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Train depot has a long history in Northfield

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Posted: Wednesday, January 21, 2004 12:00 am


Staff Writer

NORTHFIELD -- The city's historic depot and freight house were once the center of bustling activity. Today, each building lies idle; barely noticeable by most passersby crossing the railroad tracks busy with the activities of 21st Century life.

However, behind the walls of each building, Dundas resident and James-Younger Gang leader Chip DeMann believes there is a distinctive history and intriguing story of the city's past.

With recent news that the depot may be purchased by Lakeville-based Progressive Rail, DeMann shares his knowledge, and a few surprises, of each building's history.

The depot

With original maps of the depot surrounding him, DeMann peers through his wire-rimmed spectacles to point out remarkable features.

Behind the nails that board up the windows at Northfield's historic depot, the core of the building, which dates back to 1888 and measures 20 by 50 feet, can be found.

Upon entering the depot nearly 120 years ago, he points out that one would have found two waiting rooms: a woman's waiting room to the north and a men's waiting room to the south, separated by a door. The baggage room was situated behind the waiting rooms on the east side, and the ticket room was on the west side. When the depot was added onto in 1944, it tripled in size to roughly 3,000 square feet, its current size.

During the renovation and expansion, the waiting room center was eliminated to create one large waiting room.

"It was a hoppin' place then," DeMann said. "It was during the war, and college students came and went by rail."

DeMann said prior to the expansion in the 1940s, a renovation occurred in 1911, which converted the baggage room into two rooms: a women's and men's bathroom. In addition, electric lights and heating were installed.

DeMann said the first train to Northfield came in 1854, and the first depot was built after 1866. The current depot is the second to be built in Northfield.

Northfield's oldest structure is considered to be The Lyceum, located at 109 E. Fourth St. The building dates back to 1857.

Train excursions

As part of the Defeat of Jesse James Days celebration in the early 1980s for two years, DeMann organized train excursions with the help of volunteers and a locomotive from the Minnesota Transportation Museum.

"Both years we had planted raiders, members of the James- Younger Gang, on the train, and we had the passengers pick pocketed and robbed and held up for fun on the way down," he said. "And when the train got to the Northfield depot, we had planted a strong box, and the train was held up, and we took the contents."

DeMann said the train traveled from Mendota -- in Dakota County on the banks of the Mississippi River overlooking Fort Snelling -- and ran south, as far as Comus, a former station south of Dundas.

At the same time, in the early 1980s, the Milwaukee Railroad was going out of business, and requested that vacant buildings be removed. In and around Northfield, three historic buildings remained: a building in Faribault used to work on boxcars, an old wood frame passenger depot in Farmington, and the passenger depot in Northfield. All but the Northfield depot were destroyed, after DeMann purchased the depot.

"Our depot was not designated as a historic site," he said.

Had the depot been listed on the national register, DeMann said the bankruptcy judge would have had the power to raze the building.

As demolition bids were up for the offering, DeMann bid $10.

"I decided I would bid a low bid on demolition in order to control the building to move it," he said. "I thought that was the only hope. I gave them $10. I was awarded the demolition bid, so we proceeded."

A bankruptcy judge in Milwaukee sent DeMann the original blueprints.

"He was quite fascinated that we were going to save this building," he said.

Working with local architect Steve Edwins, with SMSQ, plans were drawn up based on an 1917 conceptual design for the depot that never went forward.

DeMann said the process was moving forward slowly; however, his plans to renovate and move the depot one block north never happened.

"To make a long story short, they didn't tear the depot down; they tore the other buildings down; they're long gone," he said. "We didn't get it done. The Soo Line took over the Milwaukee Road."

Within a year the Soo Line executives called DeMann requesting use of the depot.

DeMann agreed to the arrangement since the depot would not be torn down.

"They came in and put a new roof on -- and the rest is history," he said.

The freight house

It was a picture in a book published by the Northfield Heritage Preservation Commission in 1999 titled "Northfield: The History and Architecture of a Community" that led DeMann to conclude that the original depot, built sometime after 1866, is part of the freight house.

"I think the south end of the freight house is the original depot," DeMann said. "It's probably the oldest gem in Northfield."

DeMann said its conceivable that the depot was used in a new location while another depot was being resurrected.

"They were proposing a freight house across the street and I just think they would have been absolutely foolish to have destroyed a perfectly good structure," he said. "The floor plan is very close; the roof pitch is the same. Before the wrecking ball hits, it should be checked out."

-- Carol Roecklein can be reached at 645-1115 or

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