Chapter 4: The Depot is Rescued by a Concerned Community
The decline of the Woodland depot after rail passenger traffic ended did not go unnoticed by the people of Woodland. In 1975 the Streets and Highways Committee of the Woodland Chamber of Commerce began working toward the restoration and “beautification” of the Southern Pacific depot. The proposed plan was to clean up the building and develop the surrounding area as a park-and-ride facility and to provide commuter parking. The committee prepared detailed plans, but no official action was taken, and there was little community support for the project. Southern Pacific then sold a portion of the proposed parking area to the Diamond National Corporation.
However, interest in cleaning up the rundown depot continued, and in 1980, then Mayor Harry Walker and City Manager Thomas Peterson, began working on a plan to “undertake certain beautification projects on (SP) company property along East Street … from County Road 24A on the south to Kentucky Avenue on the north” which included the depot and tracks. As they envisioned it and proposed it to SP, this project would use citizen volunteers, City employees and Southern Pacific employees to clean up the area, landscape it, and make improvements to the depot such as painting it and repairing the roof. They also proposed constructing a 60 space park-and-ride lot in the vicinity of the depot.
Once again the City asked for the assistance of the Chamber’s Streets and Highways Committee chaired by Jean Sisson and a group was formed to oversee the work calling itself PROWD (People’s Reconstruction of Woodland Depot). Several individuals and businesses pledged their support with manpower, money and materials. They estimated that the depot part of the plan would cost approximately $4,000. Southern Pacific agreed in concept with the plan, but lengthy negotiations between the City, SP and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees ended in stalemate in 1983 over labor issues and liability.
Then again in March of 1986, Dick Klenhard, Executive Vice-President of the Woodland Chamber of Commerce approached the now Santa Fe Southern Pacific Corporation about reviving the depot improvement project. His letter also mentioned a persistent rumor that SP was planning to raze the building if and when the Greyhound Bus Lines vacated the depot, and replace it with a small office for their switching crews. Although SP initially expressed interest in the project, confirmation of this rumor came in a September 1987 letter to Woodland City Manager, Kris Kristensen, from SP Administrative Engineer, J.G. Ivanusich, stating that the railroad was planning to “close this facility and demolish (the) building in the first quarter of 1988”.
With that announcement, a group of local preservationists, historians, service organizations and the Chamber of Commerce intensified the campaign to save the depot from destruction. The Committee to Restore the Train Depot was formed with local preservationist, Ron Brown, as its chairman. The committee’s plan was to purchase the depot “for a nominal amount, move it at moderate cost to some as yet undetermined city property and then restore… it to its original beauty”. The committee also looked at moving the depot to land then occupied by the Spring Lake Fire Station across from the depot on East Street and to the fairgrounds, both of which proved to be untenable. Chairman Brown and others approached the Woodland City Council at its October 1987 meeting to see if the city would be willing to pay to move the depot, but the council declined. As stated by then mayor, Dudley Holman, “because of the financial constraints, the city cannot afford to pay for moving the depot, buying land for the building or managing the building as an attraction once it is restored.” Mayor Holman encouraged a community group to step up and take the lead to develop the broad community support needed to save the depot.
Taking this advice from the council, Chairman Brown gave a presentation on saving the depot at the November 1987 Sacramento Valley Historical Railways Board meeting, and SVHR Board member, John McMahan, was appointed SVHR’s representative to the preservation committee. Members of this committee and several Woodland residents then went before the Woodland City Council at their December 1, 1987 meeting with a new plan, and received encouragement from the Council to try and save the depot. The committee was reformed as the “Woodland S.P. Depot Committee” and consisted of John McMahan of SVHR as chairman, Bill Bender of the Yolo County Historical Society (and current SVHR member), John Suhr Director of Woodland Parks and Rec appointed as the City Council’s representative, and two citizen members, Ron Brown who was selected as vice chairman and David Wilkinson, a grant specialist to assist in getting grants. Sacramento Valley Historical Railways agreed to be the organization to lead the preservation movement.
