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Restored depot brings back memories for railroad retirees

MARSHALL (AP) - Seventy years ago, Luther Weber followed the call that woke him each morning and lulled him to sleep each night - the sound of a steam engine chugging through this far East Texas town.

The Texas and Pacific Railroad Co. was promising a college education for young men who labored in the massive shops where the great locomotives were built and repaired.

At age 16, Weber was eager for quick money and a little adventure.

"That fall the stock market crashed," Weber said. "I never got away from the railroad."

And the railroad has never been far from the 87-year-old's heart. He retired as a mechanical supervisor after 46 years in what he calls a "rough and tumble occupation."

"It was always said that the railroad made this town," he said.

Weber's father, Gus Weber, also was a supervisor who came to Marshall to run the shops in 1914. He retired after 47 years.

The shops are gone - destroyed by fire in 1971 - but the thousands they employed and the railroad's overwhelming influence on Marshall are remembered in a museum that opens Saturday in the renovated passenger depot.

The $1.4 million restoration project has been a community goal since the building was boarded up in 1981, said Audrey Kariel, mayor of the city of about 25,000 residents.

Although Amtrak has continued passenger service through Marshall, the Missouri Pacific railroad, which bought T&P, considered the depot a liability and ordered it moved or destroyed.

Moving the three-story red brick structure, built in 1911 in a split between the tracks, was impossible. Kariel said hope was lost until Union Pacific took over Missouri Pacific in 1988.

Community support, and the urging of independent broadcaster and Marshall native Bill Moyers, persuaded railroad officials to grant the city a long-term lease.

"It was a natural progression to keep the depot and tell the story of what the depot meant to the city," Kariel said.

Years of money-raising followed. The restoration finally received money from the federal Intermodal Surface Transportation Enhancement Act, major foundations and the contributions of citizens and school children.

That kind of local support first drew the railroad to Marshall in 1872.

Harrison County residents voted 1,866 to 25 to lure the railroad with a $300,000 bond issue, an unprecedented tax burden that almost bankrupted the county.

In exchange, T&P made Marshall the eastern terminal on its transcontinental route and moved its main shops to town.

The bond issue was so controversial, it led to a gun battle between the editor of the local newspaper and State Rep. W. S. Coleman, who wanted to end the county's obligations to the railroad. Coleman died in the fight.

The railroad shops employed about one-third of the town's population, at one time making a payroll of $1.8 million for 1,117 employees.

The railroad was the center of the town's economy and among the first area companies to hire blacks, some of whom were former slaves.

Along with the railroad came other services to Marshall - a hospital for railroad employees, hotels, paved streets and electric power.

But fewer than 100 people worked in the railroad's shops and yards when the fire struck in 1971. Texas and Pacific had moved its operations to Fort Worth, passenger service had waned and cotton no longer filled the freight cars.

The shops never recovered and many longtime employees, like Weber, soon retired.

Many of the railroad families are expected to return to the yards for a 10:30 a.m. ceremony rededicating the depot. Speakers include U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and U.S. Rep. Max Sandlin, D-Marshall, who led efforts to secure Amtrak's passenger service through Texas.

The depot and an Amtrak train also will be open for tours.

Weber's wife of 60 years, Leona, said the restored depot symbolizes more than the work of those who toiled for the T&P.

"It brings back an era of hard work and dedication, families and togetherness," she said.

Abilene Reporter-News
Susan Parrott