Published November 2011
The wonderful Santa Fe Depot Museum in San Angelo almost didn’t happen. The old dilapidated passenger and freight depot at 703 South Chadbourne in San Angelo, Texas, was destined to be torn down. Some interested souls who didn’t want that to happen got busy in 1993 and decided to save it. The City of San Angelo was the party to finally accept the building from the Santa Fe Railroad as the original group was not a non-profit organization, and time was ticking on the old building. After the Depot was preserved, there were several suggestions as to what should be done with it.
David Wood, the current president of the museum said, “Some people wanted to make it an art gallery while others wanted to divide it into office space to be rented. Finally the group decided to develop it into a railroad museum, and it opened officially in 1996.”
The Historic Orient/Santa Fe Depot, Inc., the official name of the railway museum, tells about the formation and development of railroad lines through San Angelo and this story has many twists and turns. When the first train made its way puffing down the Santa Fe tracks to San Angelo on September 30, 1888, thousands of people turned out for a two day celebration. San Angeloans partied and paraded as they witnessed the train’s appearance. By 1908, a depot was built at Fourth Street and Chadbourne Street.
San Angelo expected other railroad lines to come through town, but the Kansas City to Mexico line was almost routed north of town and would have missed it completely. A group of farsighted businessmen from San Angelo persuaded enterprising Arthur Stillwell, the president of the Kansas City Mexico & Orient Line, to bring his railroad through town also. This company built the two-storied depot on South Chadbourne. It was ready for business in 1910.
By 1911, the track west of San Angelo, reached all the way to Alpine. By the 1920s, San Angelo shipped 5,000 rail cars of livestock each year, and all the wool that was produced southwest of the city. The discovery of oil between Big Lake and Rankin further enhanced the railroad. The discovery of the Santa Rita No. 1 gusher at Texon brought another use for the railroad—hauling oil and oil well equipment.
San Angelo had many railroad cars full of fruits and vegetables passing through town, and they needed extra ice to keep them cool. David Wood explained that at one time San Angelo had a long, high platform between South Chadbourne and Oaks Street that ran parallel to the track. Insulated cars full of produce stopped at these platforms so that 400 pound blocks of ice could be lowered into the cars. The ice was made at San Angelo Ice House, which was situated on North Chadbourne near the future location of the Coke Plant.
Passenger trains with sleepers whizzed through San Angelo by 1925. The railroad enterprise really moved in high gear in the city of three rivers when World War II broke out. San Angelo had two Army Air Corp bases, one which was later called Mathis Field, and Goodfellow Army Air Corp Base. Railroad workers in the San Angelo area received wages amounting to over $450,000 a month, and the railroad lines were rolling in a million dollars a month. Things were going very well for the railroad business.
But as early as 1946, conditions changed since the war was over. Trucks now moved livestock, and trains weren’t needed as much. As a young girl, my parents planned a little trip so I could ride from Mertzon to Rankin on the passenger train at that time to visit my grandmother. They did this because they were afraid we soon wouldn’t have a passenger train. They were right. Passenger service ended in the 1950s. All service ended by 1985.
So the San Angelo depot lay abandoned until a dedicated group of local San Angeloans saved it in 1993. After they secured the building, they set up displays to commemorate its past. They preserved the authentic train station where a passenger would make connections or a telegram message would be coded. Railroad artifacts like hand tools, lanterns and silverware from luxury cars are displayed too. The two-storied building has many displays of railroad history, but the model trains rate high on every visitor’s list. The model train displays show Mexico’s Copper Canyon with its many tunnels, and Edisonville, a make believe town that was originally built by a group of students from the old Edison Jr. High.
Railroad photographer Allen Johnson donated more than 80,000 photos, negatives and slides to the museum. Many of them are on display as well as information about the towns along the Santa Fe and KCM&O lines.
Although the Santa Fe Depot Museum is open every Saturday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., it also has several special events throughout the year. They had Military Appreciation Day the first Saturday in May and Family Funday in June of this year. When the temperature rose in August, they celebrated “Fry an Egg on the Track Day.” Prizes were given for over-easy, sunny-side up and scrambled. But by far the biggest event at the train station remains the festivities at Christmas time as the museum has its Santa’s Santa Fe Christmas.
Besides its regular Saturday schedule, the museum is open every Friday and Saturday evenings from 6 to 9 starting the day after thanksgiving and running into December. They won’t open on Christmas and New Years eves and days. During the holiday schedule, the Depot is decorated for Christmas as a winter wonderland complete with Santa Claus. One of the highlights is the reading of Christmas stories by celebrities of the community such as Pat Attebery and Bishop Pfeifer. There is beautiful Christmas music and children’s activities also.
The Santa Fe Depot Museum is available throughout the year for people to book for field days, reunions and birthday parties. David Wood said a $75 minimum fee for 20 people is charged. He explained that most parties can be planned on any day, but during the hot summer, air conditioning the building is an expensive item. They will only book parties in the summer on Saturday at the end of the regular tour day.
There is a lot of interest in model railroads in the San Angelo area, so the Santa Fe Museum is the prime place to develop such a hobby. David said that a model railroad club was started in 1997. Members help to develop and maintain the railroad displays at the depot. Their models show several different gauges including N, HO, O, and G. The club meets the third Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m.
If the Santa Fe Depot sounds like an interesting place to you, they would loved to have you come and help as a volunteer. David said that they were looking for volunteers to help with several different projects. Since they’ve been donated over 80,000 photos relating to trains, David said, “We are looking for help to catalog and scan these pictures.” He added that they also need help in organizing a new library in the building and help in changing displays and giving tours.
David Wood is excited about the future of the museum as well as the future of train travel in West Texas. He says that at this time, oil pipelines are operating to near capacity in our area, and he thinks that more oil will be shipped by train in West Texas in the immediate future. He said, “It wouldn’t surprise me if we see one train of oil tankers passing through San Angelo per day.” He is a visionary when it comes to trains, and he says, “Who knows? One of these days we might get on a train here in San Angelo or fire up a locomotive.” Everyone should stay tuned to the new and interesting events at the Santa Fe Depot Museum.