[Life] Hometown train depot delivers living history


History rededicated in Hobart

Train depot has served city for a century

 by Mike Siroky

 A living treasure was on hand to rededicate a hometown treasure when Hobart celebrated 100 years of the Pennsy Depot.

It was once the main travel depot, woven into the history of the city as emphatically as any other building. This was the place where everyone arrived and also where they launched adventures in the world. All the servicemen of all the wars since 1812 departed through the double doors that lead to the loading platform. Not as many servicemen returned, but the ones that did had a lifetime of memories to share.

As America broadened its borders westward, Chicago became the hub of industry. Four railroads began to snake along the southern edge of Lake Michigan to Chicago. Valparaiso was reached, but the builders of the railroad line were out of funds.

Hobart, meanwhile, had already established itself as a brickyard (an idea kept alive by the high school mascot name, Brickies). Legend has it even before that, the timbers of Hobart supplied the wood for Chicago’s first cedar block road and its first Lake Street plank road.

The deposits of clay in Hobart helped launch four brickyards and a pottery. City founder George Earle donated the right-of-way, the depot site and built the depot for the railroads, provided they extended the rails to the city. The combination of brickyard business and a free depot got the connection completed.

The biggest brick employers came to be National Fireproofing Co. and the Kulage Brick Co. National covered 35 acres and employed 125 when at full capacity, capable of producing 70 tons of product each day. They produced terra cotta and fireproof building tile. Kulage employed another 100. Its bricks were used to build the new depot.

Other railroads and other stations came and went. Freight and passenger lines were both popular, with three freight lines intersecting in downtown Hobart.

Depletion of the clay deposits meant the shutdown of the brick industry. Other modes of transportation and the interstate highway system cut into use of the railroad.

By 1968, the Pennsy Depot was no longer active.

By 1982, the old building was abandoned and alone. Like so many abandoned buildings, it had been trashed by uninvited overnight guests.

Then Virginia Curtis and a band of dedicated Hobart heroes stepped up to save and renovate it, using a familiar theme for salvation, SOS (Save Our Station).

“There were bicycle tire tracks on the walls,” Curtis remembers of midnight riders.

“The wood was all bad. The floor was the worst.

“We had a lot of work to do. The building was in bad shape,” Curtis said.

But 1001 Lillian St. was once again humming with workers. Curtis said they had volunteers who salvaged wood from other renovations and handmade all the doors in the station, to the style of the original doors. The freight office was turned into a kitchen/banquet area.

They restored the original colors on the walls and hung pictures representing the decades of activity in the building.

Slowly, they found ways to raise funds for repairs. They only could move ahead as money was available. For instance, when the wood flooring was found at a bargain price, the restoration group had no funds for installation.

But they bought the wood anyway and Hobart Lumber, always a good corporate citizen, agreed to store it until it could be installed.

Virginia and her group finished the renovation. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984. The building is now the headquarters of the Chamber of Commerce.

When Hobart was just getting started, a traditional land exchange involved both parties snapping a twig from a tree on the property.

Mayor Brian Snedecor and Curtis ceremonially snapped a twig in remembrance of the first land transfer. They also cut a ribbon, symbolizing the rededication. Former Mayor Linda Buzenic praised the work of Curtis and her group.

Curtis, a well-published reporter and unofficial historian, is unimpressed by the accolades accorded to her but is still very much in love with her city, even if it meant she had to delay a trip to Las Vegas to be at the rededication.

Mike Adams, the chamber’s director, hosted the event, “We’ll start the next 100 years here,” he said.

Curtis pointed out her committee did not give the depot to the city, but sold it to the city for $1.