Is Northfield’s train depot worth saving?

Northfield's train depot Northfield's train depot Northfield's train depot 
Ross Currier sent out a Tweet yesterday morning that he was "Trying to arrange my schedule so I can attend a gathering of few motivated citizens to discuss the potential of the historic railroad depot." About the same time, I was chatting with Bob Will about it at GBM. Bob indicated that the Northfield Rotary Club was considering it as one of their long-term projects. (continued)

Some of the possible uses being discussed: Chamber office/visitor center; MTT trailhead center; new site for The Key. A few years ago, people wondered whether it could used as a commuter rail station if the Dan Patch line was ever extended to Northfield.

Evidently, the railroad is insisting that the train depot be moved off its property or it will tear it down.

Update 10/9, 11 am: Here are two photos of the refurbished train depot in Faribault, now a restaurant called The Depot Bar & Grill.

The Depot Bar & Grill in Faribault The Depot Bar & Grill in Faribault

47 thoughts on “Is Northfield’s train depot worth saving?”

  1. ABSOLUTELY!

    I have been told by a child of mine who is a techno savvy person that it is really rude to use Caps in a blog post , as it is parallel to screaming…

    Well, ABSOLUTELY the train depot is worth saving! We lost one of the important icons of this community when we lost the grain elevator; we cannot afford to lose another.

    Do you want Nf to be a ubiquitous ex-urbanity?

    I thought this town is so proud of its “specialness”; let’s be known for our visual depth … not just the (questionable?) depth of our opinions.

  2. Move it? A couple of years ago I spoke with the guy in charge of it ‘as a railroad asset’, about moving it…I imagined a great big rope and a long line of citizens symbolicly (sp) pulling it over to Ames Park…he said he had been ‘under it’ and it seemed possible to at least move the main portion – wasn’t sure if the ‘baggage’ addition was feasible to be moved (but didn’t rule it out). If it can’t be saved as a ‘passenger’ depot (put a big commuter lot north or south of town and use the depot as a ‘short, downtown’ stop), then Ames park is the spot!! – put a footbridge over the Cannon from the sculpture plaza to Ames Park, bring the bike trail behind the Just Food/Butler’s Steak & Ale to 5th St and the plaza…add a band shell…what a wonderful destination…beats the hell out of investing in a monstrous cold steel ped bridge across Hwy 3rd from the Q-block to the ‘precious’ parking lot in front of my building..what were they thinking?

  3. Curt, my first thought was the Rice County Steam & Gas Engine Committee. They have done an impressive job of developing that sight. I am sure it would take some pretty big coin to cover the costs of moving something of that magnitude. I believe there is a company in Northfield that handles such moves. I am sure they would be interested in working with whomever to get the depot moved.

    A move to Ames Park would not be a bad idea either. I could see it being used as an information / visitors center and perhaps contain public restrooms and a concession stand.

    I would love to see a bandshell in Ames park and a large ice skating rink there in the winter. Perhaps a portion of the depot could be used for a warming house.

    The depot is too valuable a treasure to see torn down. Long live the depot!

  4. I remember when the Dan Patch came to Northfield. When was that service terminated? I remember the station master receiving and delivering mail with a loop picked up by a conductor as the train sped past the station. That was a big event in our lives. I remember watching Mr. Otterstad, father of football great Dick Otterstad, click out telegraph messages in Morse Code. For those of us who grew up in Northfield in the twenties and thirties, the railroad station was fascinating. It would be a shame to lose the building that was such an important part of Northfield history.

    1. Dave:
      My grandfather, Carl Johan Otterstad was the man you refer to as clicking out telegraph messages in Morse Code that you so enjoyed. I thank you for acknowledging that important part of history and what it meant to you! Just for the sake of mentioning, I would also mention that our family owns the Old Turtle River Railroad Depot in MN which my Grandpa Carl bought and moved up the hill to my fathers birthplace after it was no longer in service. Our nations history is rich in stories of the contributions that the Railway made to our nation. Our family LOVES our depot and we really enjoy the stories that we have found in Turtle River about the depot and it was a center of activity at one time.. Thanks also for your kind comments about my Dad, it warms my heart to hear people speak of him and to remember his contributions! THANKS!

