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"Santa Fe Depots Everywhere, but Not a One to Spare!"

By D. K. Spencer


In the early days of railroading, a station depot was most likely a railroad box car, or perhaps a tent. Many stations were as little as five miles apart, and did not have access to such modern conveniences as electricity, or water systems. Water, if available, came from a well with a hand pump.

As time went by, permanent depots were built, usually of wood, or brick, or other building materials that reflected the architectural style prevalent in that area. Smaller stations were a one building combination of freight and passenger services. A larger station might have separate depots for each service.


Each waiting room had benches of some sort. Some benches were elaborate with divided with arm rests. If the depot was small, one Waiting Room served both men and women, and proper decorum of the men was expected at all times.

In larger stations, there might be separate waiting rooms. Outside doors were labeled which room was for Men and which for Women. The Menís Waiting Room allowed smoking and tobacco chewing along with a cuspidor for the chewers to spit in, and which some unfortunate soul had to clean periodically.

The Womanís Waiting Room was basically a Family Waiting Room, and the behavior of all who used it was expected to be exemplary. Some larger stations had a Station Master (so shown on his cap) who ruled with authority in maintaining proper depot manners.

Rest rooms was an outside privy. If you had passenger traffic, you might even have a "two seater", one side for man and one for woman! Granada CO still used such a facility when I worked there in 1944.


Since most depot ticket offices were fully enclosed, (except for the sash type ticket window), there was a wood/coal stove in the office, and another in the Waiting Rooms. Unless the depot was open 24 hours a day, the fires in a stove were banked (allowed to die out) at closing time, and re-started the next morning. A daily chore was shaking down the clinkers, and emptying the ash pan. Being an office, there was always ruined paper forms to discard, which became the start up tinder for the next dayís fire. In later years railway flares were handy fire starters !

A dirty periodic chore (usually done by a track crew) was the filling of the coal bin, usually from gondola car load of coal that was sent from station to station until the car was empty. Wood could be used when available, and in prairie areas, cow and buffalo chips (dried dung) could be used in a pinch.

Messy stove soot was a regular companion to traveling public and rail worker alike in those early depots. Ideally a stove would have a vertical pipe direct into the chimney, but in many cases the overhead pipe had to cross a room horizontally, and this allowed hot soot to build up in the pipe. This eventually caused leaking holes, and along with the expansion and contraction of pipe joints, allowed places for soot to escape.

As a result of those leaks, another summer chore was washing soot from the pipes, walls, ceilings, and floors, and everything between. The floors were tongue and groove soft wood, and easily penetrated with dirt and such. The railroad furnished creosote for use in mop water, to not only help clean and seal the floor, but to leave a fresh smell. Creosote was used in many wood applications, especially cross ties, in an effort to reduce the wear and tear. However, there was differing vocal opinions as to how nice was the "fresh" smell !

While this story is about depots, it holds true the soot problem was prevalent in all homes and business houses. Since shirts and blouses were all long sleeved, many clerks wore lower arm gauntlets, usually black cloth to match the soot. The gauntlets were held in place with elastic bands at both ends.


Depot lighting in the early days, consisted of smelly kerosene lamps that were either suspended from the ceiling, or were used in brackets attached to a wall, and in many cases just set on the desk. Lamps had either metal or glass fuel tanks, and a cotton wick brought the kerosene up to the adjustable burner. If the wick stuck up too high, or needed to be trimmed, it smoked up the glass chimney, eliminating the light, requiring immediate cleaning. Just below the chimney, as part of the lamp decoration, was an area, lace like, that let oxygen in to feed the lampís fire. The chimney then funneled the flame up, thereby keeping the flame bright. However, even at best the lamps were poor light, and I imagine most of the written work was done during the daylight, using the lamps and candles for the dark hours.

Refinements In later years used the incandescent gas lamp in which the gas flame heated a finely woven mesh sleeve, or mantle, to produce a much brighter light.

Kerosene lanterns were a slightly different breed. The same lamp principle was used, but the whole lamp was now encased in a cage with a bail handle for carrying. Usually there were two, one with a clear globe, and one with a red globe. It stands to reason, the lanterns were for use at night or on dark days,. The clear globe was used to signal various train movements, or to do work outside. In later years, the battery operated lanterns had incandescent bulbs, and a much brighter sustained light.

Red has always stood for danger or caution, so the red lantern was always a danger signal, and when swung sideways in an downswing arc, the engineer was to stop his train immediately! As a precaution, the red lamp was lit at dusk, and kept burning all night. These red lamps were still being used in the 1940s. Red flags were used in the daylight hours.

