THE HISTORIC RURAL RETREAT DEPOT
Event Center and Museum

HISTORY

The depot at Rural Retreat was built in the 1850's by the Virginia&Tennessee Railroad and the town grew up around it.  SCROLL DOWN FOR MORE HISTORY. The V&TRR was important to the South during the Civil War, so in 1864 troops under Union General Averell burned it along with trestles and other depots all along the line.  It was rebuilt in 1867-68 with a unique Italianate architecture, as were its sister depots in Cambria and Abingdon.  Today, the Rural Retreat Depot is one of only three remaining Virginia&Tennessee depots of similar design.
The V&TRR went bankrupt by 1870, and was bought by the new Norfolk&Western RR in 1880.  N&W operated the depot as a combined station (passenger and freight) until the mid-1900's at which time it was sold to a company that used it as a warehouse.
 
After watching the depot slowly decline over the years, the concerned citizens of Rural Retreat formed the Rural Retreat Depot Foundationtm in 2011, with the mission to acquire, restore and manage the depot to preserve the culture of the region.  The Foundation raised the $90,000 purchase price in one year, and secured a long term lease for the land.  The Foundation is focused on external restoration while it continues to gather citizen inputs on the usage of the interior of the depot. 
The image gallery below shows pictures of the depot taken in 1949 as well as its current state.  As work progresses on the depot new photos will chronicle the restoration.  If you wish to help us in this effort please visit 
The Battery Room to make a donation. To view the pictures in larger format just double-click on one of the images.
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History of the Rural Retreat Depot with an Architectural Focus

From the Cambria Depot’s Application for National Historic Registry:

The station (Cambria) is typical of the intermediate grade of depot erected by the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad and other companies controlled by Mahone in the immediate postwar period. Few survive, having fallen victim to fiscal and modernization policies in the railroad industry. The station at Rural Retreat, a stop on the same line to the south, is the only other depot built by the Virginia & Tennessee known to survive. It is very similar in detail, incorporating nearly identical decorative features and fenestration patterns, but has two squat hipped roof towers, and is considerably different, and smaller, in plan and elevation. Two other very similar stations survive, at Windsor and Ivor on the Norfolk & Western line. The nearly identical buildings were built by the Norfolk & Petersburg Railroad in 1866, one of the Mahone group. While smaller and without towers, they and the now vanished Suffolk station which had a tower, share with the Christiansburg depot similar but not identical stylistic features. These include board and batten siding, modillioned cornice and a shallow hipped roof, as well as the same configuration of a pair of waiting rooms and an office grouped in a main block, with a freight wing extending from the rear along the track.

All of these depots share sources with larger prototypical stations designed in what was known as "the railroad style", the Italianate. These include the New Haven station by Henry Austin of 1848-49, which was equipped with towers, and a station design in Henry Holly's Country Seats of 1865, the first American pattern book to include a railroad depot among its plates. Holly stated that the Italian style was "appropriate for stations in rural settings where they set a good example and result in improving the taste of the community." In addition, the style was easily adapted to a variety of building types and materials and was inexpensive and efficient to construct and maintain.

Towers were features early associated with depots, where they were often employed to house a bell and a clock to signal train arrivals and departures.[More about Towers below]. The tower at Christiansburg also suggests domestic villa designs' of the Italian 'style as promulgated by Andrew Jackson Downing and others in the 1840's and 1850's, as does the use of board and batten siding, which later became a trademark of minor railroad architecture. In the second half of the nineteenth century railroad architecture in both Europe and the United States was characterized by the use of standardized plans for buildings and building components, and in many cases the identity of a company could be recognized by its stations just as in the case of the color of its  locomotives and cars.  

 

NOTE:  The Rural Retreat Depot Towers were 2-story in the early 1900’s, but were shortened to their current height.  The following are opinions on why this was done:

Ken Miller via the Norfolk and Western Historical Society (NWHS):

The towers were originally for observation of an operator of trains passing.  With improvements in signaling, and removal of operators every so many miles, there was no need for a higher tower, and it cost maintenance to keep them up, so many were removed, that probably began sometime in the 1900-1910 time frame.

N&W drawing Y-2534 Plan of Proposed Extension of Rural Retreat Depot, dated March 12, 1902, added a 33 foot extension to the freight room and extended the waiting room on the east end with a 15x15 extension. I think this was work was completed in 1902.

