established on the Plains prior to the arrival of a railroad, obtaining a railroad station once the tracks did arrive in the area was vital to their continued existence. Quite frequently, local citizens and railroad officials disputed the exact location of the town's depot. Most often, the railroad won out. And if the depot was located at some distance from the original town site, residents would usually relocate to the depot site.
In their initial rush to lay tracks, railroad companies often hastily used portable shacks or old boxcar bodies as the first depot for a new community. If the community grew into an established town, the initial roughshod structure was replaced with a frame depot of a standard design adopted by the particular rail carrier. These designs allowed depots of nearly identical appearance to be cheaply and efficiently constructed at hundreds of towns along the lines of a rail system. Minor changes in design were made to conform to the needs of a particular station site; for example, station buildings in more isolated areas had living quarters for the station agent.
Most depots constructed for small towns otherwise followed the combination station plan devised by railroad architects. This combination design essentially provided all railroad services for the public under one roof. A ticket and work office for the agent was most often situated in the center, flanked by a passenger waiting room and a freight room for express shipments. As business grew at some stations, a separate building for freight business was established.
Major railroad companies of the Great Plains such as the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe in the United States and the Canadian Pacific in Canada came to be closely identified with their standard design depots (much as fast food restaurants are today). However, as towns grew, local promoters often pressed railroad o.cials to replace their community's old wood depot with a larger and more ornate building of brick or stone. The railroad station was the first impression that travelers received of a town, and citizens obviously wanted their station to reflect a prosperous image. Railroad officials would sometimes comply, especially if the community was a vital center for railroad operations such as a county seat or college town.
The rise of competing forms of transportation in the early to mid–twentieth century eventually all but eliminated the railroad depot as a Great Plains landmark. Passenger trains and branch lines were abandoned as first the automotive age and then the Great Depression cut into railroad profits. Fewer freight trains were needed as steam locomotives were replaced by diesel engines that could pull longer trains. New communication technologies eliminated the need for an agent to be employed at each town. All these factors prompted the major railroad companies serving the Great Plains region to close almost all their remaining railroad stations by the late 1970s.
Currently, a limited number of Plains depots remain open to the public in communities that have government-subsidized passenger train service. But the majority of extant station buildings have been acquired by private citizens or public municipalities and converted to other uses. A number of these structures now serve as museums devoted to a time when adventure began or ended on a railroad station platform.
James J. Reisdorff David City, Nebraska
Grant, H. Roger. Kansas Depots. Topeka: Kansas State Historical Society, 1990.
Grant, H. Roger, and Charles W. Bohi. The Country Railroad Station in America. Boulder CO: Pruett Publishing Company, 1978.
Potter, Janet Greenstein. Great American Railroad Stations. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1996.