Gone but not forgotten: Oak Ridge residents Don Cathcart and Melva Baker restore historic train depot

Monday, April 3, 2017
Original passenger and freight depot of the Cape Girardeau & Chester Railroad in Oak Ridge, built in 1905.
Submitted photo

Although the conductor's cry, "All Aboard!" is only a memory and travelers cannot be found at the ticket window, life at the former train depot in Oak Ridge is far from over. The historic depot, built in 1905, has taken on new life as the home of Don Cathcart and Melva Baker.

The ticket window, where passengers could buy tickets without going inside, is part of Cathcart and Baker's living room.

"When I was helping tear out the inside walls around the ticket window I just knew I would find a ticket somewhere, or at least a piece of a ticket -- but no luck," Baker says.

Cathcart and Baker gutted the building down to the bare brick. The interior of the original depot consisted of brick walls, a brick fireplace and beadboard ceilings. The walls are 22 inches thick, including the exterior limestone blocks and two layers of brick inside, making it very solid and nearly soundproof. When the 8-foot ceiling was removed, they discovered transom windows above the doors.

Two upstairs bedrooms, the stairway and another bedroom on the west end of the building had been added by a previous owner. Cathcart and Baker added a bathroom to the upstairs area and completely rewired the building. Their living room and dining room occupy the space of the original depot.

Oak Ridge depot as it looks today. Revitalized by Don Cathcart and Melva Baker.
Submitted photo

Most depots along the Cape Girardeau & Chester Railroad were attractive with limestone exteriors; the Oak Ridge depot was no exception. All nine original limestone columns supporting the building remain in place. The soil around the building contains numerous pieces of gray limestone, indicating that the stones were brought to the site, then cut and shaped as needed. The ceilings of the outside overhang were painted green, and the wood window frames were red, giving it a distinctive look.

Stations on the Cape Girardeau & Chester Railroad line were located in the following Missouri towns: Cape Girardeau, Jackson, Fruitland, Pocahontas, Oak Ridge, Daisy, Friedheim, Biehle, Hilderbrand and West Chester.

Two sets of tracks were laid for some distance near the Oak Ridge depot. Four trains used the track each day. There was a freight train up from Cape Girardeau and a passenger train down each morning and a freight train down and a passenger train up each afternoon.

In 1908, a motor car made regular trips between Cape Girardeau and Oak Ridge. It made four round trips each day between Cape and Jackson and one round trip to Oak Ridge. The motor car only ran for a few years.

A path west of the depot where the train tracks were located heads toward Daisy, the location of the next station. Visitors can still see the path through an avenue of trees near the Cathcart-Baker property.

Cutline-Body Copy:The ticket window on the east side of the Oak Ridge depot as it looks today.
Cutline-File Credit:Submitted photo

Residents of the surrounding area herded livestock to the closest train station for transportation to market, and passengers found the train faster than horse and buggy.

The train was not only vital for commerce and travel, but also a means of entertainment. People of the town came to the station daily just to watch the trains come in.

At the time of the railroad's presence, Oak Ridge was a bustling town. It had been incorporated in 1869 and named for the wooded ridge between the watersheds of Apple Creek to the north and Whitewater River to the southwest. Businesses such as hotels, dry goods stores, taverns, a furniture store, a post office, a dance hall, a mill, a canning factory, blacksmiths and a telephone company all were thriving, in part, due to the railroad. Oak Ridge even had its own newspaper. The Oak Ridge High School, established in 1874, was a vital part of the community, located one block north of the depot.

The Cape Girardeau & Chester Railroad line, later renamed Cape Girardeau Northern, was owned and built by Louis Houck -- attorney, author, historian, civic leader and entrepreneur. Houck and his wife, Mary, owned thousands of acres of land in Southeast Missouri. He played a key role in developing the Cape Girardeau Normal School, which later became Southeast Missouri State University.

Houck is probably best known for his work with the railroads. By building 500 miles of railroads in Southeast Missouri, Houck opened the area to modernization and industrialization. His railroads were criticized as being of low-budget construction and unsafe. It was very common for the train to jump the track and passengers called upon to aid in getting the cars back on the track.

Cape Girardeau Northern Railroad train similar to the one used by The Cape Girardeau & Chester Railroad from 1905-1928.
Submitted photo

The depot in Oak Ridge was in operation from 1905 until around 1928. After Louis Houck died in 1925 the railroad was sold. Better roads and the accessibility of the automobile influenced the demise of the small-town stations.

The end of the railroad eventually brought on a decline in the population and commerce of Oak Ridge, along with numerous other towns. Today only a handful of businesses are found in the town of 243 residents. The Oak Ridge R-6 School, which includes a preschool, elementary school, middle school and high school is now the town's most important asset.

Cathcart and Baker are passionate about preserving the history of the depot. A railroad crossing sign in their front yard lets visitors know they are entering railroad territory. Baker says she loves her little depot/house and some days, if the wind is just right, she's pretty sure she can hear the train whistle. Visitors have come to see the revitalized depot from several different states, and the couple says they are always welcome.

Mary Koeberl Rechenberg is a freelance writer who graduated from Oak Ridge High School and taught in the elementary grades for 30 years. She resides near Pocahontas, Missouri. Visit her at marykoeberlrechenbergwriter.com.

Motor car used by The Cape Girardeau & Chester Railroad making trips to Oak Ridge beginning in 1908.
Submitted photo
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