Attention all you railroad buffs, and history buffs in general! This next piece is especially for you! Cheney’s railroad history is fascinating, and has an architectural masterpiece as its symbol, the Cheney Depot.
Cheney’s railroad history, and, quite literally, the depot itself, are kept alive today due to a group of devoted citizens, the Cheney Depot Society. Not only did the Cheney Depot Society help save the depot from complete destruction, they succeeded in the engineering feat of moving the depot to its rightful place in Cheney’s historical district. While these accomplishments are staggering, the society has more work to do, hence, project SOS, Save Our Station.
I had the immense pleasure to speak with Susan Beeman, Cheney Depot Society’s Secretary to the Board of the Directors. Susan’s knowledge of the Cheney Depot’s history is expansive to say the least. I left the conversation feeling I had completed a graduate level course in history, economics, and engineering.
Perhaps it’s best to start at the beginning. In the early 1800s, a Boston railroad tycoon by the name of Benjamin Pierce plotted the land in Cheney for the Northern Pacific railroad. Setters were attracted by the promise of a railway line, among other attractions like plentiful water and timber.
According to Wikipedia, in 1880 the railroad was graded through the town, and in 1883 the town was incorporated with the streets laid out in the shape of a triangle with base parallel to the tracks. The railroad tracks were not in a true east-west line, however, so the original town is askew with map. The newer part of Cheney was built more to the compass.
In the 1880s, the original depot was built in the traditional two-story wooden style of old depots. By the 1920s, the depot had become so dilapidated that the mayor Cheney, Clarence Martin and the Commercial Club began to lobby for a new depot. They were successful. In 1929 a new depot was constructed.
With the mayor’s input and the trending art deco movement, the depot was designed with the Spanish mission style: stucco, red tile roof, and a new sleek design. The mayor’s goal was to convey Cheney as modern and cutting edge. It was a statement that Cheney was open for business.
What resulted was a magnificent work of architecture that the railroad and Cheney community could take pride in.To this day, the Cheney Depot is only one of two depots built in this style.
Between the 1920s and 1960s the railroad in Cheney with its beautiful depot led to growth of the small town with a strong connection between the university and the community. Train travel was ideal for students to travel to Eastern Washington University. Students could literally walk to the college from the depot. Passenger service continued until 1971. The threat had begun years before, when the development of Interstate 90 bypassed the town of Cheney creating great economic hardship.
Given its rich history and artistic status, imagine the devastation to hear the news in 2014 of a plan to demolish the Cheney Depot. The depot had been deemed “surplus” by the BNSF Railway. Countless community members felt compelled to save this living artifact, so rich to the heritage of Cheney.
Passionate citizens approached city council with their intentions to do whatever possible to save the Cheney Depot. One outspoken citizen, Bonnie Eckles, merits credit for her brave demands to city council. “You can’t let them demo our depot!”
Thus, a movement began to not only protect the depot, but revitalize the historic district and strengthen the Cheney community. Determined citizens organized a non-profit organization called the Cheney Depot Society and launched the Save Our Station (SOS) project. The plan was to not only save the station, but move the entire structure to Cheney’s historic downtown district.
The first order of business was convincing the BNSF to give the Cheney Depot Society time to develop their plan and prove they had the capacity to complete it before the deadline for the depot’s demolition. This required active persuasion. Beeman credits Charlie Mutschler, who worked with library archives at the university, for reaching out to the railroad. He employed just the right diplomacy to convince the company that the Cheney Depot Society could make their goals happen without impeding the railroad’s operations. This resulted in allowing several years for the society to outline their plan.
Obviously, moving a structure that is 120 feet long and 26 feet wide would be an immense undertaking, requiring tremendous financial resources. Luckily, the generosity of good people was on their side.
As news of SOS and its paramount mission spread, benefactors contributed to the project. These supporters were current and former Cheney residents who loved history and cared deeply for the Cheney community.
