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When Joanne Absher was a little girl, there was a lot more life in this tiny village on the southern tip of Nelson County. Then a bustling hub for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, now known as CSX, more than two dozen tracks stretched all the way from the depot building across Gladstone Road from her current house to the banks of the James River.
Her father was the yardmaster, and she spent many an hour in and around the depot and the three shifts of workers who kept it humming around the clock.
When she “got to worrying my daddy too much,” Absher says, he’d put her on the yard engine, the locomotive that moved cars between tracks, and let her ride up and down the yard.
After decades of rail decline — passenger service ended around 1970 and the railyard was taken out of service about 15 years later — Absher says she rode on the yard engine’s final day: Memorial Day 1986.
“It was a beautiful little town,” she said. “Every house had a family in it.”
Now, there might be more dogs than people roaming Gladstone. And the depot, built in 1889 by the Richmond and Alleghany Railroad shortly before it was taken over by the Chesapeake and Ohio, may be headed for demolition.
Absher and others working to save the depot say CSX has reneged on an agreement that would keep it standing and allow it to be used for a senior and community center. State and county officials have also thrown their support behind Absher’s group, Friends of Gladstone Depot, thus far to no avail.
“It’s just going to break my heart,” said Absher, 59. “I can’t believe a company as big as CSX would let their history be destroyed.”
CSX would not make company officials available for interviews. But in a statement, the Jacksonville, Florida-headquartered railroad giant said it has been working with the county for more than a year and more recently with the Friends of Gladstone Depot group on requests to preserve the building.
“Throughout the course of those discussions, inspections of the property and structures revealed serious health and safety hazards that needed to be addressed before any transfer in ownership or relocation could occur,” CSX said.
“CSX has communicated these issues to the Friends and worked to identify a path forward. Unfortunately, an agreement could not be reached. The safety of our employees and members of the community is our top priority, and that is why CSX must move forward on plans to demolish the hazardous buildings on the property.”
Building ‘a rare survivor’
The depot has been boarded up for at least 20 years, according to a report by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, which called it a “rare and unique surviving example” of the railroad style developed in the late 19th century.
The depot is likely the “last remaining structure of any kind” built by the Richmond and Alleghany Railroad, which operated between Richmond and Clifton Forge before its acquisition, the department says.
“This building is a rare survivor on this rail line,” said Julie Langan, DHR’s director.
Small communities like Gladstone were especially dependent on rail service into the 1960s, and the railroad and its depots played crucial roles for such rural industries as agriculture and timber, the report says. Gladstone’s location as a midpoint between Richmond and Clifton Forge made it a key stop for fuel, water and crew changes, prompting many railroad employees, such as Absher’s father, to raise their families there.
“As small-town depots and other historic railroad-related buildings become increasingly rare across the country, those that survive should be even more highly esteemed for their roles in their respective communities and in the country’s economy,” the report says.
Langan said the depot building is eligible for placement both on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places, though those designations require property owner consent. CSX has been opposed, though in the past it has allowed depots in James City County, Newport News, Amherst County and elsewhere to be moved, according to DHR staff.
CSX was also persuaded not to demolish its depot in Dante, a struggling former coal town in Russell County. Norfolk Southern has allowed depots to be reused. In Richmond, the former Southern Railroad depot in Manchester is now a rail museum.
“We do think that given just a little more time, the pieces could be put into place that would make it possible for the building to be saved,” Langan said.
‘Safety concern for CSX’
Absher and Paul Zelinsky, vice president of the Friends of Gladstone Depot, thought they had a deal that would chart a path toward using the depot building as a new community and senior center. For years, residents had used an adjacent building — which locals call the “YMCA building,” also a CSX property that once housed rail workers on overnight stays — for a senior center and thrift store.
When CSX announced plans to demolish both the YMCA building and the depot, the company offered to donate the property to Nelson County, which passed because of liability concerns. However, county officials, including County Administrator Stephen Carter and Larry Saunders, a member of the Board of Supervisors, attempted to help broker the conveyance of the property to the Friends group.
“I love history,” Saunders said. “I just really hate to see it destroyed. ... The group has bent over backwards to work with CSX.”
In August, Damien D’Anna, CSX’s director of real estate acquisitions, wrote an email to Carter that laid out the terms.
“We appreciate the county’s efforts to work toward a win-win. If the citizens vacate the YMCA building within 30 days and the county provides a letter and photos to CSX evidencing the vacation, CSX will agree to pursue a donation of the depot and the land under the existing YMCA building to the county,” D’Anna wrote. “CSX will donate the land and depot [and absorb the cost of demolishing the entire YMCA building]. However, we cannot absorb the cost of the relocating the depot.”
By September, the Friends group had formed a nonprofit group and begun fundraising to pay for the cost of moving the depot. It wouldn’t be the first time the depot had been moved. Sometime before 1922, it was hauled on skids by mules about 400 feet to a more central location, according to the DHR report.
“I’d use mules if they would let me,” Absher said.
Then, on March 5, Absher got an email from D’Anna’s replacement at CSX, Catherine Adkins, who told her that CSX now wanted $20,000 for the YMCA building land and another $20,000 for the depot in order to “facilitate a safe ownership transfer.”
“Should you decide not to move forward on relocating the depot, we intend to demolish the depot at the same time as the YMCA building. Therefore, we will need to hear your decision by the end of March,” Adkins wrote.
Absher was stunned. The group, thinking it was raising money to move the building, has raised about $5,000 so far. But not having a title to it or legal access to the building and land has prevented more serious fundraising and applying for grants.
“That is the hardest fundraising to do,” Langan said. “Who wants to give money to something that may never happen?”
In an attempt to come to a new agreement this month that drew in the offices of Gov. Ralph Northam and Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, among other state and local officials, the Friends offered to cover the costs of asbestos remediation and construct a fence around the depot, in exchange for a five-year window in which to move the building. That was also rejected by CSX.
“We are saddened to see the Friends were not able to raise enough funds in the last eight months to facilitate the transfer of ownership and relocation of the depot. However, for safety and liability reasons, CSX must move forward on a solution in the coming weeks,” Adkins wrote.
“In line with company policies and safety guidelines, CSX cannot transfer the depot prior to abating the asbestos. The proximity of the building to the railroad tracks is a major safety concern for CSX. We cannot allow the building to remain so close to the tracks under private ownership; it’s a risk to safe railroad operations and to the public.”
That leaves the Friends in a difficult position, since the group persuaded seniors to move out of the old railroad YMCA building and into a local fire station that isn’t suited for the job, Absher said.
“It’s been a real loss to our community, and it’s an inconvenience to our fire department,” she said. “CSX could have kept their word to us. ... They misled our organization, and they misled our community. ... We just want CSX to give us more time.”
This article first appeared on www.dailyprogress.com
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