• 61°

Depot doldrums

The collective soul of any railroad town has always been the depot and all other buildings associated with the industry.

Whenever railroad companies abandon rail lines and leave town, all too often the buildings — especially depots — are left to simply decay and become eyesores. Depots were usually in the center of town and one of the first things visitors saw when they made it downtown.

Some nearby communities took steps toward making their depots more attractive by renovating them into railroad museums.

I think Bogalusa could do the same with its old depot. It would take a little effort and would be a major plus for the city. Doing something with the property for the long term beats letting the property stand idle for the most part. Railroad enthusiasts from around the region would come to explore the city’s railroad history when the GM&O Railroad was at its peak. That spurs business for restaurants and hotels. Sort of like the trickle-down theory.

Three nearby cities that transformed their old depots and railroad properties into more attractive destinations or museums are Covington, McComb, Miss., and Tylertown, Miss.

Covington’s former depot area currently houses Lola’s Restaurant. The Illinois Central used to run through Covington and halted service there about 1992. Next door to the restaurant is the Trailhead, which is the beginning of the St. Tammany Trace. The Trace is more than 20 miles long and follows the rail lines from Covington to Slidell. Covington’s trailhead houses the David C. and Dorothy L. Blossman Museum and Visitors Center.

The McComb City Railroad Museum opened in 2003 downtown and was always the city’s hub. The Illinois Central’s car shops closed in 1985, which ended McComb’s rich railroad heritage.

The museum is owned by the city and is operated by unpaid volunteers. The museum is full of memorabilia donated by former railroad employees, including my father, who was as an engineer with the Illinois Central. He had 50 years service when he retired.

As a reporter in my hometown, I wrote an article in February about the McComb Railroad Museum. Through February, 2014, the museum hosted more than 45,350 visitors since it opened. And its popularity has grown monthly. The museum had 5,314 visitors go through last year.

The museum hosts guided tours, exhibits and Kids’ Day. There are school and children’s group tours. A top draw of the depot is an actual Illinois Central locomotive and railcar, in which visitors are allowed to walk through.

The depot’s future plans include a theater with a high-definition big-screen television and surround sound to explain exhibits, a working-scale replica of the car shops, complete with buildings, tracks and railroad cars and equipment, a small gift store and conference rooms. The museum plans to offer a monthly train tour package to New Orleans.

An annual $25 donation allows backers to become Friends of the Museum.

Part of Tylertown’s old depot was converted into a museum. The other side of the building houses a feed store.

All the things McComb and Covington did are possible in Bogalusa.

The passenger trains left town in 1955, according to local railroad enthusiast Terry Quinn. The GM&O merged with the Illinois Central Gulf in 1972.

Five current private businesses are in the old freight house. That’s a start, but more is needed.

The depot property is owned by the Cassidy Family and is only used for special events. Maybe the city and Cassidy Family could work something out to beautify the place.

“The depot property and property on either side is privately owned,” Bogalusa Mayor Charles Mizell said. “Maybe that is something in the Master Plan we could look at in the future.”

If so, I think it would be a win-win situation for Bogalusa.

Randy Hammons is staff writer for the Daily News. He can be reached at 732-2565 or by email at randy.hammons@thebogalusadailynews.com