It doesn’t look like much now.
Less than that, really, with its missing walls and rotting roof, peeling paint and walls so far out of plumb that they make that tower in Pisa look like it’s standing at attention.
But the shack barely big enough to be a modern-day one-car garage plays an outsized role in the history of Bayiew and Houghton, just north of Washburn.
Through its doors passed thousands of stonecutters and agents doing business at the sandstone quarries that were the settlement’s reason for being. Tourists stopped there to catch a ride on the steamship Plowboy out to Madeline Island. Families and housemaids crossed its now-sagging floors to catch a ride to Washburn or Ashland to do their shopping. And tons and tons of Chequamegon Bay trout, salmon and whitefish left there for dining tables in Milwaukee or Chicago.
It’s the last surviving railroad depot in the Bayfield Peninsula along the line that connected the Northwoods with the rest of the world.
The Houghton Depot was built in the 1880s and but for some luck, it would have gone the way of other depots along the line — dismantled or collapsed, reclaimed by nature and forgotten to time.
But a group of volunteers is determined not to let that happen. They’re working to shore up the station before time and the elements claim it, with hopes of turning it into a historical center.
With help from the weather and some industrial movers, the first step on that journey could come in the next few weeks.
A different era
A lot of the building’s history already is lost — train stations being such utilitarian pieces of the landscape that no one paid them much attention until they were almost all gone.
“We don’t know exactly when it was built, but we’ve chosen a date of 1884 because the railroad went through in 1883,” said Paul Johnson, one of the group working to preserve the building.
Johnson is a train guy. He’s got a crossbuck in his yard, glass insulators from telegraph poles marking his garden path and a replica of the Bayfield stretch of the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha Railway packed into his crowded basement.
He can tell you all about how the Omaha Road, as it was known, was taken over in a stock grab in 1884 by the Chicago and Northwestern Railway, and about how portions of it today are part of the Union Pacific Railroad.
But what he and Mary Gruhl, another of the people driving the project, really want to tell you about is how they came to treasure the Houghton Depot and their long-term plans for it.
Steam locomotives served the station on their way to the line’s terminus in Bayfield from 1883 until the final passengers unloaded their bags and stepped down from the platform on March 31, 1934.
What precisely happened after that is, like much of the building’s history, a bit of a mystery.
History’s first draft
R. Jackson, 1934.
If a newspaper is the first draft of history what are the names, dates and other barely-legible markings carved into and scrawled on almost every accessible section of wall in the depot today?
Were they etched there by wayward kids in the 1880s? By quarry workers marking their passage away from the north as they awaited the roaring steam and screaming whistle that announced the arrival of their trains? Or were vandals during the Great Depression or World War II, after the depot was out of service, responsible?
No one really knows, but it was probably a bit of all those things, given the dates carved into the walls. Nor does anyone know when some of the roof rafters were removed from the building, or when a hideous piece of flowered green linoleum was glued down over the beautiful hardwood floors of the place, or when the exceptionally tall windows, the better to look up at an engineer in his locomotive, were replaced with smaller panes and a second door was added.
What’s known for sure is that some time after 1934, the depot was moved a few hundred yards from the still-visible raised track bed to a yard along Bodin Road.
There, someone tacked on a kitchen, a couple of bedrooms and a bathroom and called it home.
For years, a woman named Mabel Nicholson and her son lived there. They covered those graffiti-strewn walls with sheetrock and scratched out an existence there until 1984, when the house again was abandoned, according to Johnson’s research.
And there it sat, until a few years ago when fortune smiled upon the local history buffs who today comprise the Bayview History Committee.
Michael Garnich technically is retired, but he also is entrenched in Bayview’s history — a history he relates when he captains Apostle Islands cruise boats.
His great-grandfather bought land in Bayview from the Prentice Quarries when they went bankrupt. He and another buyer split the land right down the middle.
Garnich ended up owning the quarry’s old paymaster’s hut, but not the depot — it was just off his property.
