With the approaching fiftieth anniversary of Shiloh Museum in 2018, various members of our museum staff have been renovating the exhibit hall. In February 2015 we unveiled a new exhibit which takes a fresh look at the pioneer era. In process now is a section covering Northwest Arkansas history between the years 1860 and 1920. Museum educators Judy Costello, Carly Squyres, and Aaron Loehndorf are working with exhibits manager Curtis Morris to plan and build this exhibit space. As collections manager, I work on each exhibit project supplying artifacts to show in the exhibits.
In 1881 the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway Company (SLSF), also known as the Frisco, built rail lines into Northwest Arkansas and opened up shipping for timber and agricultural products as well as passenger service. So a main element of our exhibit will be a reproduction train depot. In the discussion on the depot and its furnishings, Judy, Curtis, Aaron, and Carly have been looking at historic images of depots. Thanks to our photo archivist, Marie Demeroukas, we have a whole folder of scanned images of historic local railroad depots. They are wonderful images—of exteriors. We have only one image of a depot interior—the 1923 Springdale depot.
We really wanted to find out about the look of depot interiors in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the time period portrayed in the exhibit. We all did our share of Googling images but still there were few images of interiors that met our specifications.
During this design process it occurred to me that, as big as the Frisco system was, surely they had standardized depot plans that were adjusted to fit the needs and size of communities they were built in. And surely these plans must be archived somewhere.
Well, when you search the internet the right combination of search words can make all the difference. One day I finally gave up on the search for images of “depot interiors” and put in a search for “St. Louis and San Francisco depot floor plans,” hit the enter key and boom, up popped the very thing. There on a page from Missouri State University was exactly what we needed. I copied the link and sent it to the exhibit team. I heard back from them within minutes as they expressed their delight at getting to read through the digitized floor plans.
The depots for the Frisco line through Northwest Arkansas are filed in the Central Division, item one on the list of nine divisions. The nine items are digitized versions of booklets produced by the Frisco’s Office of Architect, St. Louis, Missouri. Most of the Central Division drawings were made in July and August 1915; a few were added a couple years later. They describe depots built between the 1880s and early 1900s, mostly of frame construction with platforms of cinder or cinder and chats (chert). One exception is the 1912 Rogers depot, which was built of brick on a concrete foundation with a concrete platform. In the 1920s Frisco built brick depots in Fayetteville and Springdale and those drawings are included in the booklet.
Listed by town name, each blueprint gives a footprint of the depot, date of construction, and building materials. It is interesting to see how depot construction was repeated or modified. For instance, Elkins, Dutton, and St. Paul share the same design save for dimensions of various rooms. Some of the depots have second story living quarters for the depot agent and his family. This was true for the depots along the Frisco line in West Fork, Brentwood, Winslow, and Schaberg.
The drawings also delineate the use of space within the depots, showing freight rooms, office areas, and waiting rooms. In so doing they also bear witness to social history of the time. Created in the era of Jim Crow laws, the blueprints describe the “separate but equal” accommodations provided by the Frisco for African-Americans travelers.
Social history, building history, and railroad history are just some of reasons to explore this incredible digital archive at Missouri State University.
Carolyn Reno is the collections manager/assistant director at the Shiloh Museum.