Before train stations were housed in buildings, the thrilling experience of ‘waiting for the train’ had already captured the public’s imagination.
The scream of the whistle and the ear-shattering rumble of metal cars grinding down the tracks, drew crowds of enthusiastic train watchers, creating an outpouring of heady excitement and anticipation wherever the train stopped. Greeting and meeting the train became a popular form of daily entertainment, and even those who were not going anywhere or even expecting visitors, paused to revel in the flavor of the moment. The train, after all, was a gateway to the world.
The business of providing amenities for those who used the railroad, was not a priority for railroad builders in those early years. These men saw laying the track and keeping the trains running as their principal responsibilities. So, it was generally left to the local townspeople in the locations the railroad served, to provide for travelers. Hotels and inns usually functioned as points of departure and termination for busy travelers. A few of the pioneering railroads did provide ticket booths or offices, but it wasn’t until the 1830s that the railroad station became an institution and the railroads began to include these structures in their planning.
Most of the early railroad stations were constructed in the larger cities since most of these railroads began operations in major population areas. Usually, these were plain structures made of brick with train sheds built of wood. These early efforts were sorely lacking in architectural style. That trend did not change until the 1840s, when the railroads began to construct a number of substantial stations, in cities like Philadelphia, New York, Harrisburg, Baltimore and Troy. The next three decades saw the emergence of buildings in several architectural forms from“railroad” style to traditional styles such as Gothic, Romanesque and Italian villa. Still, it took many years before this trend took hold in smaller stations. In most cases, the train stations were merely utilitarian structures designed by the railroad’s engineering departments and built under their supervision. Many others, however, were designed with creativity and imagination and remain the substance of many nostalgic moments. It wasn’t until the 1890s that architectural style became a guiding principle of depot construction.
The ‘fever’ that fueled the imaginations of the people whose lives were changed by the arrival of the railroads, found new avenues of expression in the energy-charged environment of the train station. The depot rapidly became the gathering place for the community attracting people from all walks of life, from businessmen to local curiosity seekers. They became a kind of social center where the latest local news and gossip could be bantered about with abandon during eagerly anticipated arrivals and departures. Lives unfolded minute-by-minute amid tearful farewells and joyous reunions, providing an on-going melodrama for townsfolk and strangers, alike. In addition to passengers, the trains also brought news, mail and merchandise. Visitors to the depot, also gained a birds-eye view into the everyday activities of the railroad employees as they interacted with the train crews, baggage men and ticket agents. They could stand by in amazement and watch their messages being transmitted to family and friends across the expanse of thousands of miles by way of the telegraph.
During the railroad expansion years, hotels were often a part of the station building or immediately adjoined to it. Some of these establishments became famous for their food or accommodations. Most of these locations provided either a restaurant or lunch room for travelers. The railroad depots were built at a time when businesses strived for customer satisfaction and good community relations. In building architecturally attractive stations and providing elegant and comfortable facilities, the railroad companies endeared themselves to the townspeople and the depots became the objects of civic and community pride.
Thus, these treasures of Americana are valued not only as important artifacts of a city’s industrial contribution to progress, but for many communities these charming structures symbolize the best of their yesterdays.
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