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Saving Bemidji's Depot
By Tom Robertson
July 31, 1998
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Like Andrew Carnegie and a few other entrepreneurs of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, railroad tycoon James J. Hill looms as a pivotal figure in the nation's era of expansion. Hill was not only instrumental in making the Twin Cities a transportation hub, but he also had a hand in the settlement and prosperity of rural Minnesota. When Hill built the Great Northern train depot in Bemidji in 1912, he knew it would be his last. Now the city is planning to restore the historic depot that was once slated for demolition.

NO PASSENGER TRAINS VISIT Bemidji anymore. The rails are now dominated by freighters carrying timber and grain. But when James J. Hill cut the ribbon on his last Great Northern train depot nearly 90 years ago, passenger service was a vital link to the rest of the world. The once-majestic depot now stands empty in Bemidji's warehouse district, but soon it will be restored to its original splendor.

Doug Peterson: There you are.

Wanda Hoyum: My new home.

Doug Peterson: The new Beltrami County Historical Society in its original state.

Bemidji Mayor Doug Peterson and Historical Society Director Wanda Hoyum stand in the entryway to the depot, a one-story rectangular block that intersects with a cross-gabled pavilion. The brick chamber is dark. It's windows boarded up to protect it from vandals. A half-dozen or more birds have nested in the shadows.

Despite the dust and the dark and the broken glass, one can imagine the building as it was at the beginning of this century, bustling with pre-dawn activity as travelers cris-crossed the depot's shiny, terrazzo floors, waiting for the morning train to St. Paul. Mayor Peterson remembers that scene from his childhood in the 1940s.

Peterson: I can recall sitting on the benches that were out here and as a young boy getting so excited when I see that big light come around the corner over the bridge over here, and know that the train was here. It was a great time.
Once a common sight in most communities, depots have become particularly prone to demolition. Peterson is glad that this one has been saved from the wrecking ball.
Peterson: This was the big ticketman back here. He had the big uniform on and the railroad cap, and you had to come up to the window and purchase your tickets for your train ride to the cities.
The train depot was saved from demolition ten years ago when it was placed on the National Register of Historic Sites. Wanda Hoyum says its historic significance lies not only with its neoclassical architecture, but also its link to James J. Hill.
Hoyum: James J. Hill was known as "The Empire Builder," so it wasn't just railroads. He built so many things. His idea was that, "The prosperity was in the soil," is one of his quotes. His idea was to bring the settlers out here - do it with the transportation. He even offered free railroad transportation to many farmers so they could go to ag. school. He was interested in just building up this area and going west.
This year the State Legislature allocated $650,000 toward the nearly $1.5 million it will take to renovate the structure. The challenge of restoring the depot is intensified with the plan to convert it into a history museum, which will require strict controls of humidity and temperature. The Beltrami County Historical Society's permanent collection, which includes hundreds of Indian artifacts, is now packed away in acid-free boxes. Hoyum says the collection has not been seen by the public since the organization's original home was torn down four years ago.

The James J. Hill depot restoration project is described as the "flagship" for long-term plans to re-develop downtown and the whole corridor along Lake Bemidji and the Mississippi River.

Hoyum: And, you know, depots have traditionally been a focal point for a town. Right now, if you go to the end of Minnesota Avenue and look up, that's what you'll see. It's the depot, you know? And it will be quite an eye-catcher.
If private sector fundraising goes as planned, work on the project should begin by June of 1999 and will be completed the following winter.