Another form of warning used by almost any rail worker, especially trainmen, was a bright red incendiary flare called a fusee. They came in various lengths, depending on the burning time allowed. For example, if the fusee was a 15 minute length, no train could proceed past the flare until it burned out. Some fusees had a sharp spike protruding from the lower weighted end allowing a train crew to drop it into a cross tie to stand upright, but did not always work unless it was driven in by hand. Most fusees were spikeless, and were laid on the track ballast between the rails to burn themselves out.

Another form of warning to trainmen was an explosive device known as torpedoes. They were not used extensively by the time I went to work, but every depot had a tin box under the train order table containing the red flags and the torpedoes. They had tin "arms" that bent over the rail to hold them in place, and when the locomotive wheels hit them, a very loud explosion alerted the engineer to stop.


I know that electricity came to my community of Rocky Ford CO in 1900, but was still quite primitive. A cord hanging from the ceiling was the best you could get, and with so few electric appliances available, that was a moot point.

When I began my career in Lamar CO. in 1944, we had some electrical wall outlets, but overhead electric lights was all that was needed, in both the passenger and freight depots, since our accounting machines and freight handling devises were all non-electrical. We still used manual typewriters, adding machines, calculators, etc, and even had a shop in Topeka devoted to repair of these machines. Electrical accounting machines were widely used in other businesses, but the railroad was slow to adapt such modern conveniences, possibly due to the existing maintenance support system and the huge inventory of mechanical machines.

One electrical appliance might have been a circulating fan for cooling, but these were privately owned, not provided by the carrier. There could have been other electrical appliances that I forgotten about, but not too many.


Air conditioning, so much a part of our modern day comfort, was open doors and windows, hopefully with screens, since flies and mosquitoes were in abundance. This was due to the many animals, mainly horses, and their droppings; many home and business privies; and the general lack of sanitation throughout the town. With livestock shipping and receiving being a prime revenue source, nearly every station had a rail owned stock yard, complete with loading chutes, and that also added to the sanitary problems.

I remember as a boy seeing a fly trap in front of a store in Friend, Kansas, almost full of flies. This was a round screen wire baited trap, with a funnel shaped entrance. They knew how to get in, but not how to get out. I have often wondered how many LESS flies there might have been without the trap !


In the early days, telegraph wires for communication were about as modern as you could get . Since the telegraph used battery power (direct current) the lines were simple one pair wires, with plain pole lines elevated for clearance of train equipment, and others passing by.

Samuel Morse invented the electro-magnetic telegraph in 1836, complete with the code needed for transmitting a series of electrical pulses over a paired line with each "dot" or "dash" , or series thereof, representing letters of the alphabet. In 1837 he filed a caveat (legal notice) and applied for patent.

In 1843, Congress appropriated $30,000 to build an experimental line from Washington D.C. to Baltimore and on May 24, 1844, the first message was sent reading "What hath God wrought". Morse died in 1872, but his invention was widely used, and the code aptly named Morse is still in use in many ways, even in this day of high tech communication. However the code used on the Santa Fe was not the exact original Morse code. Changes had been made to better facilitate the code to rail work.

Alexander Graham Bell then invented the telephone in 1876 which once again broadened the scope of railroad communication, however by the time I began my career in 1944, the telegraph was still the main instrument for sending all messages of record. Train orders were received via telephone, but in an emergency, they too were sent by telegraph. The persistent clicking of the telegraph keys was a necessary part of each dayís work scene.

When the railroad began using the telephone, they already had the poles for the telegraph, so they strung their own lines. To call someone, it required a cranking magneto to send a coded ringing signal to the station you wanted to reach. This would be series of longs and shorts assigned to the station. There was usually a general message line, and a separate line assigned for the use of the dispatchers only, ( See TRAIN ORDERS) but the ringing sequence remained the same, as I remember it.

There were two bells, mounted side by side on each wood box for each line. Since many stations had at least two lines, and maybe more if they had a branch line, there had to be some way to distinguish which bells were ringing. Bells were not the exact same thickness throughout, so many times they could be loosened and rotated to give a slightly different ringing sound. A lot of stations used wadded paper, or similar material under the edge of the bell, to change the sound from a ring to a buzz.

Later, when each operating division had itís own telegraph office with PBX switchboards installed, the ringer was a signal to the PBX operator that you wanted to place a call to an office in that town, or some distant station. Each office or station had a wire connection on the switchboard in the form of a hole. Connector cords had a male plug on each end. One end of a cord was placed in your hole, and the other in the hole of the requested station, thereby making the connection.