The land later was given to Garnich’s parents as a wedding present, and they used it as their lake house until moving in full-time in the 1950s.
Years later, Garnich’s father died and his mother eventually remarried — to Norman Nicholson, who lived in the depot-turned-house.
“He moved into our house with running water and a bathroom and all that stuff, and he stopped maintaining it,” Garnich said of the depot. “When my mom passed away, Norman stayed at our house and ultimately, well, he was basically using the depot as a storage garage or barn. When I purchased it, it was already showing pretty bad signs of disrepair.”
So bad, in fact, that Garnich’s insurance company declared it a hazard and told him either to fix it up or tear it down. Family members debated turning it into a cabin, but no one was ready to commit to that time and expense.
Johnson, being a train guy, was well aware of the depot long before the insurance companies issued their ultimatum. He built that railroad in his basement of his home just a couple of miles away — which includes a replica of the station — in 2010.
One day he was pointing the depot out to another train-history buff when Garnich, drove up with a proposition.
Would Johnson be interested in spearheading an effort to save the depot?
Johnson couldn’t say yes fast enough.
“I only wanted to donate it if it was going to be used for public history, where people can get enjoyment from it,” Garnich said. “So much of our Bayview history has been lost over time — only a few original buildings still stand. The goal is that once it is moved, it will be in a better place where it can be appreciated by more people.”
That offer kicked the effort into high gear. Johnson, Gruhl and others made the rounds of town picnics and other events. They sent mailers to folks who lived near the depot. They applied for and won a grant from the Apostle Islands Historical Preservation Conservancy. They put in more sweat and time than a team of gandy dancers — the crew that placed and repaired rails during locomotive days.
They approached the town of Bayview with their plan to move the depot to Bayview Park, restore it and use it to teach local history; the town agreed to take ownership of it. And the local Bodin family — Johnson is married to a Bodin — kicked in $700.
All told, the group amassed about $6,000 in donations. They spent $1,000 removing the tacked-on bedrooms and kitchen and disposing of debris.
At the same time, they’ve been gathering oral histories from those who remember the depot, or recall relatives who told them of it. They know, too, that an Ojibwe trading post was located nearby.
“What we need is a center from which to build on local history,” Gruhl said. “We think this is the perfect way to do that.”
Over the hump
The next steps will be the hardest. With its rotting floor joists, crumbling eaves and other aches and pains that come from 130 years of resisting gravity, the depot will need a lot of shoring up before it can be moved.
The group already has painstakingly taken down the original chimney that likely served an old coal stove, and numbered every brick for reassembly.
As soon as the ground is well-frozen, the move will begin. The group has a place staked out next to the old paymaster’s office from the Prentice Quarry, which it previously moved and restored.
Once at Bayview Park, some educated guesswork will be involved in restoration. No existing photos of the interior have been found. Based upon the cutoff line of graffiti inside, about three feet above floor level, they assume benches lined the walls and the station master probably had a desk in a corner.
They’ll rebuild the platform on which passengers boarded the train, and lay a section of track outside to complete the experience.
“We’re not aiming for a museum, open on a regular basis, but we’ll do events by appointment, maybe a monthly open house, things like that,” Johnson said.
Mostly, they envision school kids visiting to learn the importance of the quarries, fishing industry, Ojibwe trading, the commuter train called the Scoot that ran four times a day between Ashland and Bayfield, and other local lore that defined Bayview.
That’s a lot of history packed into one falling-down 14-by-19-foot shack that could very easily have been lost to time.
All told, restoration is likely to cost another $9,000, and the group wants to raise $5,000 for ongoing maintenance.
Johnson will discuss even more of the Houghton Depot’s history — and probably accept donations from those willing — at a Feb. 25 talk, the final session in the 2020 Tony Woiak Festival at the Washburn Event Center.
“We just really feel like people ought to know this history,” Johnson said. “Kids today probably haven’t heard anything about it, and the number of people who remember it is shrinking every day.”