  5. This thread strikes a special chord for me. I spent some months with a research grant and this semester as a research assistant working under a professor who is spearheading a project to list all historic sites in Iowa and I have come across numerous examples of communities taking part in historic restorations as well as working together to move in-danger buildings to safer locations.

    From the viewpoint of someone who has been fairly inundated with midwestern historic sites, I can definitely see the value of the depot. It not only illustrates part of an industry essential to the development of the midwest, it tells an important role in local history. It’s enough of a shame to see it in the current state of disrepair that we’ve let it fall into, but I would truly hate to see it completely gone.

    That being said, the communities which undertake these projects spend years upon years working to restore their buildings. They spend years getting the funding and public opinion behind large moves and restorations such as these. There are the usual issues of where to relocate the building and the funding necessary for such a large project, including the restoration of the building itself. Even once they get their funds, the work itself needs to be done. I am incredibly interested in knowing how serious the Rotary Club is about taking on such a large project.

  6. Northfield prides itself on its’ history. We celebrate this history every year in Defeat of Jesse James, a notorious robber of banks and trains. I say,” Save that depot” and make it into a useful part of our history, not a neglected building. The Historical Society has many pictures of the depot throughout time, an integral part of the milling industry and travel. Historical Preservation would benefit from it’s restoration.

    I personally remember stopping in Northfield on the Rock Island Train, going to Des Moines when I was in college. We are one of a handful of towns who have done nothing with our depot. Please restore it. It is an historical part of our town.

    Judy Code

  7. Of course the depot should be preserved!! I have worked professionally in historic preservation in this state for over 10 years and seen many successful local projects like this. It is an excellent time to undertake a project like this as there are new grant opportunities through the Minnesota Historical Society thanks to voters approving the sales tax increase to create the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund. It’s important to consider leaving the depot in its original location to preserve the historic integrity and keep eligibility for grants such as these.

    There are other examples of restored, reused depots in other MN cities that have remained along active rail lines…Little Falls, Aitkin are just a couple of them. So, those communities must have worked out a compromise with the big, bad railroad companies. The RR insisting on having it moved because it is a nuisance (!?) is a ruse, I truly believe..it’s the easiest way out for the RR. An important planning step is to get the building listed in the National Register of Historic Places…this will help, not hinder, efforts to restore this important resource. Of course, the ownership issue will need to be resolved first…

  8. Griff: Any idea on the cost to buy, move, and refurbish? Don’t we need that information before we can decide if it is “worth” saving?

  9. Here’s a long rambling post on the current rail situation in town…

    The main line that runs through town now (the one that passes closest to Dairy Queen) is technically owned by Canadian Pacific but operated by Union Pacific. They’re responsible for most of the trains you’ll see passing through town. They refer to their track through town as the “Spine Line.” Most Union Pacific trains just pass through town, although they occasionally will stop to drop off or pick up cars in the yard near Sechler Park.

    Progressive Rail now owns the line that branches out to the east on the north end of town. The line serves customers in Randolph, and will soon be serving customers in Cannon Falls, where the line ends. I believe this is referred to as the “Cannon Falls Line” and sees 2-3 round trip trains each week between Northfield and Randolph now (I think… it may be more or less).

    Progressive Rail also operates the line (on long term lease to them from Canadian Pacific) that branches out to the north/northwest (closest to Greenvale) – the one that more or less follows and crosses Cedar Avenue. Progressive Rail operates a daily train to and from Lakeville, where they serve a large number of customers in the Airlake Industrial Park.

    Progressive Rail also operates a weekly train to and from Faribault south on the Spine Line, through Dundas, and out to a junction called Comus, which is between Dundas and Faribault. At Comus they branch off of the Spine and run on track owned by DME/ICE (Canadian Pacific) to Faribault, where they serve two or three customers.