In early 1988, the Depot Committee met with Southern Pacific’s Sacramento Division Superintendent, J.W. “Bill” Lynch who pledged his company’s cooperation and agreed not to destroy the depot for one year until a plan could be worked out to save it. Lynch said that tearing down the depot was the most feasible for SP as a business, but would not be good for SP from a public relations standpoint. Saving the depot and leaving it in place was the least desirable option for SP because it would require that a large fence be placed around it to provide restricted access. However, the best option for SP, according to Lynch, would be to save the depot but move it to another location away from the SP’s West Valley main line.
Initially, SP intended to sell the City of Woodland some of its property 50 yards west of the depot on which to relocate the depot with SVHR leasing the property from the City after the depot was relocated. SP confirmed this intention in an April 1988 letter to Bill Kanda, the manager of the Greyhound office located in the waiting rooms of the depot, stating, “(r)ather than demolish the structure as previously indicated, it is now our intent to sell the building to the City of Woodland. Accordingly, when the sale is completed, your lease will be assigned to the City.”
Earlier, in February 1988, the Depot Committee applied to the Woodland City Council for a $40,000 Community Development Block Grant ($10,000 to purchase property on which to relocate the depot, $12,000 to construct a new slab foundation, and $18,000 to move the building). However, in May 1988 the council was only able to award SVHR a $5,000 Block Grant to be used as seed money for the depot project. Later that year, Superintendent Lynch retired, and was replaced by Mike Irvine who continued the negotiations with the Depot Committee.
In December 1988, SVHR asked SP if it could lease SP property away from the main line with a low cost lease, but SP reaffirmed its preference to sell the property rather than lease it and offered to sell it to SVHR. The following month, SVHR put in a bid of $1,000 for the property, but SP declined the offer and instead offered a smaller parcel near Sixth Street. The Depot Committee in consultation with the City then proposed leasing SP property just west of the SP property leased by B.E. Giovannetti west of the main line. SP reiterated their desire to sell the property to SVHR and not lease it, and offered to sell it for $15,000. In March 1989, the Depot Committee agreed that purchasing the property would be better than leasing it and the SVHR Board decided to counter offer SP $10,000 for the property.
In July 1989, the offer went all the way to Phillip Anschutz, the president of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad (which had recently purchased the Southern Pacific Railroad), and he agreed to the sale of the property for $10,000, approximately one third of its appraised value. At the same time, an anonymous donor stepped forward and donated $15,000 to move the depot onto the new property once it was purchased.
Negotiations continued with SP over many months and the Depot Committee secured an agreement to have the depot sold to the Sacramento Valley Historical Railways provided that it be moved away from the railroad’s main line in a timely manner. On September 23, 1991, Southern Pacific sold the depot building to the Sacramento Valley Historical Railways for $5.
The following month, the Community Development Block Grant was finally approved after the restoration plans for the depot were reviewed and approved by the State Office of Historic Preservation, and the property was purchased from Southern Pacific in December 1991 with the grant money and matching funds raised by SVHR. At the same time, Jack Wood, the owner of the property adjacent to the new depot site at Sixth Street and Lincoln Avenue, donated it to Sacramento Valley Historical Railways. This slender strip of property had the remnants of two grain storage buildings on it which were later removed.
On December 4, 1991, at 12 noon, the ground breaking ceremony for Depot Restoration Project was held on the now combined Lincoln Avenue property purchased from SP and Sixth Street property donated by Jack Wood. The ceremony was attended by John McMahan, representing the Sacramento Valley Historical Railways, Mike Irvine, representing Southern Pacific, many SVHR and community members, and the local news media. This ceremony marked the culmination of years of hard work by several local organizations, the City of Woodland, and many citizen volunteers to save this important piece of history from destruction. The next challenge was to move the depot to the new property and begin its restoration.
The author has relied heavily on the research and writings of former SVHR Depot Committee Chairman John McMahan, former Woodland Chamber of Commerce Streets and Highway Committee Chairman Jean C. Sisson, and Ron Brown, chairman of the Committee to Restore the Train Depot to write this history of the preservation of the Historic Woodland Train Depot.