When the first train crossed the Boone River to reach Webster City on April 6, 1869 city residents thought it had taken much too long to arrive.
Despite the enthusiasm for the railroad’s arrival, there was immense controversy on the location of the depot. Businesses were located mainly along Seneca and Bank Streets and those merchants wanted the depot located at the north end of Seneca Street. The fledgling Second and Des Moines Street businesses wanted the depot closer to them.
The Illinois Central railroad rejected the Seneca street location for being too close to the river, choosing instead to build their first depot, a brick and mortar structure, along the tracks on Des Moines Street. The Willson brothers immediately erected the Willson Hotel and business started moving into the Second street business district. Neither side forgot the controversy, which simmered for many years, until the Second street merchants prevailed to become the hub of the city business district.
The original depot served the city well, but as the town grew and prospered, the Illinois Central did nothing to improve the 1869 building.
In the late 1800s, newspaper editors were never reluctant to vigorously state their opinions. So began the Webster City newspapers’ campaign – through print – to shame the Illinois Central into building a new depot, one that reflected well on the growing town.
By the mid-1890s it appears that there was give and take between the city and the railroad. The railroad would promise a new depot and then delay the building. Editors poked fun of the hollow promises and reported weekly on the large profits made by the railroad companies.
In the June 7, 1901 edition of the Webster City Freeman-Tribune, the editor wrote “That depot that the Illinois Central railroad company was going to commence to build in Webster City ‘in the early spring’ is still an invisible quantity. The old shack now used for a depot here is a disgrace to the company and an eyesore to the town and the Central folks are not making
anything by their obstinate refusal to build a new one.
In late September of 1901 the railroad officially announced that construction would begin on the new depot. Company officials denied that the decision to erect the new building was influenced by the announcement from several Webster City businessmen that “they absolutely refuse to ship another dollar’s worth of freight over the line unless a new station was forthcoming at once”.
The Illinois Central proposed to erect a new passenger station with modern improvements and new style architecture similar to those at Denison and Fort Dodge, at a cost of $5,000, south of the main track and west of Des Moines Street. They proposed to purchase the B. L. Willis lumber yards and to “grade up and fill in” the grounds. The company also proposed to spend $1,100 to remodel the 1869 depot as a freight house and $500 for a pretty park to surround the building.
Construction crews began work in late October of 1901. As the building neared completion in January of 1902, the company decided to sell the old depot building for salvage and to construct a 40 by 120 feet long freight building just south of the old depot site.
On Monday, February 3, 1902 the Illinois Central employees moved into the new depot. News articles reported that the structure was steam heated and “lighted with electricity and everything about the place was very pleasant and conveniently located”. The papers also reported that “the ladies and gentlemen’s waiting rooms were large with plenty of windows”.
It wasn’t until late April of 1902 that the company was able to start working to landscape the grounds and lay new sidewalks. However, the sidewalk work was stopped by the city as the railroad crews attempted to lay wooden walks instead of the cement, stone or brick walks as required by city ordinances. Some two months later, after agreements with the city, the company began laying the required cement sidewalks.
In August of 1902 the railroad began construction of the new freight depot designed as a one-story frame 24 by 96 foot structure. One month later, John C. Smith tore down the 1869 Illinois Central depot intending to utilize the material to construct a warehouse. He kept the roof intact as it was built of hewn hardwood timbers and was considered in perfect condition.
In early 1971, with all passenger service discontinued, the Illinois Central railroad opted to close the depot building, erecting a small steel shed to house the automated controls. Before its planned demolition, the company offered the building with original equipment and supplies at no cost to any group that would move it elsewhere.
The Boone River Art Guild, the Hamilton County Historical Society, the Webster City Park Board and many other civic organizations began a “Save The Depot” campaigns to raise funds to move the building to the Wilson Brewer park area.
In December of 1971, with more than $4,500 in raised funds, the building was sliced in the middle and the first half made the journey to the park. The second half followed soon after.
Many local businesses donated labor, equipment and manpower to disassemble the depot for moving, to blast out a basement from the bedrock and to lay foundations for its permanent home.
Volunteers and civic groups contributed hundreds of hours of labor to aid in preserving and restoring the building. Their efforts were showcased in June of 1976 when the Depot formally opened as a museum.
In 2014, the 110-year-old depot museum in Wilson Brewer Historic Park continues to welcome visitors and friends from its Superior street location. Inside, the history of the community and the railroad is displayed as the building continues its tradition by being a portal to the story of our town.
Source: February 2012 Daily Freeman-Journal article by Nancy Kayser on the Illinois Central Railroad Depot