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Depots
are part of our heritance:
preserve it !

Depots were portals in two directions: coming and going.
Through the depot you shipped your wheat, barley, pigs, horses, and cattle to markets and to buyers hundreds of miles away. That was a profound change in the business of farming.
You shipped your daughters off to college and your boys off to war; you went off to visit, and people came to visit you.
This was a profound change in the ways people viewed and used their world, and in the size and shape of their personal universe.

Through the depot, coming back from those distant cities, came brides and bicycles, gold coin, daily newspapers, the catalogues from Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward... the latest fashions in plows, har­rows, and grain harvesting machines; skirts, hats, blouses, doth by the yard, and sewing machines and patterns for men's, ladies', and children's apparel; caskets, and embalming kits; saws, wrenches, carpentry tools for any application; harnesses for horses and mules; buggies, surreys, broughams, and sturdy farm wagons; steam fire engines weighing eight tons; letters from friends in Sweden, Germany, Russia, and Ireland.

Off the train at the depot came the people who made America: the preachers and prostitutes, the farmers and mechanics, and the U.S. marshals, the cowboys, crooks, and the cops; the wives and the husbands, and large gaggles of children of all breeds. There were regiments of traveling salesmen. Prostitutes quickly began using the train as the basis for a circuit, moving from one city to another every few months, when they discov­ered that a new face in a community was a mar­ketable commodity.

Now, a lot of those little depots are gone, and some of the communities that grew up around them are gone as well. Both the depots and the towns became obsolete, dried up, and blew away. Some railroads, have gone down the line, system­atically bulldozing their quaint little depots. The depots are gone. They served their function, lived their productive lives, and died a natural death.

Many of us love our rail heritage and some of us lament the loss of its mythical, romantic past.
There are a lot of folks who still haven't quite accepted the idea that the day of the steam locomotive is really over,and there are groups of people who lament the loss of every single little crossroad station.
It is amazing and wonderful that we preserve and protect so many of these old, frail, obsolete buildings.
There are thousands of depots still around although only a small number still serve passengers.
People love these buildings so much that they are preserved spontaneously, in dozens of ways, long after any other structure would be demolished without regret.

Depot Fundamentals: 'Station' vs. 'Depot'
Although the terms are often interchanged, there is an important difference between what a railroad calls a station and what they call a depot.

A station is a physical location, perhaps nothing more than a mile-post and a sign with a name on it.
The Southern Pacific Rule Book definition is "... a place identified by name in the timetable."
These places may have a spur track, a corral for unloading livestock, perhaps a freight loading platform, maybe a shelter of some sort, or often a tiny, unattended freight house. But many "stations" never had a place to buy a ticket, wait for a train, or provided a place where passengers were al­lowed to board. At the other extreme, stations could also be large, elaborate facilities with many different structures, including shops, engine houses, water tanks, freight houses, and passenger depots

The depot is the building designed to accommodate passengers, freight, or both. In small depots the handling of this cargo, human and otherwise, was often combined. However, "main track" stations often had separate depots for freight and passengers.
Sometimes depots or "train order offices" were built in places where there were neither passengers or freight business, just to have an operator or telegrapher present to pass along train orders.
These places could be extremely isolated and remote.
Depot historian Henry Bender says, "the depot customarily served two major functions: it helped operate the railroad by coordinating train movements, and it promoted
the company's business by selling tickets. There were several ancillary functions too: serving as agencies for railway express, Western Union telegraph services, and others.

Many of these agents were assigned to places that would very rarely have a passenger, or any freight business at all. These places were about three to five miles apart, although on some lines the train order offices in particularly remote locations were sometimes twenty to twenty-five miles apart.

Not all depots were staffed around the clock, and at the remote ones the railroad had to provide some sort of housing for the agent, operator, or telegrapher (all of whom were sometimes the same person). Often thiss housing was a second story on the depot, with a small apartment for the agent and his or her family. If a telegrapher was also assigned to one of these places, he usually got to bunk in a slighdy modified boxcar behind out back of the depot.

As Henry Bender says, "The usual perception people have of depots is that they are places where you go to buy your ticket, then sit in the waiting room until it is time for the train to come".

There was a lot more to it than depot operators communicated by 'telegraphy, a skill that was a job requirement in some places right up to the 1980s.
Each station had a two-letter identifier, rather like the three-letter identifier airports have today, and each message to a particular depot began with those two letters. It was easy for the telegraphers to identify each other just by listening to the way the dots and dashes were sent, a kind of audible signature called a "hand."

"Trains operated normally by 'time-table' authorty," explains Henry Bender.
"Most railroads were single tracked, with sidings every twenty miles or so, with a dispatcher somewhere along the line keeping track of where all the trains were, all the time.
He did so with a large sheet of paper, called a 'train sheet' and often a map, although he knew quite well where all the stations were. He kept track of how each train was progressing, and if all the trains went along according to schedule, he knew when, and where they would meet and pass each other.

The telegraph operator was absolutely essential in this system only when one train was delayed, or if an extra train was added to the schedule, or if an extra "se­tion" was added, as often happened, which is when this thing got very complicated and potentially dangerous
When additional sections were added, it was at this point that the telegraphers in their lonely little telegraph offices became real life savers.
"Extras" were complete additional trains running in the same slot of the timetable, one behind the other. You might have, say, train #26-1, #26-2, and #26-3 all running a section of track usually occupied only by one train, the normal #26
Each train except the last had to show green flags and green lights on the locomotive and the caboose, indicating that additional sections were following.

"The operator played a critical role, even when there were no extras, by reporting when a train went past the depot by transmitting 'OS' to the dispatcher. OS stands for 'on-sheet', and that would be followed by the station identifier, the number of the train, and the time of the passage," explains Henry Bender. "Odd and even numbers were used to indicate direction , odd for westbound, for example"

Glossary of terms : Want to learn more about "terms" used by Railroads or just have curiosity on a particular word ? Visit the Glosary page on LDSIG (Layout Design Special Interest Group) site.  

Menlo Park depot : short history , drawings and picture albums


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Last update :
Nov 2009

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