    Progressive Rail operates the rail yard in town (along Sechler Park). They use this yard to shuffle cars in and out of Malt-O-Meal, as well as making up their trains to Randolph, Lakeville and Faribault. The vast majority of the train cars that Progressive Rail handles arrive and depart Northfield via a nightly Canadian Pacific train that runs from St. Paul via the Spine Line.

  10. Wow, some really helpful and interesting comments here.

    Dave Blodgett, it’s very cool that you remember the Dan Patch line when it was active… and seeing someone tapping out Morse Code in the depot. I wonder how many photos the Northfield Historical Society has of the depot.

    I don’t know when the service ended. See the history of the Dan Patch line here and here.

    And here are 5 Dan Patch Railroad-related photos.

  11. David L, as for the cost, I think I remember Bob Will saying that there were estimating $300,000 to move it and refurbish it.

    Hey, that’s about what the 600 feet of bike trail through Riverside is going to cost! Hmmmm. 😉

    1. Griff: It might qualify for Streetscape funds. Let me toss it into my rubric and see what comes out. My guess is that it could be bought for a song and a dance.

  12. Sarah, your comment #10 about other train depots in MN being restored without being moved prompted me to take photos of the The Depot Bar & Grill in Faribault this morning.

    See the photos in the blog post above. The restored train depot sits close to very active train tracks… with outdoor dining!

    So there must be people to contact in Faribault who can tell us how they were able to negotiate with the railroad.

    Nick, thanks for rail info. Who owns the tracks that run past Faribault’s depot?

  13. Griff:

    NHS does have some good photos on the building. If I could ever figure out how to post photos in this comment I would….maybe you can help me here.

    As for the cost on moving and refurbishing it. I have no idea. I am guessing it would be more than 300K. I know the NHS is keeping an eye on the building and we are willing to assist in the restoration. Not sure how we can assist but, we are interested in how the building will be restored/used.

    The Legacy grants that Sarah mentioned are an option. There are a few grants out there for feasibility studies. I am more than willing to share information on how to apply for them.

  14. The Spine Line runs past both the depot in Northfield, and the depot in Faribault. Union Pacific owns/operates the Spine south of Comus (through Faribault); Canadian Pacific owns / Union Pacific operates north of Comus (through Northfield).

    I’d be interested to know which railroad actually owns the depot. Since Canadian Pacific owns the track, I’d imagine they own the depot too… but since Union Pacific actually manages/maintains the line… who knows?

  15. Well, the answer to ownership of the building might lie in the answer to the question “How did Chip DeMann transfer “use” of the building to the Soo line” (per the Nfld News story”. If the transfer was in the form of a rental or just an agreement to let them use it, then maybe an argument can be made that the land owner does not own the building … get yer lawyers boys, they’re gonna rob the depot!

  16. David, Post 11
    Are there ever any decisions that are values or principled based or is every decision about dollars and cents? Just a question? If cost was not an issue – what is your response to the question?

    1. Adam: I can’t think of any government expenditures when or where cost is not an issue. Even when we spend money on lawyers to defend people who can’t afford a lawyer, a constitutional right, we have to consider the costs.

      The tricky part in my mind is establishing relative values of the various competing requests when the money is our collective monies. I would be happy to spend your money buying the train depot; but, I don’t think that I would spend a nickel of my own money.

  17. It seems that not all citizens of our town are willing to wait for planning commissions or feasibility studies to reach conclusions on the best use for the Depot.

    It has reached my ears that the Depot has recently been outfitted with furniture, a new interior paint job, wall decorations and even a goldfish. While there was mention of a means of securing the entrance from the inside, I heard no mention of evidence of drug, alcohol or tobacco use. While there may well have been such and it just wasn’t mentioned, since the gist of concern seemed more focused at ending the unapproved occupation than at corralling the perps I am assuming that this was not the case.

