Waco lost a piece of its past last Saturday when a 134-year-old railroad depot in East Waco went up in smoke, but downtown and city leaders still have hopes for the site's future.
Considered the oldest railroad depot in Texas, the state landmark at 101 Bridge St. had been deteriorating for decades. In recent years the city of Waco negotiated in vain to buy it from Union Pacific railroad.
"I'm just heartsick that it's gone now," said Pam Crow, executive director of Historic Waco Foundation. "That was a part of Waco's history. To my knowledge, everything was done that could be done to get that building and preserve it, but it just didn't happen."
An early-morning fire on June 10 that destroyed the two-story depot warehouse building has been ruled accidental. Waco Fire Marshal Jerry Hawk said it apparently was started by people smoking crack inside. A smaller passenger station next door did not burn, but is in ruins and is expected to be cleared.
City officials over the years had hoped to work with private developers to redevelop the site and turn the warehouse and passenger station into shops, a farmer's market or a tourist center. The city's tax increment finance district even set aside $344,000 for the purchase, but city officials said they could never close a deal with Union Pacific. The city red-tagged the property as unsafe and infeasible to repair several years ago but didn't follow through to force the railroad to demolish or repair it.
City Manager Larry Groth said the property near the foot of Waco's famed Suspension Bridge is still a prime site in the Brazos River Corridor, and he hopes it can be redeveloped with a nod to its history. Union Pacific contractors have agreed to give the old bricks to the city for use in any future redevelopment projects on the 14-acre site.
Downtown Waco Inc. executive director Margaret Mills commended Groth on his efforts to save the bricks to preserve some of the site's history. Mills said she has been talking with local investors who are interested in developing the property for a "recreational" use, though she declined to elaborate.
"It's a wonderful location, right in the middle of the urban district," she said. "It's the gateway to Elm Street. I'm confident there will be remaining interest in the property."
She said she hated to see the depot complex go, but it did present a challenge in marketing the property.
"It was placed peculiarly," she said. "Anyone who was going to develop it would have to take a bold step to destroy it or have to design around it. I thought it would have been a great tourist information center. But now that it's gone, I hope that by having that land cleared it will show better."
The depot served Waco's first railroad, called the Waco Tap Line, which Waco leaders paid to build from Waco to Bremond. There it connected to the Houston and Texas Central Railroad, which ultimately bought the line.
The railroad, combined with the Waco Suspension Bridge built two years before, helped end Waco's isolation and gave residents hope of becoming a great city.
The Galveston News reported the Sept. 18, 1872 dedication of the railroad, which drew 3,000 people to see Waco pioneer George Barnard drive the last golden spike.
"Waco is in good humor," the newspaper reported. "She extends her iron arm across the state and into the sea to clasp hands with the metropolis of the Southern empire. Her future is assured. The coming capital greets the world."
The railroad was superseded by others that passed through Waco in the 20th century, and the old depot was converted into storage by midcentury. In 1960, it earned a historical marker, which has long since been stolen.
Sterling Thompson, a Waco architect, studied the depot for his thesis at Texas A&M in 1979 and drew up plans for redeveloping it for entertainment uses. He said the building at that time was salvageable, but he has seen it deteriorate steadily since then.
"I thought it was a shame," he said of the fire. "It was such a neat old building. It's too bad no one could do anything with it."
Thompson said he hopes the city can acquire the property and redevelop it, perhaps as a library site.