By George "Buddy" Cranford
ETTRICK – Train stations or train depots are like the people who travel through them. They come and go. So it is with an old train station built along the 3500 block of South Street in Ettrick. It was not just an old building falling down, it was once a magnificent brick structure.
This train station was demolished on December 9, 2013 by the CSX Corporation who owned it. As the former Atlantic Coast Line (ACL) Railroad station, it served the Ettrick community until 1955 when the present station was built at the same address – 3516 South Street.
Even the “newer” facility may have reached its effectiveness and may one day be replaced. There is talk of doing just that. Chesterfield County is pursuing a federal grant which could foster new life in train transit for Chesterfield County and, along with Virginia State University, make dramatic changes to the landscape of historic Ettrick.
But the present station has now lost its sister and it too, probably awaits a bleak fate. There was history in the old building from its conception to its demise. It was not an ugly building. Even some depots from the same time period built from wood were constructed with beautiful designs in mind while some were just plain looking.
A number of smaller towns and cities in Virginia have preserved their historic stations and take great pride in them today. These buildings are the centerpiece efforts in revitalizing their downtown areas whether the railroad tracks still remain in place or not. A great example can be found in neighboring Richmond with the Richmond Railroad Museum located on Hull Street – its reuse is remarkable.
Originally, the train depot in Ettrick was erected by the ACL. It was a “Prairie School” design built in the 1940s. This same design was widely used for train depots in the 1910s.
The ACL began as a series of small railroads running along a northeast-southwest line parallel to the Atlantic coast. It connected communities along a “fall line,” the imaginary line joining towns along the coastal rivers. The oldest part of the ACL was the Petersburg Railroad, chartered in 1830 to run from Petersburg, south to the North Carolina border. This railroad gobbled up other smaller railroads in its wake and land in Chesterfield was needed for a railroad stop.
Researching land records on the old train station, fellow historian, Ricky Poole, discovered a county deed that revealed the size of the land area where the old train station had sat for many decades. The old train station was built on 7.6 acres (including the newer station built in 1955). It was originally owned by a man named James Lynch who deeded the land to a George P. Lynch on November 16, 1866. The Richmond Petersburg and Carolina Railroad Company acquired a right of way and a fraction of the land on River Road on the extreme southwest corner of the property for $6,300.
Soon after, Chesterfield County would have a train station, though it is unclear when the first station was actually built. The old depot demolished was supposedly built in the 1940s.
In the days of the segregated South, the older station most likely had two “stations” in one building. This pattern fits the design of most of the ACL railroad stations. One side was set up for the “Colored” passengers and the other side was there for “White” passengers. Even the bathrooms were similar and were segregated by an adjoining wall. The center portion of the building contained the ticket counter and office. Only the women of both races shared a separate bathroom from the men.
History tells us that the Ettrick-Matoaca Rescue squad used the building when the Rescue Squad was formed. They moved into the Ettrick Train station in 1967.
The old station that was visible from the parking lot of the circa 1955 station had obviously seen better days. The old station adjacent to the relatively new station had outlived its usefulness.
The building was so profoundly in poor shape, prior to being razed just a month or so ago , the building was too dangerous to enter or to make any determination of how it was structured. No critters, but trash and even tree limbs could be seen and windows were broken or boarded up.
On this visit to the old depot an Amtrak train was sitting on the adjacent railroad tracks. It was poised to move on to other rail points. Just having the train there appeared to give the building a reusable purpose. Looking at the building, the broad eaves had been exposed to the elements for years, all had rotted and the ceiling was falling in. Outside, the brickwork was still intact and looked as pristine as the day it was built.
The old structure must have been a very active and busy train station. Rail fans can see that scene in their modeling of railroads. The thought conjured up better times for the “old lady” of the track. Viewing the front side of the depot from across the CSX tracks, a baggage door, tall paired segmental head windows and a couple of personnel doors. At the top of the front facade was a circular crevice that looked as if a huge clock could have been there but earlier photos revealed a set of round attic vents. The long rectangular hipped slate roof appeared in good shape. The frontal openings had all been built with reference to function rather than symmetry. Now, these were boarded up just waiting for the wrecking crew that came on December 9, 2013. The wrecking crew has done their job.
Gone is the old “Prairie School” (A unified vision of architect Frank Lloyd Wright) style train station that served the little community of Ettrick. Photographs are all that remain on file in the library at the Chesterfield Historical Society of Virginia. They may prove to be useful in years to come when a Chesterfield citizen may be doing research on Ettrick.
We cannot do much for the old Ettrick train station, but we as county citizens should signal a change in this county’s attitude towards its older and possibly historic structures. We should trigger a movement to preserve our history before the buildings fall down or are bulldozed into oblivion.