    This got me thinking (always dangerous). Please forgive me for advocating a dream for Northfield, however unlikely it might be.

    Why not move it and turn it over to the Northfield Union of Youth as their much needed new building? IMAGINE the possibilities it would afford them!!!

    1. Apologies for missing “Union Pacific boards up ‘The Shack’ at the train depot” thread. I originally composed a MUCH LONGER post than the 1 above Monday night but held it awaiting advice on whether it wandered from the main point too much. Lacking such, I chose to edit it myself and post it here, missing the more relevant thread until the deed was already done.

    2. Sorry for the delay on the feedback, Scott. I’m glad you’re raising the issue. Note in my original blog post that “new site for The Key” is one of the possibilities being discussed.

  18. Wow, that Hopkins depot is amazing, Ken. Thanks for the link.  It just might inspire us to do something similar:

    The Depot is a renovated train depot in Hopkins, Minnesota that now serves as a coffee house, youth community project, and trailhead for area bike trails. It was planned and opened by area students in 1998 to create a chemically-free environment for teens.

    The Depot also serves as an important asset to the community by providing students an opportunity to create their own place to learn, relax, and have fun while running a coffee shop and investing their efforts in the local community and economy

  19. Griff: Perhaps you could add a couple of ‘interior’ shots of the Northfield depot to this thread?

    The bones of the place look pretty solid (as far as one can see in a few random lo-res pictures), and it has a fair bit of character. It seems that the building could be worth doing something nice with.

  20. When I lived in Sheldon, IA, I helped a person remodel and decorate the local train depot into a restaurant. If I remember correctly, the tracks had been abandoned. It was also adjacent to Hwy. 60, just south of the downtown area. It was a very good location, and there was excellent parking remaining from the original depot. Of course, this was about 40 years ago, and there were not as many codes to meet in those days.

  21. Ken & Griff,
    If memory serves me correctly, the Hopkin’s Youth Coffee House also used to have a skate park on one side of the depot. My son used to skate board there. It was great, my husband or I could sip an espresso and read while our son skated (board & inline) to his little hearts’ content. It was a great environment for all ages.
    Martha

  22. While I expect that some might be offended by the “redecorating” done to the interior of the depot (or should I call it “The Shack”), I see no signs of damage done by those who claimed it for their own. To the contrary, I see evidence of parallels to past examples of adventurous souls reclaiming property ignored as “useless” or “lacking sufficient promise of benefit” by powers that be in the inner cities of major urban areas in our nation.

    To quote the officer who 1st made me aware of this (my son was taking pictures for his High School Photography class in an adjacent building and had the license plate of his car reported by railroad security), “In my day we built forts in the woods”. Left unsaid (and I admit that I didn’t bring it up in the conversation) was the fact that those woods, just like the Depot, belonged to SOMEONE (most likely NOT the parent of 1 of the fort builders). Thus, the fort builders were just as guilty of trespassing as those who claimed “The Shack” as their own.

    My FINAL impression of the event which 1st brought this to my attention is this. HAVING SEEN the pics that Griff was kind enough to post, WHY did the officer feel the need to question my son for over 30 minutes regarding his knowledge of who might be involved in “The Shack”s creation? LITERALLY, the writing was on the wall.

  23. I am really excited to note the interest in the Depot. As many of you have pointed out the Depot is a historically and architecturally significant building as determined by the Historical Society, the Heritage Preservation Commission, and the City Council.

    The Northfield in Bloom group (NIB) has been working with the City and the Railroad for the last two years in an effort to preserve the Depot. As Chair of NIB, I recently convened a small number of interested individuals to work on a proposal for preserving the depot. Several of us have done the research on acquiring, moving, selecting a site, mitigating hazards, etc. We have preliminary figures, but we must wait for a number of additional estimates such as costs of dealing with environmental hazards such as lead and asbestos. Only after we have done the feasibility and cost analysis can we speculate on the potential costs.

    We are preparing a proposal to present to the Rotary seeking a grant to continue the process. The proposal deadline is November 1st so we are working diligently on it.

