The Danville railroad depot on Peacham Road was once a vibrant hub of activity beginning in the late 1800s. It became the point of entry for passengers traveling to the scenic hillside village over the tracks of the Portland & Ogdensburg Railroad.
The historical structure, reminiscent of the bygone days of the railroad that stimulated the economy of the town when it arrived, will celebrate the 150th anniversary of its opening in August 2021. It is still situated in a prime location beside what were once the railroad tracks and now, the increasingly popular Lamoille Valley Rail Trail (LVRT).
With the recent announcement of the continuation of work to complete the entire 93-mile LVRT from St. Johnsbury to Swanton by June 2022, there is a new opportunity for the depot to provide a stimulus for the town of Danville.
The recently formed Danville Train Station Committee (DTSC) was chartered to act as a sub-committee of the Danville Planning Commission and began holding regular meetings in January. The group consists of representatives who have a common interest in restoring the beauty and historical importance of the building and also determining a viable use for the space.
Currently, all options for funding the necessary repairs to the building are on the table, from seeking grant funding, public and private donations, donations of in-kind labor and materials; even orchestrating a good old fashioned “station raising,” involving local groups and organizations which would help foster a sense of community pride and ownership in the process.
This series will examine the history of the structure, the atmosphere created by the well-loved station agents and the important role the building played in the community. It served as a crucial waystation between towns along the route of the St. J. & L.C. Railroad and can once again serve that purpose by linking users of the LVRT.
The railroad comes to Danville
Flashback to the year 1871. It was early August and excitement about the arrival of the first train into the town of Danville was spreading quickly. Finishing touches were being put on the new railroad depot, just a short distance south of the Danville Green. Everyone was a buzz, talking about the railroad finally coming through town.
Danville residents had been waiting many years for this day. Roads of the time were antiquated, rough, rutted, and less than adequate for traveling and transporting heavy loads of cargo by horse and wagon. Finally, after decades of planning, the proposed east-west railroad route that would begin in Portland, Maine, and run to the shores of Lake Champlain was beginning to take shape. Meetings were held in Danville to talk about the advantages of the rail line running through town and during the winter of 1867, the route from Portland to North Danville and Danville Green was being surveyed. By May of that year, residents of Danville voted to show their support for the project by offering to lend up to $100,000 in credit to the railroad company with the provision that the route would pass through North Danville.
By the time construction began in 1869 and the tracks were being laid along the route from St. Johnsbury to Danville, the final path of the route was changed. Engineers concluded the proposed route passing through North Danville required crossing the Sleeper’s River eight times, making construction more expensive. Since the route was changed without prior notification or consent of the voters, Danville refused to pay the money pledged and brought a successful lawsuit against the railroad company, releasing them from their financial commitment.
Construction began in April 1870 and before long, the town and surrounding area were bustling with activity. Large numbers of men employed to work on the railroad arrived in the village. They came from other countries and states and stayed in hotels, boarding houses, and private homes.
In March 1871, the North Star reported that “a paper has been circulating around town for the construction of a railroad depot in this village, the depot to be located on the land of Mr. Ira Brainerd, on the Peacham Road, about one-quarter of a mile from the hotel.” A large sum of money had already been raised for the project, which included grading the ground around the site of the proposed building, although additional money was needed to cover all the expenses.
A town meeting was held on March 31, 1871, at A.H. Smith’s hotel to discuss the building of the railroad depot. At this meeting, it was voted to appoint a building committee and continue to raise the additional funds needed to complete the project.
Following this meeting, a statement was released saying the residents of Danville Green and vicinity proposed to build a depot and give it to the railroad company. The reason given was that it was the right thing to do after the recent Supreme Court decision to release Danville from its financial pledge. This meant they were now getting a railroad built through town practically for free.
By May 1871, the building committee secured a contract for the timber to be used for constructing the depot. William M. Dole and David W. Morse, both of Danville, were contracted to take on the project. The two local farmers organized a crew to begin work immediately following haying season that same year. The depot was scheduled to be completed by the first of September.
Plans called for the interior of the depot to be divided into separate areas, including a Ladies' room, Gents room, ticket office, baggage room, and freight room. The exterior featured a platform to extend around one end and side with a piazza on the south side facing the track.
By early August, the North Star reported that work on the outside of the new depot building was nearly complete and by the end of the month it would be ready for a coat of paint. The final details and finishing touches would have the depot in order just in time for the arrival of the first train from St. Johnsbury.
On Sept. 29, 1871, news spread quickly that the arrival of the train was expected at any minute. Large crowds of people of all ages began flocking to the new depot. The excited onlookers lined both sides of the track and along the entire length of the platform, eagerly waiting to witness the historic event. At exactly 10 minutes before six o’clock, the whistle blew and the hissing and puffing sound of the steam locomotive pulling the construction train could be heard as it chugged its way up to the new Danville depot, greeted by roaring cheers from the crowd.
