Dakota Life: Right on track

Fort Pierre Depot (circa early 1900s)

Gary Grittner pulls the baseboard out of the wall with a loud kra-kra-kra-krack. In the next room, his wife, Connie Grittner, applies stain to the wall. Some spots are more faded than others, and there’s a story behind that.

“There were birds’ nests and bird poop and all kinds of stuff on it,” she said. “You can see where the birds’ nests used to be — those great big white spots. Soon, you won’t be able to tell.”

The two of them are working on the Fort Pierre depot. Eventually, it will become part of the Verendrye Museum — “an artifact containing artifacts,” as Gary put it.

The history

There’s a lot of history there, as Gary tells it. Construction of the depot began in 1906, as the rail line was being extended past Pierre into Fort Pierre and from there to Rapid City. From 1907 to 1958, the depot handled freight and mail, as well as passenger service.

But by 1958, the depots along the line weren’t used as much. Freight was down, and mail service was going by air. So the Chicago & North Western railroad closed down the depots all the way from Fort Pierre to Rapid City.

For the next five years, the building was boarded up. In 1963, the railroad put the depots up for auction. Earl, Ronald and Shirley Miller — three brothers, despite the name Shirley — bid on seven of them and were the highest bidder for five, for a total bill of $1,600.

Gary has talked to Shirley Miller, and as Gary recalled it, Shirley had mixed feelings about that.

“Shirley Miller said, ‘We must have bid too much to get five depots.”

It was Shirley Miller who, in 1964, hauled off the Fort Pierre depot. He trucked it to his ranch in Mud Butte, about 165 miles away. There it stayed for almost half a century, where he used it to shelter newborn lambs, Gary said.

“He would store feed in here. He overhauled engines in here,” Gary said. “And just basically used it as a storage building, never expecting that it would be reincarnated as a depot once again.”

More than 40 years passed. In the fog of history, most Fort Pierre residents believed the rumors that Shirley Miller had plans to scrap the building, and that it had already been destroyed. A popular book on local history even said so.

But in the dawn of the new millennium, in the aftermath of the 100th anniversary of the Deadwood Trail ride, the Verendrye Museum was looking for a new project. It seemed like a good idea to bring one of the depots back, Gary recalled.

A depot from the town of Capa was on property owned by media mogul Ted Turner, who wanted to get rid of it, he said.

A group went out to look at it, but that depot turned out to be in pretty bad shape.

“On the way back, one of the board members of the museum, by the name of Brian Scott, said, ‘If you want to have a train depot, why don’t you take a look at the Fort Pierre train depot?’ To which everybody said, ‘It’s gone. It was demolished,’” he said.

Nobody believed him when he said the depot was in Mud Butte. But eventually, the board members went out to look at it, and in 2010, they persuaded Shirley Miller to donate the building back to the city, Gary said.

The project got a boost when Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed a bill to use a $500,000 federal grant to transport the depot to Fort Pierre and rehabilitate the building. Between that, and a required local match of 18.2 percent, that got the ball rolling, Gary said.

The work

Now the depot is back in Fort Pierre — about 200 yards south of its original location, where a Fresh Start gas station now stands.

The depot arrived in March 2013. It’s been a year, and a lot of work has been done since then.

Phase 1 involved creating a modern concrete foundation for the building. Phase 2 involved adding an annex on to the original building, complete with handicapped-accessible bathrooms as required by federal law.

Now the Grittners are nearing the end of Phase 3 — rehabilitating the building.

“This is the depot agent’s office,” he said, showing off one of the rooms. “There’s cabinetry that fits — you can kind of see there was one here, there was one here; there’s a big countertop. We’ve taken all that out and had most of it refinished and reconstructed. And then once we get the walls done in here and the floor done, we’ll put the cabinetry back in.”

What’s next

The final phase would be more work on the inside of the building, and landscaping.