    One of the next stages will be to begin a community conversation about potential ownership, tenants, and possible site locations. Since the Railroad insists that the Depot be moved, site selection and potential uses are critical to moving forward. The Depot does need our help to insure its survival. It is a community treasure and worthy of our efforts to save it.

  24. What a great response to the story on the Depot! I am not a long-time citizen of Northfield, but that building caught my eye and interest several years ago. All the suggestions are great, and it seems the work done by the City to negotiate with the railroad, and the efforts of Northfield in Bloom to move the restoration process forward are well received. It is going to take the time and the treasure of a lot of committed Northfielders to accomplish the restoration, but what a worthwhile project!

  25. This may not be the venue, but I did want to thank David at the Northfield News for the wonderful article on our Save the Depot efforts. We will be asking for input from the community at the first Community Meeting held March 1st, 7 pm, at the NCRC building, room 105. We’ll be asking about who will be the users of the Depot, where the location should be, and who should own the depot. There will actually be three meetings all held at the Northfield Community Resource Center on the corner of Jefferson Parkway and Raider Drive:

    Monday, March 1st, 7 pm All Northfield residents
    Monday, March 15th, beginning at 5 pm user groups by invitation
    Monday, March 29th, 7 pm Report of findings to all Northfield residents.

    We hope your readers will spread the word and we will have a great turn-out for the meetings! Lynn

  26. Lynne, here’s the link to and an excerpt from David Henke’s Northfield News story: Saving the ‘gateway’

    For that reason, architect Steve Edwins and his fellow “Save the Depot” committee members say, the 122-year-old building is historically significant and worth preserving.

    The committee, which consists of Edwins and community members Lynn Vincent, Rob Martin, Pat Allen, Chip DeMann, Alice Thomas and Clark Webster, hopes to raise $200,000 to $300,000 to move the old depot from its current location, restore it and put it to use in the community as an events venue, a museum, a visitors center or in some other function.

  27. Jane, the train depot meeting was an overview for the public, plus a chance for the public to weigh in on ideas for what the depot could be used for, where it could be moved to, and what organization could take it on.

    I saw Steve Edwins on Saturday and he said the Northfield Historical Society will have a web page up soon with more details.

    There are meetings tonight with invited ‘user groups’ but I have no idea what that means.

  28. There was a notice on the city’s calendar about an EDA meeting with the Save the Depot folks. Anyone go to it?

  29. Griff, the invited “user groups” were groups that were suggested as having some sort of interest in the depot, and/or development in the Northfield area. We met with a transportation group that included the Milltown trails people as well as Benjamin Bus and others, a non-profit group to see if they had any interest as it was suggested they might use it as a meeting and document storage place, with the American Legion as they were also thinking of how they could use it, with the EDA and NDDC, the Chamber and Way Park people, and many from the City Council. We generated lots of ideas for use, location and sustainability that we will share with the community at a meeting on March 29th probably at the Norhtfield Community Resource Center. I’ll confirm the location shortly and post it here. We’ve received input from your bloggers, from people we meet every day, and from e-mails and phone calls. Some of the trends coming from the discussions are keep it close to the rail lines, be true to its historic use, make sure it is sustainable, keep it highly viusible and be sure to consider parking. A big thank you to everyone who has given us their ideas and voiced support for the project! Lynn

  30. We should not tear it down it is history to Northfield and train stations were a big part in Minnesota. We could use it as a museum and put the artifacts or objects that are in the building inside of it and you could put history of Northfield’s train station or even Minnesota’s history of train using in Minnesota inside of it. You could make the building look a little bit neater and repair some things but we should not tear it down.

  31. The City of Whitehall, WI has restored it’s train depot with plans to use it as a point of interest, meeting place, etc. We are planning interior furnishings at this point. One of the blogs mentioned that your depot had been furnished – was it done so to the period of time? Do you have any suggestions as to websites or any materials that would help us furnish our depot to the period? Thanks.

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