Time Machine

The story behind the railroad depot in Marion's City Square Park

Citizens saved part of historic building after rail traffic ended

This November 1997 photo shows the Depot Pavilion in City Square Park in Marion decorated for the holidays. (Gazette archives)
This November 1997 photo shows the Depot Pavilion in City Square Park in Marion decorated for the holidays. (Gazette archives)
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Support from Marion residents was key to bringing the first train to Marion from Anamosa in the fall of 1864, according to a history of Marion published in an April 1886 edition of The Evening Gazette.

In 1872, a track built by Marion’s Sabula, Ackley & Dakota Railroad was finished in cooperation with the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul company, known colloquially as the Milwaukee Road.

That railroad made Marion an important station on its line between Chicago and Omaha, locating its head office there for the state of Iowa.

Marion had two depots before its new Milwaukee Road depot was built by contractor Amos H. Connor of Cedar Rapids in 1888 at a cost of nearly $30,000.

Still under construction were the railroad’s machine shops east of town, which were to be finished in the spring of 1889.

The two-story passenger depot covered half a block in the heart of Marion, located at “the corner of Broad and Meridian streets,” now 11th Street and Sixth Avenue, according to The Gazette.

“The building is of red pressed brick while the interior is finished in pine, oak and hard maple. The main part of the building is divided into two floors: on the ground floor is the ladies’ and gentlemen’s waiting rooms and the ticket agent’s office.”

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The superintendent had an office on the upper floor with a bay window that allowed a clear view of rail traffic. Offices for dispatchers for Kansas City and Council Bluffs rail lines also were on the second floor.

Big business

By 1899, the railroad had invested a lot of money in infrastructure in Marion, operating a 15-stall round house, repair shops, sand house, dispatcher depot, yard offices and a freight depot. The company had a payroll of $50,000 a month.

Its main line between Kansas City and Marion was 302 miles, carrying two passenger trains each way every day. About 100 freight trains passed through the Marion yards daily. The yards’ three switch engines were busy night and day preparing the trains for their routes.

In 1900, the Milwaukee announced that its Kansas City division would move from Ottumwa to Marion.

But Marion’s aspirations for expanded rail service were dashed in 1918 when officials moved the roundhouse west to Atkins in Benton County. The roundhouse site later became home to Katz Salvage & Auto Parts Inc.

Heavy rail traffic

The Gazette reported in May 1925 that Marion, population 5,100, saw 30 freight trains and 20 passenger trains every day on the main and branch lines of the Milwaukee Road.

The Milwaukee and Union Pacific joined operations in 1955, setting in motion train travel between Chicago and the West Coast. The focus on Marion’s Milwaukee depot inspired a photo in the Sept. 25 Gazette. The depot’s three blocks of platform, from 10th to 13th streets, were expected to see a lot of use.

In 1964, the depot was recognized as one of the busiest in Iowa. Milwaukee and Union Pacific passenger and freight trains traveled east and west several times every day. The ticket office remained open 24/7. Freight service was available to nearby communities several times a week.

It didn’t last. The last passenger train stopped in Marion in 1971, although Amtrak trains passed through there on detours several times in 1971.

The Milwaukee Road depot in Marion was predicted to become more active in 1977 as the railroad began closing and consolidating offices.

But by the spring 1980, the depot was vacated when the Milwaukee went bankrupt.

On the market

Disposal of the depot was “not high on our priority list,” according to W.H. Waldman of the railroad’s property management department in Chicago, but he did say the Milwaukee would not consider an offer for less than $100,000.

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Marion officials were interested in restoring the landmark depot. When a Seventh Avenue Mall was proposed in 1985, the Pioneer Village Commission, headed by Richard Pankey, proposed moving the depot to the 10-year-old, turn-of-the-century replica village (later known as Ushers Ferry Historic Village).

The depot was bought in 1983 by Jim Paulson and Dan Stenoien. Paulson, of Marion, wanted to restore and remodel the depot but found that would be too expensive. Pankey learned the same thing about moving it.

Saving the depot

In 1988, Marion businessman Paul Draper came up with a solution. He proposed removing the depot’s iconic roof, salvaging the trackside portico and some of the brick and moving all of it across the street to City Square Park. The idea was endorsed by the park board, but Draper needed funding and needed it fast. The depot faced demolition in the spring.

With the Marion City Council agreeing to underwrite some costs and a community fund drive in place, plans proceeded to create a pavilion on the south side of the park.

Among the fundraising efforts, the Depot Pride Committee in June auctioned items removed from the old depot for the “raise the roof in Marion Square” project.

The depot’s roof was moved in April, set atop hickory posts salvaged from the depot.

The depot committee and volunteers cleaned 19,000 bricks from the old depot to use in the new pavilion.

The project was completed by the spring of 1989, but fundraising continued to cover costs not originally planned for, like restrooms and paying professional masons.

Today, the Depot Pavilion in City Square Park is a community gathering place — and a monument to Marion’s railroad history.

Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

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