For the final phase, the Grittners will need a lot of help. That includes volunteer labor, in-kind donations of materials, and of course, money. The federal grant has long since been spent to get the project this far, and in the end, the depot will be a $1 million project.

Skilled labor is especially important.

“We need a skilled carpenter to redo the baseboard and the chair line,” Gary said. “If we had a professional painter, we could paint the outside.”

Already, the Grittners are looking at what artifacts will go inside the building. Just this week, they got a donation of material from Pierre residents Saylor and Donna Stanton — souvenirs from Saylor’s father. William Clinton Stanton was a telegraph operator at the depot.

For years, they held on to these items — paperwork from Chicago & North Western, padlocks and more. Now, these artifacts will have a new home at the former station, Gary said.

Also, if anyone has old photos of the train station, please lend them to the Grittners. These will be scanned and returned to you, Gary said.

People in Pierre and Fort Pierre have a lot of enthusiasm for the project.

“They are so excited,” Connie said. “The Pierre people, it’s kind of like, ‘We wish we still had our depot.’”

“They like trains. They like depots. They like buildings being restored,” Gary said.

Mike Weisgram, owner of Country Carpet & Flooring, is a supporter. To him, it’s not just a matter of civic pride and cultural heritage — it’s about the financial health of the area.

“The key to Fort Pierre’s growth and history and the development of that as our tourist industry,” he said. “If the buildings, whether it be downtown or in the core area, reflect its history, then there will be more of an attraction to Fort Pierre, which will hopefully build its economic base.”

The depot will contribute to that, which is why he’s contributing to the depot. He’s supplying the flooring to the building.

Weisgram appreciates the work the Grittners have done. He also credits Fort Pierre Mayor Gloria Hanson with focusing on the area’s Western heritage.

Hanson, meanwhile, sees the depot as a part of making Fort Pierre a history showplace.

“Fort Pierre is the oldest European settlement in the Plains area. We will celebrate our 200th anniversary in 2017, which makes it 72 years older than the state. And we have so much rich history here,” she said.

In addition to the depot, the town also has the Verendrye Museum, the Casey Tibbs Museum, the Louis and Clark Trail, and more.

“There is so much. And I can just see getting all of these wonderful gems consolidated and make Fort Pierre a real tourism destination,” she said.

Hanson would like to see the depot become part of a railroad park.

“I’d like to have a siding with cars that kids and adults alike could — you know, what kid wouldn’t love to climb into a steam engine? Those kinds of things are being talked about.”

Weisgram encourages other people to get involved.

“If they can see the value of it, get on board.”

‘Those are stories’

Then there’s the history. In the Grittners’ view, it’s a huge part of the depot — everywhere you look.

“There’s a good chance that Scotty Philip stood right where you’re standing,” Gary says as he points out a spot in the men’s waiting room.

Philip is still famous for his role in saving the buffalo, but he’s a giant in South Dakota in other ways. He started the local bank and built a hotel which was originally in the town of Stanley. When Fort Pierre became the county seat, the hotel was moved to its current location, just across from where the depot used to be. More accurately, part of the hotel was moved.

“He had a partner, and they split that hotel,” Connie said, pointing out the window of the depot. “This is only half of it.”

Gary and Connie have another anecdote that shows Philip’s standing in South Dakota, but they’re not sure of the details.

“Crazy Horse and Scotty Philip’s wife — I think both the two wives were sisters. I think,” Connie said.

“Was it Crazy Horse or was it Sitting Bull?” Gary asks.

“Crazy Horse.”

People also wrote on the walls. Most of it is not like today’s graffiti, but quiet reminders of the people who had come before.

Gary reads the writing on the boards.

“‘J.J. Farrell, 36 years on the railroad, Fort Pierre, South Dakota.’ J.J. Farrell was the first depot agent in Fort Pierre. He was the guy that basically opened up the depot,” Gary says.