I believe the plan was completed, as there is an additional drawing done on it in orange pencil for adding the toilets under VPA 2932, and I believe that might have been done in 1948, completed late in the year or in early 1949. I think the toilets were added as the available city or town water was improved in various locations, to make things better for passengers. I believe that Wytheville was also modernized about the same time. In the case of Rural Retreat, the Y2534 drawing shows a line running to a septic tank, under the track and back west about 60 feet or so.

Harry Bundy, also via the NWHS:

Probably, it's more evident in the Rural Retreat photo -- in the early 1900's, railroads often furnished the agent with a residence and the 2nd story may be it. 

The Interstate Commerce Commission made an inventory at Rural Retreat on Feb. 8, 1917.  The Inventory of furniture shows only cuspidors, typewriters,  office chairs (4), a safe, and other items, but nothing about residential house furniture, so apparently it was NOT the residence of the agent.  The tower is shown as 15.5' X 15.5' X 32' X 36'

It's identified as a TYPE  W-102 (with tower).

Inventory made at Wakefield, VA on March 7, 1917 identifies the station as Type W-102 and the cupola as 7.4' X 7.4' X 9'A      Harry  Bundy

Danial Fisher, via NWHS:

Two other stations that originally had second story towers were Wytheville and Christiansburg (Cambria). The designs were apparently fairly similar; the major difference being that the Wytheville station was built of brick and Christiansburg of timber. Both stations were built in the early 1870s (Webmaster note:  other sources claim the Rural Retreat Depot was rebuilt about 1868, just after Cambria and before Abingdon). The towers were located at one end and centered along the length of the building, not offset like at Rural Retreat. The contract for the Wytheville station references the tower room several times, but gives no indication to its use. It is only referred to as the “Tower Room” or “Room in the Tower”. Access to the tower room was by means of a staircase from the Ticket Office, so it was not part of the public portion of the station. The walls were plastered and wainscoted in the same manner as the waiting rooms and ticket office. The tower at Wytheville was removed when the passenger end of the station was expanded in 1905.  

The tower room may have served to give the station agent a view of the tracks. However, the roof arrangement at Christiansburg (and presumably Wytheville) hinders this theory. The back wall of the tower room doesn’t have enough free area to fit a full height window and still clear the roof. It is possible that a small “porthole” window could have been installed, but that would not have matched the rest of the architecture and doesn’t seem likely.

I’ll mention that I have found no drawings or photographs of the 1873 Wytheville station. However, the construction contract describes the building very well. Sanborn Fire Insurance maps from the period show the footprint to be the same as Christiansburg. I suspect that the Wytheville station was originally intended by the AM&O to be a copy of the Christiansburg station. Town officials insisted on a brick station, which is what got built. A set of architectural drawings were produced; I have been unable to locate a copy.

Bruce in Blacksburg:

The Christiansburg station is still standing in Cambria and it still has its tower. It was a passenger and freight station until the "new" passenger station (which also still stands) opened on September 3, 1906. The "Farmville" type station served both the N&W and the Virginia Anthracite Coal & Railway Co. (the "Huckleberry" later bought by the N&W to become the Blacksburg Branch). The original station then became exclusively the freight station serving Christiansburg and the surrounding area. From past discussions with Jim Dorsett, the space in the tower was an office for the freight agent. The station was "shortened" (after it went out of service to the N&W) in 1981 when a box car on the Hucklebery track (runs behind the passenger station) was run into the end of the wooden station by a set of wayward helper engines. Rather than repair the damage, part of the building was demolished and a new end installed. The station was obtained by Jim and Helen Dorsett (both now deceased), publishers of The Scale Cabinetmaker, and renovated and restored, staying off a demolition order that had been posted for the building. They ran their publishing business out of the front of the station and eventually converted the rear portion of the freight room into living quarters. Their daughter now lives there and operates the Cambria Toy Station in the building.

Photos of the station couldn't be found in a search of the VT archives or the N&W Historical Society archives. But there are several photos in a history of the station found at http://www.historiccambria.com/History.htm Clicking through other pages on that site results in more details and photos. There is also an explanation of why the back wall of the tower is the way it is. When the new passenger station was opened and this station became freight-only,  "The freight section was cut away from the passenger section and raised 25 inches, creating the existing short gable on the west end of the freight room. A problem with rot under the front section (waiting rooms) was solved by cutting 14 inches off the entire bottom of the passenger rooms."

This section was last updated on Jan 27, 2013

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