By Christopher Jodlowski
Approaching the hamlet of Hopewell Junction with my boys after some errands on a cold, sunny Saturday, a roadside sign caught my eye. I recalled hearing about “the Depot restoration,” but I hadn’t given it much of a thought since. This happened to be one of those rare weekends when we didn’t have a million places to be, so I suggested to my kids “hey, let’s go check it out.” My suggestion was met with a pretty tepid, if not completely skeptical response. To be fair, they’ve been worn down by historical detours their whole lives. But since my vote counts more than their two, we pulled a quick U-turn and went back to explore.
The Hudson Valley is flush with enough history to keep even the most ardent buff well occupied. It’s seldom, though, that one can find among all that history a symbol of the very start of something. Yet there, nestled away on a gravel lot, just outside the busy shopping centers of Hopewell Junction is exactly that – the very place that put the “Junction” in Hopewell. And that is the point at which we found ourselves.
The small, pale yellow building sits alone, back off of route 376, away from nearby houses and shops. It looks like any other old-timey train station you’d imagine, with its symmetrical footprint and squat, broadly overhanging roof. From the outside, everything seemed quiet. No people around and not many cars in the parking lot. The snow kept the nearby rail trail empty. But the sign on the door said “Open” so in we went.
A kind-eyed, bearded man named Mark welcomed us warmly. Standing in what used to be the main waiting room, he gave us a brief history of the Depot – that it had originally been built in 1873, it had been moved twice to better service the changing rails, and that before being restored, it had been nearly burned down. Then he lead us through a short hallway and seemingly back in time. The Hopewell Depot is laid out in a squat “H” pattern, the two ends essentially acted as “smoking” and “non-smoking” waiting rooms and the hallway between divided two offices. On one side, the Station Master’s office furnished with a period roll-top desk, and across from it a small room that multi-tasked as a communications center, freight office, and ticket window. In it, a flat-top desk displayed an array of telegraph keys and typewriters and other trade-tools of the period.
As we passed into the South Waiting Room – now a museum - Mark’s excitement grew. For the next 45 minutes, he showed and explained - partly to me, but mostly to my kids – relics of days long past. And for those 45 minutes, two boys you’d think would rather be staring at video games were completely enthralled. As Mark showed us 100 year old log books and told of the history of the area – the geography and geology and topography, even he, who’d told these stories countless times, would pause to gaze at whatever piece of history we were studying as though he was admiring it in amazement anew.
If the history of the Depot is interesting, the story of its restoration is simply remarkable. It comprises the tales of individuals, each drawn to it in different ways and for their own reasons, but all eventually becoming caretakers and storytellers in their own right.
The excitement for what the volunteers have built there comes through in the wide-eyed excitement with which each re-tells the story of how they came to get involved and how far they’ve seen the project come.
“I was walking down the bike path and as I came by here, there was all kinds of activity. I stopped to see what was going on and before I knew it, there was a hammer in my hand,” volunteer Joe Sullivan recalls.
Three years later, Joe is the President of the Hopewell Depot Restoration Corporation. Joe introduced me to other volunteers. Bernie Rudberg is their resident historian. “Bernie,” he tells me, “wrote the book on the history of the railroad in this area. Literally.” He pointed to a shelf in the corner where a book with a photo of the very building in which we’re standing on the cover, and below it “Bernard L. Rudberg.” Bernie’s wife, Celeste, along with being a member of the Depot, is also a member of the Fishkill historical society and in a few short minutes, told me more about the town I’ve lived in for the past 12 years than I’d ever heard in that entire time.
Joe continued his introductions. “We like to think of Rich as the father of the Depot,” Rich Taylor seemed like he might otherwise be a quiet man. The kind of guy who would typically stand in the background and not say much. But we were standing in the Depot, and he spoke of it the way a proud father speaks of his children.
“I was just headed to one of the shops over there to get some welding done. I saw this back here and I knew immediately that something had to be done. I had no idea how it was going to happen, but I knew it had to happen.”
The “this” in 1995 when Rich passed by was a charred shell hull of building that now stands here. In 1986, an arsonist had set fire to the building and for the next nine years, it sat alone among gravel and weeds, a forgotten relic.
The “something” at that point, was simply tarping the roof and halting the decay. Rich pulled together a steering committee that would eventually become the Hopewell Depot Restoration Corporation. Unfortunately, due to other commitments – Rich and his wife also founded Habitat for Humanity of Dutchess County – he was unable to join that committee at the time. So the newly formed Corporation got started on what, for any such group, is the hard part: organizing people and raising money. And that step took a while. Fifteen years, to be exact. For those 15 years, the folks of the Hopewell Depot Restoration Corporation struggled to make progress. But in 2010, with the building facing demolition, Rich found time to rejoin the group and the hands-on work finally began.
“The first thing we did when we came inside. . .” Rich paused to smile “. . .was shovel snow off the floor.”
In 2010, the Dutchess County Rail Trail, which now brings visitors to the Depot by bike and on foot along the same route by which they once came by train, opened just yards away. That, undoubtedly, brought more attention to the building and its restoration and work quickened. In 2011, as things were moving along nicely, the project hit a bump.
“We needed a new roof structure,” Rich recalled. “And it was going to cost $5,500. Without a roof to cap the building, all of the work inside would be at risk.” They put out the word and within days a local businessman delivered a check for the full amount.
“We then went to the East Fishkill town board and told them a replica of the Depot’s original slate tile roof would cost $10,700. After a short private discussion, they quickly agreed to give us $11,000.“ With that funding in place, they could now finish capping the structure.
“It was January 11, 2011,” he continued. “It was minus three degrees out and I came expecting that a few of us who showed up were about to have a long cold day of roofing. But 25 people showed up that day to help out.”
“Twenty five people,” he repeated in admiration.
Then, as if they can just never get enough of it, the two men paused to look around and take in just how far they’ve all come. The work isn’t over, though.
“We want to make the area around the Depot into a small park that reflects its history. We’re working with the County to build an Interlocking Tower like the one that stood across the tracks (now the rail trail) from the Depot. The new tower would include rest rooms for the public. We’re also reaching out to the railroad (The MTA currently owns the property to the west of the Depot) in the hopes we can bring in a rolling stock exhibit. Perhaps a restored caboose.” Joe explained.
Those projects, of course take the time of volunteers and the financial good will from a public that’s ever squeezed. The Depot currently runs on funds raised during an Arts and Crafts fair on the first Saturdays of each month through the summer and donations from visitors. That road will be long and they know it. But they have going for them the knowledge of just how far they’ve come.
“There’s a lot more we can do around here,” Joe said, “But we’re excited. We’re really excited.”