The Museum at the Historic Santa Fe Train Depot Awaits its Fate
SAN ANGELO, TX — How the community of San Angelo retains and presents its history will be discussed in executive session at the San Angelo City Council Tuesday. At issue is the old Santa Fe railroad depot, 703 S. Chadbourne St.
The old depot has housed the San Angelo Railroad Museum since May 1997 after a $1.1 million restoration, according to David Wood, who heads the museum as a volunteer.
What we call today the “Santa Fe” depot is not completely accurate, Wood said. The depot was built by the Santa Fe Railroad’s competitor, the Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway of Texas, or KCM&O in 1910. Back then, it was a magnificent structure, one of the largest in town and the largest two-story brick building of the day.
Above: The now-called Santa Fe Depot at 702 S. Chadbourne was built in 1910. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)
The other, and older, Santa Fe depot, and the tracks to it that ran along what is now the Houston Harte Expressway, was north of the depot we all know about today. The former depot was built in the old Spanish style with a red tile roof and white stucco that marks the brand new, modern building at Chadbourne and 4th St. today. This is where the offices of the San Angelo Metropolitan Planning Organization, along with the city’s bus station, are now.
Above: The original Santa Fe Depot that was located at N. Chadbourne St. and 4th St. The building was torn down. (LIVE! Photo of a historic photo/Joe Hyde)
But back in 1910, the Santa Fe and KCM&O railroads were very much competitors and they didn’t share tracks, Wood said.
The KCM&O, eventually known as simply The Orient, was purchased by The Santa Fe in 1929. The new owners consolidated their offices at the South Chadbourne depot and closed the depot at N. Chadbourne and 4th. The 4th St. depot was torn down eventually.
The depot at 703 S. Chadbourne St. became known henceforth as the Santa Fe Depot.
Above: The Texas Pacifico train cruises past the old depot, hauling fracking sand to the oil fields west of San Angelo, TX. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)
The agenda for Tuesday’s city council meeting behind closed doors isn’t detailed, but Wood and his board of directors are concerned that the city may be making a move to evict the 20-year-old museum of railroad history for a corporate suitor. He was mum on who that may be.
Above: The telegraph operator's desk display in the Santa Fe Depot in San Angelo. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)
The depot and museum feature collections of artifacts from the heyday of San Angelo’s rail industry. For $5, anyone can take a tour. Wood said the main attractions are the many model train layouts housed on the second floor. On the first floor are pictures, displays, and collections of old railroad tools that tell a story of a time before efficient auto transportation, magnificent highways, and cheap air travel.
Above: The original to San Angelo dispatch board from the freight trains that traversed through San Angelo. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)
Up and until the beginning of the 1960s, the Santa Fe Depot was a critical gathering location in the city, and for traveling to places near and far. Passenger train service from San Angelo ended on June 1, 1965 when the last train left San Angelo carrying schoolchildren to Brownwood for a field trip.
Wood relays a story about a lady in her 80s who was examining the old scales in one of the rooms downstairs at the depot museum recently. The Fairbanks Weight Scale was used to weigh smaller shipments and determine their fare. Wood said he tried to tell to the woman all about the scales and why they were used. “Never mind, young man. I know what these scales are for,” she said. Wood said the woman told him she fell in love with a pilot cadet at Goodfellow Field in 1943. They were married in San Angelo before he was shipped off to WWII. “The next time I saw him, he returned to San Angelo, but in a coffin and they had him on this old scale,” she said with a tear.
Above: The Fairbanks Scale used to weigh smaller shipments of freight. This was probably the most accurate scale in the city in the mid-20th Century. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)
The City of San Angelo, who owns and leases the depot to Historic Orient/Santa Fe Depot, Inc. for $1 per year, is challenged in retaining that history. The building, 20 years since its initial makeover, is becoming a liability.
The City fire marshal inspected the place a while back and discovered the fire sprinklers hadn’t been inspected or maintain in many years. Wood said getting the fire sprinkler system back into code cost the City $20,000. The HVAC system needs to be replaced. Wood said the second floor is unbearably hot during the summers. The museum also wants to repave the 22-year-old parking lot and put storm windows on the exterior that preserve the original windows of the 108-year-old building, but at the same time, provide ultraviolet protection for artifacts housed inside.
Above: The O scale model railroad layout here depicts the tracks and depot in Ballinger. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)
The original 20-year lease ends in September. Under that current lease, the City of San Angelo is responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the building. The museum occupies the space and keeps the old depot a tourist destination.
Maintenance isn’t necessarily budgeted by the City, Wood said. That is why the HVAC is basically inoperable. There’s no money to replace it. But the current lease requires the city to maintain the building, including the HVAC.
Wood said the depot and museum attract tourists. The volunteers open the museum primarily on weekends. In 2016, the museum was open for a total of 54 days and welcomed 3,100 visitors. About 69 percent of them were from out of town, according to a museum report to the City staff. The museum's officers estimate the museum provides an annual economic impact for the community of $233,000.
Above: David Wood, president of the museum, shows the intricate foam molding used to make the mountains of the Mexico side of the Orient railroad. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)
Wood said he has met with City staff, including City Manager Daniel Valenzuela, about renewing the lease that expires in September. Also, over the past six months, several members of the board have met with city officials. “I don’t think they want to close down the museum,” Wood said.
Yet, no lease renewal has been presented.
That has the museum folks concerned, especially when the next mention of the Santa Fe Depot from the City is to see the address of the old depot on the agenda in secretive executive session.
Wood said the museum's last offer to the city was to get a 50-year lease and have the museum pick up 75 percent of the building maintenance costs if the City will replace the HVAC and pave the parking lot.
Wood said he never received a counter offer.
“I don’t think the City wants the liability of the maintenance,” Wood said.
Above: A map of the tracks of The Orient, from north of Sweetwater to Presidio. (LIVE! Photo/Joe Hyde)
The problem, Wood acknowledges, is there is not enough current revenue originating from the museum operations to pay for the upkeep of an 108-year-old historic building. The museum needs more donors to sustain it, and the City is likely balking at assuming any liabilities for repairs needed now or future expenses.
Wood estimates the museum will need $175,000 for the HVAC repairs and parking lot paving project initially. Then, he said, the museum needs about $12,000 per year for building maintenance. He’s willing to fundraise that amount, he said.
With the expiring lease and the City leaving the future of the museum in the depot uncertain, and then discussing the future of the depot in secret, raising money is hard, Wood said.
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