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The big surprise of the 1998 Smithsonian Art Train Celebration at the Healdsburg Depot is that the Depot was more interesting than the Art Train.

Click for LARGE image.     The Celebration had been in preparation for months, with arrangements for the arrival and location of antique railroad cars, the diverting and placement of the Art Train, event planning and publicity, community fundraising and support.  But the most extensive, and the most involving work concerned the depot itself.

     Originally built in 1873, the main building had been in use until the shutdown of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad in the early 1990s. Built of massive redwood beams, it had survived not only the massive 1906 earthquake--the largest recorded seismic shock on the world's largest earthquake fault---but all subsequent and lesser tremors.  The interior was a treasure-trove of old-time railroad architecture and old-time hobo graffiti: SWEDE ISBERG, 1917, one grassroots calligrapher memorialized himself.

   To meet contemporary earthquake standards, the building had to have a concrete foundation.  So, with donated financial support, the building was jacked up and a full foundation was poured.  Stairways were built with railings and adequate handicapped access.  The grounds were cleaned up, the weeds chopped, the broken glass and refuse hauled away.  During this process, the community response was amazing.  People on the way to Healdsburg Lumber would stop by, pick up a shovel or a broom and pitch in. Drivers came by with plants they were donating to brighten up the place.  The building's eaves were festooned with a string of lights.  The long-shuttered depot became once again a center of community activity.

    A number of events were held in the building, centered around the Art Train.  There was an outdoor concert, with the audience sitting on hay bales, where bluegrass bands, the Healdsburg Community Band and the Community Chorus performed.  There was a Children's Art Show, in the main building, with the freight door rolled back and daylight streaming in, that was wonderful.  Local kids had assembled "family ties", woven assemblages of personal mementos that were hung from the rafters of the freight room.  For imagination and playfulness, the show surpassed anything on the Art Train itself.

In the same room, the following night, the Fitch Mountain Players staged a performance.  It was cold out, and the room was warmed with heat lamps, but the play, an historical drama about the town, took on the authentic aura of the depot.  The following night, the depot was transformed into a teenage disco.  The adaptability of the building, the economy of its transformation, and the speed of the turnarounds, sent an unmistakable message:  this place was a potentially priceless community asset.

         All kinds of plans were rumored.  The Northwestern Pacific was going to relocate its museum to the depot.  A cafe was going to open in the adjoining ticket building.  The freight building was going to be Healdsburg's Performing Arts Center.   Then something happened.  The Art Train left, and Healdsburg's civic attention turned elsewhere.   It was said that the building had failed to meet contemporary quake safety standards, and that the drive to refurbish had fallen some $50,000 short.  But the truth seems to be that the community attention span had sadly moved on.

      So there the depot now sits, as it has for so many years, an ignored and neglected community asset.  The weeds have grown back, broken glass once again litters the parking lot and tracks, homeless people and cranksters occasionally break in, tag the walls, start fires.  Attention is elsewhere.  There are plans for a bus turnaround, for a revival of the NWP, lots of talk, but so far little action.

      Meanwhile, commercial developers are hovering.  The depot is the last site in Healdsburg offering a full vista from the river to the east to the forests in the west.  It is temptingly level and centrally located.  The thought of a mall or townhouse complex located here must make the entrepreneurial heart pound.  Sooner or later, this part of town will be redeveloped.  It is inevitable.  The question is, will it be for the benefit of a few people, and a commercial developer's short-term gain, or for the community of Healdsburg, now and for the enrichment of  life for generations of local people to come?

John van der Zee

John van der Zee lives in Healdsburg. His books include: "Agony in the Garden", "The Gate, The True Story of the Design and Construction of the Golden Gate Bridge", "Bound Over: Indentured Servitude and American Conscience", "The Imagined City: San Francisco in the Minds of its Writers", “Canyon: the story of the last rustic community in metropolitan America” and "The Greatest Men's Party on Earth -- Inside the Bohemian Grove", among others.


John was involved in the refurbishing of the Healdsburg Depot at the time of the Art Train celebration in 1998.  He researched and wrote the book WELCOME IRON STEED, about the town's railroad history, and donated his share of proceeds to the restoration of the Depot.








1907 morning at the Northwester Pacific Healdsburg depot. (below)


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