Perhaps the greatest benefactor was Dr. Peter O. Hansen, who, sadly, passed away last March. Dr. Hansen didn’t even live in Cheney during his adult life. His medical practice was in Alaska. His roots, however, were in Cheney. The Hansen family owned the general store in Cheney. Dr. Hansen loved history and he had fond memories of riding the train to and from the University of Washington while he was pursuing his medical training.
When Dr. Hansen learned of the Save Our Station project in a newspaper, he felt compelled to support it. He made a matching donation of up to $500,000. Upon his passing, the Hansen family agreed to stand behind the offer. In fact, Dr. Hansen’s widow, Carolee, committed to increase the original offer by $200,000. The Cheney Depot Society’s appreciation for this support is immeasurable.
One anonymous donor contributed $10,000 to honor the memory of those who originally built the structure. Over 250 individual donors as well as foundation grants have contributed enough to prove to BNSF that indeed the society would be able to achieve its goal. Notably, the BNSF Foundation added its own contribution of $10,000 to support the project.
The original plan was to cut the building into three separate pieces, move it piece by piece, then reassemble it. This plan was not ideal. The society needed a plan that would maintain the integrity of the architecture with its original woodwork and high ceilings.
Construction consultant Bell Davis created a plan that could move the whole depot in one piece, causing less damage and preserving the building’s integrity. This included intricate calculations of the building’s weight, determining a route for moving the load, and collaborating with the railroad to prevent conflicts with their rail traffic schedule.
What followed was an unfathomable engineering feat involving hydraulic jacks, 40 foot long steel I beams, and dollies. Then, of course, the challenge of balancing such an immense load that had to travel up and down inclines. Maybe the trickiest task was rotating the building 180 degrees in tight confines to create a more inviting space with an open air shaded waiting area.
Beeman describes this as an “amazing undertaking” and she has “tremendous admiration” for the work of Bell David and everyone else who contributed their talents to the endeavor.
After six weeks of preparation to move the depot the day had come. Rail traffic was stopped, the state highway was closed, and people lined the streets to watch this miracle. On June 20, 2020 the Cheney Depot found its forever home.
Despite this accomplishment, the goals of the Cheney Depot Society are in no way complete. Save Our Station is in the last stages of fundraising for creating their vision. These goals include creating “community gathering place, a rail-themed visitor destination, as well as permanent and rotating displays to make local and regional history accessible to the public” Remaining space will be available for a commercial tenant.
Countless volunteers, including Eastern Washington students and sports teams have contributed work from marketing design to painting. Beeman provided name after name of members who were involved and are still involved. She speaks especially highly of the Cheney Depot Society board members who she describes as “respectful and harmonious” in working towards the project’s goals. Notably is Board President Tom Trulove, retired Dean of Economics and five-time Cheney mayor. Previous Board President, Charlie Mutschler, who was able to persuade the railroad of their plan passed away in 2019. A donation of $20,000 was made to Save Our Station in his memory.
The project is in the latest stage of its fundraising to realize the vision for Cheney Depot. The society welcomes your input and support. To quote the society: Email us at, email@example.com if you have an idea to discuss with us.
See below for a list of the society’s accomplishments which is copied from the Save Our Society promotional flyer. I also highly recommend the Cheneydepot.com website for more information and a video that will take you on a walk down memory lane. Beeman says it best. “Buildings tell a story. Buildings allow us to imagine earlier times in history when there was a slower pace of life. You can imagine gentlemen in coats and hats and women in long dresses. When history stories are told, you don’t need fiction.”
Accomplishments to date: • Once under threat of demolition, the Depot has been successfully relocated from BNSF property to a new site near the heart of downtown Cheney. • The Depot’s new home overlooks the BNSF rail yard, making it a prime location for train-watching and train photography, and is adjacent to Cheney’s central business district. • Exterior repairs have been completed, including repair of the Spanish tile roof and the ‘scratch coat’ of exterior stucco. • Original windows are being rehabbed and will be installed later in the project. • The Depot has been listed on the Cheney Register of Historic Places! • The total cost of $1.1 million has been funded by donations from the local community and a series of grants, including a significant Washington Heritage Capital Projects Grant.