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An afternoon at the Depot

Last Saturday my husband, daughter, granddaughter and I went downtown to the Depot to see the reproduction of the Lincoln funeral car and, while we were at it, the St. Louis County Historical Society exhibits and the Plein Air Duluth: Paint du Nord Festival paintings at the Duluth Art Institute.

There was a lot going on at the Depot that day. In the Great Hall, tables were being set up and decorated for a wedding (and what a beautiful place that is for a wedding!) and there were many visitors to the Historical Society exhibits, particularly the Ojibwe Gallery, as well as to the Plein Air painting exhibit.

The trains are always popular, but Saturday was about the busiest I have seen. Thomas the Tank Engine was back for another visit to Duluth. In Depot Square, children and families who had come for a "Day Out with Thomas" train ride were having a super time watching a magician, listening to cheery music, getting face paint designs and taking part in the many other activities set up for this special occasion.

We made our way through the happy crowd and over to the Lincoln funeral car and the Civil War memorabilia exhibited in cases nearby. The atmosphere in that area was quieter and the exhibit solemn and moving. Within the memorabilia collection is the fife that belonged to Albert Woolson, the last Union Army survivor of the Civil War. How young he was when he played it, I thought, and what a good, long life he led. I paid a little visit to his statue, outside the Michigan Street entrance to the Depot, before I left downtown.

I remember the Great Hall as quite a magnificent place when I was a girl. A trip on the train was not an ordinary occurrence and travelers dressed for the occasion. For our sixth-grade trip to the State Capitol and the Como Park Zoo, my friend Joanne and I discussed our traveling outfits for weeks, finally deciding on cotton shirtwaist dresses, hers pink and mine mint-green, and the most stylish of shoes for girls that year, low-cut tennies. The train trip and the hamburger-and-french-fries lunch at the (elegant, it seemed to us!) St. Paul train station was as much a part of the end-of-elementary-school celebration as the Capitol and Como Park.

The Duluth Depot closed as a train station in 1969, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 and, after much effort and work, reopened in 1973 as an arts/history/cultural center. Amtrak continued to offer train service from the Depot from 1977 to 1985.

Many old-time Duluthians like me have Depot memories that they hold dear. Here are some of mine: picking my boyfriend Tim up at the station, waiting under the canopy as the train pulled up, wishing I had worn boots because my feet were freezing on that cold concrete. Tim and I as newlyweds sitting up overnight on the way to Chicago. (A porter walked through the car with a stack of pillows to rent for 50 cents; we decided against spending the money.) A major and thrilling argument between the cook and the waiter in the dining car on our way to spend Christmas in Duluth the next year. My two-year-old and I on Amtrak on a Thanksgiving Day morning when the engine died on the way to Minneapolis and we were delayed for two hours out in the snowy countryside. (The lady in the seat behind us shared her bag of potato chips with us. Two guys waded across the deep snow of a field to Bruno, where they bought a box of sweet rolls to share.) A sunny summertime visit to Tim's family in Minneapolis with our little girls who, outfitted in adorable little peasant blouses, occasionally touched their French-braided hair in wonder that their mother was able to figure out how to do that, and also to feel if the braids stayed in place.

Last Saturday, the people who visited the Depot to see the trains, exhibits and the decorating of the Great Hall were building their own special memories. We are more than lucky to have such a place as the Depot. I appreciate the effort it has taken, by so many people, to keep this historic treasure standing and operating.

There is only one other thing I wish for, that one of these days we might see the return of fun, convenient, exciting, memory-making actual train transportation again.

I would love that. Wouldn't you?

Linda Legarde Grover

Monthly columnist Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, an award-winning writer and a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.