The following day the tracklayers continued their work, making their way toward West Danville, and as soon as the line was completed, as far as Hardwick.
The first carload of freight rolled into the depot over the P. & O. Railroad in October of 1871. The cargo consisted of a shipment of corn and flour for two local merchants, Warren Estabrooks of Danville and George W. Farrington of West Danville.
It was customary in the days when railroads were being constructed for telegraph lines to be strung to towns along the route. In addition to selling tickets, keeping track of the arrival and departure of passengers, securing the mail and shipments of freight coming into the station on the train, station agents usually performed the duties of the telegraph operator and were trained on how to send and receive messages over the wire.
The North Star announced on Oct. 27, 1871, that Silas H. Stone of Danville had been appointed by the railroad company to be the station agent for the Danville Green Depot. In the same issue, a notice appeared informing the citizens of Danville, Peacham, Walden, Cabot, and other area towns that the telegraph office at the new railroad depot was open. On the first day of business, just one month after the arrival of the train, five telegraph messages were successfully relayed from the Danville depot.
Danville was the first town to build a railroad depot along the route of the Vermont Division of the P. & O. Railroad. A short time after, other stations were being constructed along the route in the towns of West Danville, Walden, Hardwick, East Hardwick and Greensboro.
As soon as the line opened from St. Johnsbury through to Hardwick in January 1872, two trains a day ran over the P. & O. Railroad and stopped at the Danville station just long enough to allow passengers a chance to catch a breath of fresh air and stretch their legs. The trains ran from Hardwick to St. Johnsbury and back. The price of a ticket from Danville to West Danville was 15 cents, Walden, 35 cents, Greensboro, 65 cents, East Hardwick, 80 cents and Hardwick, 95 cents. The cost of a ticket to ride the train from Danville to St. Johnsbury was 50 cents.
As the route of the P. & O. continued to extend further west, the railroad began to run excursion trains that left from the Danville station for special events at a reduced ticket price. In September 1873, a discount of half-fare was offered for passengers who wanted to travel to Morrisville and back for the first annual Lamoille Agricultural Society Fair. When the entire 96-mile route from St. Johnsbury to Swanton was completed in July 1877, passengers could ride the train for 3 ½ cents to 4 ½ cents per mile, the lowest rate in the state. The railroad company had been plagued with financial difficulties from the start and to generate additional revenue, advertised special excursion trains to Lake Champlain and the White Mountains. In 1880, Vermont Division of the P. & O. Railroad was reorganized and under the new ownership, the line was renamed, The St. Johnsbury and Lake Champlain Railroad Company.
The Danville depot was the first stop on the route from St. Johnsbury for passengers who were visiting Danville or just passing through. In 1872, the proprietor of the Eagle Hotel ran a carriage to and from the Danville depot to meet arriving and departing trains each night and morning.
In the early 1900s, passengers arriving in Danville often stayed for the entire summer to escape city life and breathe clean, fresh mountain air which was reported to be just the remedy for seasonal hay fever and allergy sufferers. To attract summer tourists, Danville proclaimed itself in advertisements as “a climate one thousand feet nearer to heaven than St. Johnsbury.” Many guests sought the “medicinal waters” from natural sulfer springs, said to be located about one mile east of the village in an area near Joe’s Brook.
Around 1895, there was an ongoing rivalry and a bit of friendly competition between the two thriving hotels in Danville, The Elm House and Thurbur’s Hotel. The first sound of the engine whistle, which signaled the approaching train at the nearby crossing, triggered a race to see who could get to the train depot first. The goal was to grab the coveted spot right beside the platform making it easier to pick up guests getting off the train and load their baggage. The hotel “taxi” was a covered wagon or fringed surrey with a uniformed driver, drawn by a spunky team of fine Morgan horses, a well-known breed in this area. Both hotel taxis met all trains coming into the depot. Village regulars were often on hand at the depot to watch the trains come in and witness the entertainment, as well as to socialize and pass the time of day.
The train was often full during the summer months and passenger trains ran multiple routes a day throughout the tourist season. Entire families came from cities including New York, Boston, and Chicago. The train brought locals and summer guests to Joe’s Pond in the summer months for picnics and recreational outings. Those who traveled the line from St. Johnsbury to Swanton agree it was one of the most scenic rides in the country, especially during the fall foliage season.
The arrival of the railroad through Danville also meant the disappearance of the daily mail stage that used to run through town. The crack of the coachman’s horsewhip and sound of the stage bells were replaced with the whistle of the train engine to signal the arrival of the mail.
