Sometimes preserving the past can appear to take as many years as creating it. Efforts to save, restore and develop a use for the old Southern Railway Depot in Chatham may fall into this category. Strides have been made, but much lies ahead.
In every town and city in the United States, the rail depot played a pivotal role in community development and social life. It was often the first building constructed as the rails progressed to the undeveloped frontier. All passengers, mail, news, and freight arrived and departed from the depot, making it vital to local society and business.
But like so many things overwhelmed by progress, small community depots gradually became extinct as their usefulness fell short. These buildings have all but disappeared. This is what caused the Pittsylvania Historical Society to view the Chatham Depot as an irreplaceable historical landmark signifying the influence of rail transportation in the development and prosperity of Southside Virginia.
The Chatham Depot was built in 1917, and is architecturally representative as a well designed and constructed example of many depots erected by the Southern Railway in the early 20th century. It is Flemish-bond brick and has a long hipped roof, a three bay dormer, impressive brickwork, and large curved bracketed eves.
With the demise of passenger traffic in the 1960s, Southern Railway closed the depot as a passenger station in 1965, but continued to handle freight until about 1975. The depot stood idle for at least 25 years and in 1998 was scheduled for demolition. Workmen were on site to dismantle the decaying structure which was deemed an eyesore. Sen. Charles Hawkins was alerted and he called the president of Norfolk Southern to plead for the building to be spared. The president agreed to delay the demolition and give the community time to organize a restoration effort. Nothing was done for 18 months and Norfolk Southern issued an ultimatum, either lease or purchase the property or it will be torn down.
The Historical Society voted to take on the task of the depot’s restoration with a vision that it could become a much needed Veteran’s History Museum. Frances Hallam Hurt, Historical Society vice president at the time, got pledges for the purchase price from Chatham citizens interested in preserving the depot. After many meetings with county officials, the Board of Supervisors signed a lease/purchase agreement with Norfolk Southern on March 7, 2000. This agreement was later transferred to the Historical Society.
The Society paid for an environmental survey, a property survey, and secured a property appraisal. In September 2001, the Society purchased the station.
The original train station property had been subdivided around 1950 and part of the site was sold to Southern States Cooperative for construction and operation of an agricultural warehouse, manufacturing, and retail business. When Southern States built a new store on the Chatham by-pass, this property was sold to Ennis Business Forms.
Ennis eventually moved their operations to the main plant site and when the depot restoration was initiated, the Society requested that they donate the property to the Historical Society. This donation was significant because the original property was now combined and the total restoration, including space for landscaping and parking, could proceed.
A TE-21 grant from the Virginia Department of Transportation and Phase I, installation of a new roof was under way.
Saving an irreplaceable historical landmark is a good thing. But once a landmark is saved, allowing it to sit unused and unappreciated is wasteful. An historical building reaps its value from a purpose. It was through research and perseverance that Glenn Giles, Society board member and project coordinator, suggested the structure be used as a Veteran’s Museum.
The Chatham depot played a significant role in the life of World War I, World War II, and Korean War servicemen, servicewomen, and their families. It was here that men and women left the farm and departed from their families and loved ones to proceed to their military assignments. It was also here that they returned when on furlough, when they were discharged, or after falling on the battlefield and were met by mourning families.
Preserving the history and contribution of the county’s servicemen, especially those who were in World War II, is urgent. Veterans in this era are coming to the end of their lives at a staggering rate. Documenting their memories and honoring their contributions is an historical marvel that can’t be lost. The Chatham Depot will provide an ideal location to honor Pittsylvania County’s veterans.
Phase II of restoration became the Train Station Veteran’s Museum project and grant applications were submitted. The Society installed electricity and plumbing in the former Ennis warehouse/office building next door which will compliment the depot when it is finished.
The Society became an official partner in the National Veterans History Project which was approved by Congress in October 2000. This program involves the collecting and preserving of audio and video taped oral histories, along with documentary materials such as letters, diaries, maps, and photographs of America’s war veterans. These original documents and materials will be kept in the restored depot.
As a Veteran’s Museum, the public will be able to access taped interviews, and view the artifacts of the area’s veterans. Oral histories, diaries, letters and photographs are being collected. Generations to come will be able to view video of their ancestors talking about their service to their country. The materials will also be beneficial to historians and genealogists. Plaques with the service information of area veterans will be mounted on displays. These plaques are for sale for $50 each.
The Chatham Depot has been saved. Restoration has begun and a plan for its future has been established.
Work is currently under way on interior restoration, parking lot development and landscaping. The old freight portion of the depot will be restored to honor Danville and Pittsylvania war veterans with emphasis on the role that the railroad and train stations played in periods of national defense. The old ticket office will be used as a visitor’s center.
The area will be utilized for display of railroad artifacts and for portraying the historical significance of the rail depot to the community’s growth and development. Its original purpose can be re-established if Amtrak, or other mass transit rail sources, become viable. The old waiting room will be used as a community room and exhibition hall. Bathroom facilities and an office will be constructed.
The Society is being offered many collections from old farm sites, agricultural equipment, and relics from the past. The site could be developed into a County Heritage Museum. Work in Phase III will include cleaning decades of grime from the fine Flemish bond brick exterior. It will be user friendly, an historical depository, and a learning place for all to enjoy.