By Peggy Mackenzie
Are you looking for an unusual gift for the holiday season? How about a train depot? There’s one available here in Lewisburg that needs a new home. The Lewisburg Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC) is urgently seeking someone willing to step forward and move the depot station, located on Echols Lane, to a safe and permanent home. The depot would make a super office, guesthouse, workshop, or even a home for your model railroad. For a nominal price, the new depot owner may be entitled to some financial assistance, state tax credits, and possible nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.
The problem is, the structure is slated for demolition. The HLC must decide the fate of the depot building in a meeting at Lewisburg City Hall on Monday, Dec. 14, at 5 p.m. Interested parties are welcome to attend.
The current owners of the depot have been patiently waiting for a viable option to appear so that this valuable piece of history can be saved. Their hopes of putting in a modular home in the depot’s site are fast losing a window of opportunity as the winter season settles in.
The L&R depot has been a private residence for the past 50 years. The owners have modified it somewhat with an addition of a porch on the front and the replacement of the express door with a window.
The depot could be moved either intact or by dis-assembly and restored. The HLC’s first preferred location for the depot is in Lewisburg’s historic district, and barring that, then somewhere within Greenbrier County. In that way, it is hoped the depot can be used for an educational opportunity as an important artifact of the American railway experience, and as the only surviving example of what appears to be a nearly exact C&O Standard No. I station.
The depot project got “dumped” into the lap of the HLC months ago, and the commission members, together with Mayor John Manchester’s office and the Greenbrier County Historical Society, began to search out every possible option to save the building. The original relocation site they’d considered was on property owned by the historical society, behind the barracks building along Jefferson Street. If they could afford to get it moved, then, as a nonprofit organization, they could acquire grants to repair it. But house-moving companies are far and few between, and costs to move a building run up in the $50,000 zone.
The ad-hoc committee then looked into moving it to the State Fairgrounds or to Montwell Park, but costs remained unreachable. Although money could be raised by crowd-sourcing and grants, those options take too much time. Timing has become a factor in this story, and, up to now, the committee was reluctant to bring the depot’s plight to the public in respect for the owners’ request for privacy.
From an historical perspective, the depot story began when, in 1870, the Chesapeake & Ohio railway was extended westward from White Sulphur Springs to Huntington. The route chosen was via the Greenbrier, New, and Kanawha rivers. Ronceverte became an important operational point for the railroad leaving Lewisburg, as the county seat, with no railroad access. This was corrected when the Lewisburg & Ronceverte Railroad was chartered in 1905, and soon the train chugged up the hill from Ronceverte to Lewisburg. Never very successful, the line ceased operations sometime in the late 1920s and was supplanted by buses.
The L&R Depot, built about 1910, served as the first Lewisburg passenger and freight depot. Since it was connected to the C&O, it was natural for the C&O to have an influence on the design of the station and thus the Standard Combination station No. I was built. The 18 x 40 foot structure appears to have had waiting rooms on each side of the office, which was located in the area of the bay window. This style of structure became one of the most iconic station designs on the C&O, and a hallmark of its presence especially in Virginia and West Virginia and, to a lesser degree, in Kentucky.
According to Thomas W. Dixon, chief historian and founder, C&O Historical Society, Inc., “The Lewisburg L&R depot is the last good surviving remnant of Lewisburg’s only venture into the Railway Age in America, and certainly serves as an important artifact of the era of just over a century ago, when travel by rail was still the best, fastest, least expensive, and most convenient means of travel, and in many cases, the only means. The depot deserves to be preserved as an important artifact of the American railway experience, and a reminder of how Lewisburg attempted to compensate for its not being located on a major railway.”