In May 1882, the North Star reported that freight business at the railroad station was increasing at such a steady rate that the railroad company would need to enlarge the depot or build another building. When the old stone jail was dismantled in 1880, the large granite stones were hauled by rail to St. Johnsbury where they were used in the building of the foundation of the tower for the North Congregational Church.
A variety of goods were shipped and received at the Danville railroad station. Capt. William M. Dole was starting to sell shipments of apples in October 1874 and was expecting a nice carload of winter apples that would be for sale at the station. He was also shipping carloads of potatoes at 40– 50 cents per bushel to the markets in Boston.
In later years, railroad cars full of grain were parked behind the Danville Grain Co. store, owned by Delmer and Gladys Smith, located just across the road from the railroad station (now the home of Ed Farr). The rail cars full of grain to be sold to local farmers were unloaded onto a platform outside the store’s grain room.
The sale of Christmas trees provided a good source of income to many farmers in this area. The trees were harvested in the late fall and transported to the station by horse-drawn wagonloads to be shipped by rail from the Danville station to markets as far away as New York and Philadelphia.
C.H. Davis started the Danville Manufacturing Company in 1927. A bobbin mill, sawmill and lumber yard were located at the present site of the town garages. Wagonloads of lumber were shipped regularly from the railroad station. Milk and butter were also shipped by rail from the local creameries in special refrigerated cars to meet the high demand for these products by larger cities to the south.
Cattle pens located along the side of the tracks near the station served as holding areas in the days when cattle were sold and shipped to other areas in specially fit cattle cars. Newell Stocker was the largest stock dealer in town and was shipping sheep, hogs, and wool weekly from the Danville station to the Boston market. He also shipped White Russian seed wheat by the bushel in the early spring to markets in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York. In 1883 he shipped 3,500 pounds of butter. Stocker was described as one of the best farmers in town.
Many in Danville still remember the railroad station as the starting point for shopping trips to St. Johnsbury or an evening of entertainment at the movie theaters. The late Janet Smith Wakefield recalled the days before the interstate highway system when it was easier to take a train from Danville to Boston than it was to drive your automobile to Burlington.
Regular passenger service on the railroad, later known as the St. Johnsbury and Lamoille County Railroad was discontinued in 1956 as more people were driving automobiles. In 1955, the mail was now transported by Express Mail trucks and no longer on the train. Shipments of grain and other freight were still delivered to the station, but there was no longer a need for a station agent to sell tickets or relay telegraph messages. The ticket office and passenger waiting room went unused for many years and the building soon began to fall into a state of disrepair. At some point in time, a portion of the east side of the building was removed and the platform that ran the length of the south side of the station was dismantled.
Maintaining the depot
In 1974, the Danville Historical Society started a drive to preserve the railroad depot as a historical landmark and prevent further deterioration. It was part of a project to spruce up buildings in town for the Vermont State Bicentennial Celebration in 1976. Several attempts were made over the next few years to landscape and perform basic repairs.
The railroad station is one of the few remaining historical structures in the town. Its classic Victorian architecture and prominent position on the street that used to bear the same name, served as the design model for its neighbor, the Danville Health Center which opened at their new site in December 1990.
In 1982, the State of Vermont, Division of Historic Preservation surveyed historic sites and structures in Danville, which included an area designated as the historic Railroad Street district. A statement of significance included in the survey suggested the station would meet the criteria for inclusion on the State and National Historic Registry because of its association with the St. J. & L. C. Railroad.
Recognizing the need for additional repairs, the Danville Historical Society received a matching grant from the Historic Preservation Program at The University of Vermont to do an Architectural Conservation Report on the railroad station in 1991. The work done through this program has served as an invaluable tool to assist in planning future efforts to restore and preserve the building.
The Town of Danville was deeded ownership of the railroad depot in 1993 thanks to the efforts of long-time Danville resident Judge Lewis Springer. In 1996, the town applied for several grants to perform repair work to the foundation and the freight room was rebuilt as the town’s recycling center. The Danville Woman’s Club contracted to have the front door authentically copied and replaced and volunteered to wash the wood ceilings, walls and floor of the passenger waiting area.
The Danville station sign was recovered from the St. J. & L.C. railroad office in Morrisville and re-hung inside the depot. Fritz Voight was commissioned to make a replica of the sign which now hangs above the door on the south side of the station in its original location. The beautiful wood paneling covering the walls and ceiling of the ticket office and waiting room remains intact and still retains its original beauty.
For the the current status of the DTSC, visit the Planning Committee Meeting section on the Town of Danville website.
Patty Conly is the Executive Director of the Danville Historical Society. Part 2 of “The Day of the Depot” will be published in the May edition of The North Star Monthly.