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 Texas : Features : Columns : All Things Historical

The Tyler Depot
A National Historic Landmark
Tyler, Texas

by Bob Bowman

Bob Bowman
When the first steam locomotive made its way into East Texas more than a century and a quarter ago, it changed the economy and future of the region in ways that were never imagined.

Today, however, many of the old railroad depots that became community landmarks have vanished--the fallout of a new wave of progress brought about by automobiles and highways.

Some of the depots that characterized the monumental changes in East Texas are still standing, but rotting away in fields, where they were moved to allow for new buildings in town.

Some towns, however, have kept their depots as reminders of the era when everyone used the railroad.

One such depot stands at Tyler, where it is now revered as a National Historic Landmark.
Tyler, Texas depot
Depot in Tyler

TE Photo, May 2002
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Located in a downtown area known simply as ďThe Levee,Ē the depot was built in 1905 to serve the Texas & St. Louis Railway -- later known as the Cotton Belt - which had arrived in the city 25 years earlier.

With a population of less than 2,500, Tyler soon became a railway hub and Smith County moved from a largely agricultural economy to one with the transportation links to send its raw materials to markets all over the country. Peaches, strawberries, potatoes, plums and tomatoes went to distant markets like St. Louis, Denver, Omaha and Milwaukee.

The Cotton Belt not only established in Tyler a roundhouse and machine shops, but located its executive offices here, as well as a hospital known for its efforts to wipe out smallpox, malaria and typhoid fever.

Tyler businessmen also saw growth from the Cotton Belt. Railroaders found rooms at the old St. Charles Hotel and Sam MarDock, Tylerís first Chinese businessman, opened a restaurant that served as the unofficial eating place for Cotton Belt hands.

By 1924, the railroad provided nearly 1,300 jobs, generated a payroll of nearly $2 million, and paid almost $40,000 in local taxes for Tyler.

But with the arrival of the Great Depression, the railroad -- like most other businesses and institutions -- fell on hard times. And as roads and automobiles improved in the forties, trucking took away much of the Cotton Beltís customers. Travelers stopped using railroad passenger cars.

In 1956, the last passenger train arrived in Tyler and the railroad depot was used for storage and offices until it was boarded up and abandoned in 1987.


But Tylerís love for all things historical soon embraced the old depot and, with a gift of the building to the city by the Cotton Belt, Tyler purchased the land on which the depot rested and began a revitalization effort funded by a half-cent sales tax, the generosity of the Vaughn Foundation, and federal grants.

The restoration was completed in four phases and a year ago the depot returned to life as the headquarters of the cityís public transportation services.

And on June 4, a city-wide celebration unveiled a plaque that establishes the depot as a National Historic Landmark.

Since its restoration, the depot has become a landmark for Tyler and attracts railroad enthusiasts and others almost every day. The depot also houses an exhibit of rail-related memorabilia, much of it linked to Tylerís early years when the steam locomotive was king.

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All Things Historical - October 31, 2005 Column
Published with permission
(Distributed by the East Texas Historical Association. Bob Bowman, of Lufkin, is a past president of the Association and the author of more than 30 books about East Texas.)

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