Last but not least, was the lighted semaphore signal on a tall pole just outside of the station operators bay window. It was controlled manually from inside of the depot. At the top of the pole, were two arms that extended horizontally each direction, directly opposite of each other, and in that position at night the lighted reflectors showed red, visible for a good distance. A train could not proceed past the signal unless the arm had been lowered to the green position, or they were given train orders allowing them to proceed. In the daytime, the lights did not matter, since the signals were quite visible.

When the station was closed, both arms were put in the green position. Many operators have had nights when out of a sound sleep, they heard an engineís beep or whistle, and sat upright wondering if they had forgotten to put the signals in the green position. I even went back to the depot a few times in the middle of the night , to put my mind at ease !


A vital part of train operation was the issuance of train orders, ie, instructions to the train crew by the dispatcher, that governed the trainís every move. When a train left a division point, each crew member had that trainís orders, but situations change, and new orders must be given enroute.

The station clerk copying the train order had a phone, with the mouthpiece at the end of a scissors extension, that rested out of the way until needed, then stretched out to be used. The hearing device was at the end of a clamp that fit over your head, positioned at your ear. The phone was always in charge of the dispatcher, and for a clerk to talk to him, a foot pedal opened the line. This way, your hands were free to write or type the train order as the dispatcher related it.

Train orders were written on thin paper known as onion skin, using a carbon paper that was carbon on both sides. There was at least six copies needed, one for each member of the five member train crew, plus a copy for station records. Just like the afore mentioned soot, train order carbon likewise was a messy operation. A day of handling train orders meant repeated washing of hands !

After copying the train order, it needed to be given to the train crew. Stopping a train for orders at every station would seriously hamper the speedy operation of the train. Therefore, in the early days each station had bamboo hoops, with a wire holding device and a long handle. The train order was affixed to the hoop, and an entire hoop was handed up to the engineer in the engine, and one to the conductor in the caboose as they whizzed by. They in turn, threw the empty hoops off to be used again. Men learned early to wear heavy padding on their arms, to alleviate the pain of the hoop banging against their arms and biceps.

In later years, a device known as a train order crane was installed at each station, complete with an electric light for use at night. Cranes could hold as many as four wood holders, and had a small ladder permanently attached to the crane to reach the upper levels. A wood holder in the shape of a Y became the hoop of yesterday. Each of the shorter Y ends had a groove on the end and at the juncture of the two arms was a pressure clamp.

Using a string about 6 foot long, with a slip knot tied on each end around the main string, allowed a "hole" in which the train order was placed, then the slip knot tightened to hold the order in place. The string was then looped around the slotted ends of the Y, and held in place by the clamp. The long end was clamped onto the crane, and the trainmen then thrust their arms in the open space of the Y pulling the string loose as they whizzed by, getting their orders, and the string was discarded. The engineer and fireman got the higher levels, and the conductor on one end of the waycar (caboose), and brakemen on the other end getting the lower levels.


The Santa Fe Distance Table No. 9900-D issued November 25, 1944 listed about 2431 stations on the Santa Fe Lines, not all of which had depots. There were stations that were merely sidings with no facilities, and the business being taken care of by a nearby station with an Agent . Many small stations were known as a "one person agency" in which the person was both Agent and janitor.

The railroad depot was usually the hub of a community, especially in the early days of growing towns, and main highways were located near the depot. When communities began passing ordinances requiring modern conveniences such as electricity, inside plumbing, sewers, and central heating, the depot had to follow suit, or close.

If the financial projections of a station was not good, and the business could be handled by a nearby station, many depots were closed, and either demolished or sold to private individuals for removal. Many became private residences or restaurants, usually retaining the depot look, complete with the station name in many cases.

I served as lodge chairman, and later treasurer, of the La Junta CO Lodge 645 of the Railway Clerks union in the late 70ís, and in my periodic travels around the Colorado Division, I began to see more and more depots closing. My camera and I became close companions, and I began to record the existing depots as I found them. Most were still open, but many were closed.

With relatives in eastern Kansas and Arkansas, I found myself passing other Santa Fe towns and photos of their depots became a way of life. I also began taking photos of depots on the foreign lines serving the areas of my wanderings. Now, I watch for the distinctive lines of a depot building as I travel anywhere in the world. All depots have a certain look, large over hanging roofs, with large outside eave supports. I have seen very few depots that did not have these distinctive features.

