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In this October 2008 file photo, a large crowd awaits the arrival of the Challenger steam locomotive at the Union Pacific depot in Worthington. (BRIAN KORTHALS/DAILY GLOBE)

Train depot is longtime Worthington landmark

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WORTHINGTON -- As a gathering place during the heyday of passenger train transport and the locale for at least a few celebrity sightings, the Union Pacific Railroad depot in Worthington is rich with history.

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But perhaps more remarkably, the 112-year-old building still functions today, serving as home base for train conductors and maintenance staff -- even as a destination for those who care to reminisce.

"People stop in all the time," said train conductor Ryan Hunsaid. "Older people that have ridden the passenger trains come through to see what has changed."

"Honestly, this is one of the nicest depots we have left; they tear them down and put up trailers," he continued. And although the Worthington depot has indeed outlasted many of its contemporaries, depots in remote locations did remain, even as passenger transport waned in the late 1950s.

As former Daily Globe editor Ray Crippen wrote in a recent historical column, even after the Worthington railroad roundhouse was closed in April 1956, "There still were trains stopping at Miloma. The Miloma depot is gone now. There were trains stopping at the depot at Org. Trains were stopping at the depot at Wilder. Everywhere, people were waiting to climb aboard trains. Americans loved trains."

Construction on the railroad itself was under way in 1870, as 600 men worked from May to November to lay tracks between St. James and Sioux City, Iowa. By August, the railroad went as far as Madelia. A few months later, workers were literally stopped in their tracks by a November blizzard.

By 1892, Worthington was abuzz with construction as the community was flooded with new residents. That summer, everyone kept their eyes on the depot known as UP Building 0612, which was then the original, low, woodframe depot erected in the late 1870s.

Crippen wrote: "On June 7, 1892, a gavel pounded the Republican National Convention into session at Minneapolis. When the Republican delegates from the West -- famous senators and illustrious governors among them -- set out for Minneapolis, they stopped, however briefly, at pioneer Worthington. Worthington was where steam engines got coal and water. Worthington was where delegates from Oregon and California and Nevada, from Kansas and Nebraska had opportunity to stretch their legs."

The politicians were perhaps the first in a line of notable folk passing through -- or stranded at -- the Worthington depot.

Herbert Hoover made his final 1932 campaign appearance in St. Paul and rolled through Worthington on his special train, unseen by anyone in the community and likely asleep as he passed the depot.

According to Crippen, "President Woodrow Wilson rolled through Worthington after an appearance at Sioux Falls, but he didn't stop. King Haakon of Norway was here briefly. Red Cloud, the great Lakota chief, had a layover at the Worthington depot on his return from a meeting with President Hayes at Washington."

There were also many military sightings, one the same year the depot was built.

On the afternoon of May 27, 1898, wrote Crippen in his 2009 Memorial Day column, "One thousand area residents crowded at the depot to glimpse two troops of South Dakota's 'Cowboy Cavalry' en route to Georgia in the war with Spain. Someone passed a hat, or several hats. The collection was sufficient to buy 15 boxes of cigars for the young pony soldiers en route to fight the Spaniards."

The women of the Worthington Red Cross Canteen Corps, who had logged 537 hours of service to 1,350 servicemen by mid-1944, were also kept busy with some unexpected guests at the depot.

A military snafu stranded 38 young soldiers at Worthington's depot with no rations.

As Crippen describes, "The women volunteers went into action, first making telephone calls to Canteen Corps workers and other women across the town. A menu was laid out, and there was a call for contributions."

By mealtime, the 38 soldiers were ushered to the National Guard Armory. Worthington moms had prepared a spread of scalloped potatoes and ham, vegetable salad, buttered (homemade) rolls, homemade pickles, homemade jam and a choice of fresh-baked apple pie or mince pie."

By mid-century, the railroad was bustling with activity. During the peak years --before the Chicago & North Western Railroad quit rolling passenger trains from the Twin Cities through Mankato, Worthington, Sioux City and on to Omaha, Neb. -- Worthington was serviced by 16 passenger trains every day.

In 1955, more than 50 people passed through that historic depot daily, with 20,000 people travelling to and from Worthington that year.

Cargo transport was also reportedly high in 1955, with 3,496 carloads of merchandise delivered to Worthington. The community shipped out 1,360 carloads of wares -- mainly grain, chicken and turkeys -- each year.

Switch engines in the Worthington railyards shuttled 61,262 rail cars in 1955. Currently, Hunsaid estimated about six trains (not cars) pass the station each day.

There were 60 men working out of Worthington for C&NW that year. Today, fewer than 10 are employed at the depot -- two conductors, three maintenance men, one train inspector and a signal gate keeper.

Hunsaid said coal and grain are the main transports rolling through the depot each day.

In 2004, Daily Globe features editor Beth Rickers reported that "The city of Worthington and Union Pacific Railroad have reached a tentative agreement that would result in the closure of the 16th Street railroad crossing that leads from First Avenue to Sherwood Street."

UP was to invest about $1.7 million in expansion of the switching yard, due to increased rail traffic created by agricultural production plants in Bingham Lake, Brewster and Ashton, Iowa.

It was then UP promised the depot a facelift, agreeing to paint the depot and create a flower bed in the depot area.

The measure was expected to quadruple the number of cars being switched in Worthington and add four employees to the local site.

Local attendance at the depot may have reached its former heights in late 2008 when Union Pacific Challenger No. 3985 made a tour stop in Worthington. The world's largest operating steam locomotive ran late, giving some time to recall the days when passenger trains were commonplace.

As Rickers wrote: "Walter Willey of rural Worthington had many relatives who worked on the railroad, and he recalled the days when the depot's lunch counter was a bustling place, filled with hungry disembarking passengers, and there were also non-paying passengers -- hobos who rode the rails."

Last year, the depot was further distinguished at the hands of local Boy Scout Matt Sorensen, who completed a landscaping project for the city as part of his work toward an Eagle Scout Award.

The 15-year-old worked with the city parks and recreation department and the Worthington Area Chamber of Commerce to place a landscaped boulder by the train depot, engraved with the words Worthington INC. 1873. The rock is surrounded by interlocking 12-inch bullet edgers and smaller rocks, as well as about two dozen plants, including peonies, day lilies and grasses.

Most Union Pacific workers base their current operations out of the depot's large main room; the facility contains one bathroom and few offices. A vintage vending machine selling Pepsi products is located near one of the windows.

It appears as though little has changed. As Crippen wrote in a 2008 column, "That depot is an architectural jewel. ... There are new shingles on the old brick station; otherwise, UP has been somewhat neglectful of the exterior. Peek inside, however. The waiting room, the marvelous woodwork, the wainscoting, the windows all are as they were a century ago."

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