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Ribbon cut on refurbished 1880s Wabash Railroad depot in New Haven

Saturday, December 8, 2012 - 7:36 am

New Havenites, both young and old, took a step back in time Friday evening for a look into the city’s transportation history at the long awaited opening of the restored Wabash Railroad depot on State Street. Adults were there for the ribbon cutting ceremony and to be among the first to view the refurbished interior of the depot, while the children anxiously awaited the arrival of Santa who made his appearance on a fire truck following the speeches.

Visitors at the event, which was hosted by the New Haven Area Heritage Association (NHAHA), were served refreshments in the waiting room and serenaded by members of the St. Louis Bescancon Catholic Church choir singing Christmas Carols. New Haven history books and bird houses and squirrel feeders made of pieces of scrap depot wood could be purchased to help support the project.

Inside, the depot looks pretty much as it did when it was built in the 1880s. The freight area was left rough, while the waiting room and station master’s office have been painted a yellow similar to its original color. The main exception, of course, is that the depot now has insulation, ceiling fans, heating and air conditioning, a handicap-accessible ramp and guard rail. A unisex restroom has replaced the old “indoor outhouse.”

Designed to handle passengers and freight, the west end served passengers, the east was for freight with a station master’s office separating the two areas. The depot last served New Haven rail travelers going east to Toledo and west through Fort Wayne to St. Louis in 1964. It was shuttered and left to endure weather extremes, natural deterioration and vandalism until 1988 when NHAHA acquired the deed from Norfolk & Western Railroad, thus saving it from demolition.

It was given a new coat of paint and a tar paper roof, and in 2003 was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. According to Alison Adams, NHAHA president, restoration costs were rising faster than money was coming in. “We were able to raise a goodly amount doing house clearances for people moving or evicted who didn’t want to deal with an auction or selling the furnishings themselves. They would, in effect, donate everything to NHAHA (a not-for-profit organization) and receive a tax deduction. We would clear the place out and sell what we could at garage sales. We always found at least one or two things in each clearance that was actually worth something, along with a lot of junk and even a couple live hand grenades.”

In late 2006 NHAHA partnered with the City of New Haven for a Federal Transportation Enhancement grant specifying that two percent of federal highway funds must go toward “enhancement” and not just automotive related projects. The city’s portion would go to construct a final section of the River Greenway trail. What was expected to take a year or more to get approved was surprisingly granted in June 2007.

“Receiving the grant was great news,” says Adams, “but it was like having an elephant dropped in your lap! They would provide 80% of the cost and we had to raise 20%. Our preliminary estimates of moving the depot 60 feet east to a new foundation and doing the restoration work came to $150,000. It was based on using local labor. The Federal government, however, requires paying workers more than double what we had projected and have a site inspector on the property during the work to make sure everything was done to Federal standards. The entire cost for the depot and trail was now up to nearly one million dollars and our portion was 20% of more than $750,000 which came out to around $140,000. Of course we didn’t have nearly that much.”

NHAHA took the money it did have and hired a grant writer. “It was money well invested,” says Adams. “She got us grants of $50,000 from the Fort Wayne Community Foundation, $45,000 from the Foellinger Foundation, $10,000 from the Kuhne Foundation and $5,000 from the Ewing Trust. The balance came from NHAHA’s other fundraising activities.

An architect was hired, meetings were held with the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT), applications were filed and permissions sought prior to INDOT putting its stamp of approval on the project before actual physical work began in September 2011. First came the concrete foundation, then the structure was gingerly hoisted and painstakingly moved to its new site. Then the rest of the renovation began and a new platform with handicap-accessible ramp was built.

The classic old depot, which was recently awarded an Arch Award for outstanding institutional restoration, now starts a new life as starting point for New Haven’s regional trial system. Federal regulations require that the city control the property for the next 25 years it is currently providing insurance coverage. NHAHA is working toward a partnership with the New Haven Adams Township Parks & Recreation Department to maximize use of and access to the building.

Adams says it will make a delightful place to hold reunions, parties, railroad club meetings, picnics and other functions, but would probably not be good for a wedding since trains roar past every 15 or 20 minutes. Fees charged for use of the building will go toward its maintenance.