Sometimes it takes the written word to bring out the gravity of a little known truth. Santa Fe Circular 2510-M on Sept 4, 1981 is a Numerical List of Mailing List Numbers Assigned to Agents, and there were 359 stations shown. The next issue of the circular 2510-N issued on January 7, 1985 showed only 107 stations left, a loss of 252 stations in 39 months!

Many depots were left on the right of way, and sold for a small amount (usually the building only, not the land) to be used in the community for city halls, or meeting halls, or Chamber of Commerce offices, museums, etc. The land was leased to the parties involved, usually at a minimal price, which helped to absolve the carrier from maintenance and lawsuits. In later years, when rails were removed and depots closed, the land was also sold with the building

When the depot at Rocky Ford closed, and was given to the city, they researched the original brick depot and refurbished it to itís original tiled roof splendor, complete with tall curved eave ceilings, and details even down to the original overhead pull chain flush mechanisms on the toilets.

West of the depot was a large brick building that originally housed the Railway Express Agency. With Rocky Ford being internationally famous for their cantaloupe and watermelons, huge volumes of melons were sent nationwide via Railway Express for many years. However, when passenger service was discontinued on the La Junta-Denver branch, this too faded out and the building was signed over to the Santa Fe, who then in turn gave it to the city.

The building was in bad shape, so it was removed making room for the addition of a matching L shaped building complex to the west end of the depot, making a large community building for various civic events. The old passenger portion is the Chamber of Commerce office, and the whole structure has become the cultural hub of the community.

Likewise the depot at Lamar CO, is the Chamber office, who also still serves the two daily Amtrak trains. The depot at Manzanola CO became a Senior Citizen complex. The Boone CO depot is a city hall, and the Fowler CO depot served in that capacity for a number of years. The Avondale CO depot was moved to another location about six miles away to extend an existing restaurant. The Colorado depots of Cheraw, Ft. Lyon, and McClave were moved to La Junta and remodeled into attractive residences.

The Colorado Springs DRGW passenger depot houses Giuseppeís, a well known Italian restaurant, and the ATSF depot has commercial offices. I believe the depot at Lakin KS is a museum. The depot at Ada OK is a gift shop. I am sure that readers of this article can point out many more depots that continue to serve other pursuits.

When I retired in 1986, I thought they had just about run out of options in the downsizing of the railroad. How foolish I was! A newspaper article dated Dec. 9, 1987, talks of laying off 18 more jobs at La Junta, and doing away with the Colorado Division as I knew it. Eleven operating divisions were now six, and the title of Division Superintendent now became Division Manager. Crew calling and freight office functions were regionalized. Locomotive remanufacturing and heavy repair work only at San Bernardino shop. Heavy freight car repair only at Topeka, Kansas. Locomotive repair facilitates at Barstow, CA; Kansas City, KS; and Cleburne TX to Locomotive Inspection Terminals. Cleburne alone lost 170 out of their 420 employees!

La Juntaís ample train yard now sits empty on occasion. Recently, there was not one engine or rail car in the entire yard! As I understand it, there are no switch crews, since each trainís crew does their own switching.

There is no yardmaster, no clerks, no back shops, no diesel shops, no storehouse, no rip tracks, no General Office Building (it has been sold and made over into commercial office space), no officials, no local dispatchers, and only a telephone for the sparse crew of trainmen to register in and out.

One AMTRAK train each direction each day keeps the passenger depot open, but only for a few hours daily. Signal and Maintenance of Way personnel still have a small storage area where the freight platform was. The building that once housed the Railway Express Agency, just west of the passenger depot, is being used for some sort of storage.

As long as there are some warm bodies left that loved our work, there will be records kept of those glorious days of railroading as we knew it. The curator of the Otero County Museum in La Junta CO is Don Lowman, a retired Agent of La Junta, and he helps keep the Santa Fe memory alive.

To help keep the spirit alive, in 1997 we established a Santa Fe Employee annual pot luck picnic, usually the last Saturday in September at the La Junta City Park, starting at 12 noon. Any former employee and their family is invited to come, and bring photos and memories to share.

The depots are still in existence, but we must keep our eyes open for the familiar "depot look" and realize they might be miles from the railroad sites they once served. Hopefully the station name will still be evident.

If only the most memorable happenings in each depot were ever recorded, even the Internet would be strained for capacity. So time marches on, and like it or not, we adjust or fade away like so many wonderful depots have.

In my depot photo collection I have 71 Santa Fe, and 24 off line depots. If you are looking for a particular depot, and can receive via e-mail, I am willing to share if I have it in my collection.

I can be reached at dspencer@bresnan.net.

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