Another board carries the date of November 1927 and the name of Bert O’Rielly — spelled that way on the wall. His brother George was one of the three school children who found the Verendrye plate in 1913, just up the hill from the Fort Pierre depot.

Several boards carry the name of “Otis,” who apparently was the construction superintendent of the building.

“We wanted to save that. Those are stories,” Gary said.

Yet another board has a vulgar message — a very, very vulgar message. You’ll have to wait until the museum opens to read it. Or you can get a sneak preview if you volunteer to help out.

Then there’s the story of the two waiting rooms. One of the northernmost rooms, next to the freight room, is the women and children’s waiting room. The men’s waiting room is at the southern end of the building, while the ticket window and the depot agent’s office separate the two.

“Not particularly politically correct today. But the women were here, and the men were on the other side,” Gary said.

“I think it was kind of cool,” Connie said. “I don’t really know the logic was that they separated — I suppose that they had all the spittoons, back in the early 1900s, and men were probably chewing and spitting. You don’t want the little kids crawling around and getting into the spittoons.”

“And they smoked back then,” Gary chimed in.

“And they smoked, and the men — well, that’s the way it was,” Connie said.

The men’s waiting room took on a new use after J.J. Farrell left. Ernest Windedahl became the station agent in 1942, and he had a wife and two children, Gary said.

Because World War II was on, there was no housing in town. So he decided to live in the depot, and he divided the men’s waiting room into four small rooms, he said.

As the depot stands now, you can still see where the dividers were. Each of the corners is painted a different color, Gary said.

The Grittners have spoken with Windedahl’s daughter, Virginia. She had many stories to tell about living in the depot.

“She recalls and has written us vignettes about the building. Kids sliding down the hill, coming in for hot chocolate. Trains going by, traveling on the train and all that,” he said.

Eventually, she left for Texas because a girlfriend convinced her they could both marry rich oil men. Virginia did find a husband, though not in the oil business.

“He was a very successful attorney, and then he became a judge,” Connie said.

Virginia Windedahl-Hart is now 84. She will travel to Fort Pierre later this year for Stanley County’s all-class reunion, Gary said.

She will travel here in style, Connie said.

“A very nice van. It seats about 100. Some of the family and some of the grandkids, I believe, are coming,” she said.

Gary reports that Ernest Windedahl was responsible for another change to the depot building. Originally, none of the rooms were connected, so to get from one room to another, people would have to go outside.

Or climb through the windows, as the Windedahl children sometimes did.

Now there’s a doorway between the men’s waiting room and the ticketing area.

“Somebody punched a door in here. We’re not sure exactly who or when,” Gary said.

“I think I have the answer to that,” Connie chimes in. “When the kids left, he punched in that and made that door so he could go in and out.”

The rail line today

The rail line is still in use today, carrying mostly grain, granite and bentonite clay. After several ownership changes, it’s now the Rapid City, Pierre & Eastern line, Gary said.

A few years ago, the company that owned the railroad at the time planned to expand the line to carry coal from the Black Hills. That would have required a $2 billion government loan — not just for new track, but also to fix up the track that already exists.

West of Fort Pierre, the rails aren’t in the best of shape. Trains can travel at only 15 mph, whereas to the east trains can travel at speeds of up to 50 mph, Gary said.

A new line to the coal fields would have become highly profitable — enough to make fixing up the track a worthy investment. But only if coal was involved, and history got in the way.

“We were going to have something like 50, 60 trains running through here a day,” Connie said. “Of course, when Obama got in, and the EPA, with all those regulations for coal-fired plants, that’s when everything went south.”

It’s still possible the rail line may be fixed up.

“East of town, they fixed the track. They have welded rail and better ballast and all that. And so, they can go 50 miles and hour. But if you’re hauling something from Mitchell or Huron out to Rapid City, you’re going 50 until you get to Pierre, and then you’ve gotta slow down to 15 the rest of the way. So they want to improve the tracks,” Gary said.

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