Hampstead project to transform train station is steaming along

Despite fund shortage, group says museum opening is on track

January 02, 2001|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

On his first visit to Hampstead Town Hall nine years ago, Wayne Thomas was so impressed with the train station depicted on the town logo that he went in search of the building.

Less than a block from Main Street, Thomas found a water-logged, rotting shell of a building with its doors kicked in, its windows broken and its dilapidated roof harboring a population of pigeons.

"How could they let the town symbol deteriorate to that level?" Thomas asked. "The building has a lot of history with the town."

A town councilman since 1993, Thomas became determined to restore the 89-year-old building into a municipal museum.

He has spearheaded a communitywide effort to save and renovate the station, built in 1912 and once the hub of Hampstead and its surrounding farms.

Thomas and a crew of volunteers are working toward an August completion of the $50,000 project.

Thomas acknowledges that renovating the 1,500-square-foot station has consumed his life for nearly three years.

It took years of negotiating to persuade CSX Corp. to sell the town the station and its quarter-acre lot for $7,000. Thomas then formed the Hampstead Train Station Committee, which secured a 10-year, low-interest loan and bought the property from the town.

"This was a group of private citizens who were highly motivated and clearly committed to this project," said Ken Decker, town manager. "The town had to focus on core infrastructure, and we thought that a committee that wanted ownership of just one building would have an easier time of it."

Passenger trains from Baltimore stopped in Hampstead for years, including one that carried President Herbert Hoover waving to the crowds from the caboose.

The last passengers stopped in town New Year's Eve 1941, but freight trains continued to use the depot until 1979.

Trains still pass by at 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. daily, whistling instead of stopping.

"The station was the heart of the town," said Joan Prall, who is compiling railroad archives for the museum. "All things were shipped through here, anything from groceries to marble for the stonecutter."

She has combed through stacks of railroad artifacts stored in the basement of Town Hall, hoping to create a museum exhibit. The items reflect the heyday of railroading.

"I remember coming here with my father to pick up seed corn," said Stuart Leister, a longtime farmer and volunteer. "There were no trucks. You came to the station for everything. We should preserve this place. Its architecture is different from anything we have today."

For years, the station bustled with people and freight. Women traveled from Baltimore to a millinery store on Main Street, whose owners were known for their designer hats. Railroad ties that took freight cars to the nearby grain mill are visible from the depot. The trains supplied country stores and the farms - with seeds and baby chicks that arrived in primitive incubators.

When restoration work on the train station began, volunteers found water damage so extensive that they had to replace most of the roof, flooring and foundation.

"There were no termites here. They would have drowned," Thomas said.

He tried to save the slate roof, but could salvage only five pieces. Crews have rebuilt the roof and replaced rafters in the exposed ceiling.

With help from one volunteer experienced in wood restoration, the group has saved most of the dozen original window frames.

Labor has not been a problem. Raising money to keep the project going has become the most time-consuming task, Thomas said.

"The stipulation is that we would be done most of the work within three years and would have $50,000 in funds, materials and time," he said. "We have had a lot of donations of time and services, but money is a big issue."

A $3,500 grant from Preservation Maryland helped pay for materials to restore the exterior to its old-style gray wainscoting with red trim - the same color combination used on the town logo.

"We did the north end of the building, closest to Main Street to show people what it will look like and to try and keep donations up," he said.

The cold has caused delays for the volunteers, who usually work weekends. The Thanksgiving holiday - when they often get in three days of labor - was bone-chilling. But Thomas is sticking to his deadline: a late-summer opening for the museum.

To realize the benefits of restoration, Hampstead has as an example Sykesville, a town that renovated its train station 12 years ago. The building houses a restaurant and anchors the downtown.

"It has become the centerpiece, our calling card," said Sykesville Mayor Jonathan S. Herman. "Trains are often why there are towns, and they are part of the history of so many towns. The stations should be a source of pride."

The buildings can also be a source of revenue. In Sykesville, the town owns the building and leases it to Baldwin's Station restaurant.

It earns rent and a percentage of the profits, averaging about $15,000 annually.

"These projects can be an uphill battle that really scares people off," said Matthew H. Candland, town manager.

"But, we have found wonderful benefits to others on Main Street and encouragement to other investors," he said.

Matt Anderson, archivist for the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, said train memorabilia could be a boon to tourism.

"There is interest in these buildings not just from the community but from fans of railroading and its history," Anderson said. "The depot was often the focal point of the town, where people socialized and conducted business. It was where you departed from and where you came home to."

Thomas does not have to be convinced of the value of his efforts.

"If you had seen what it was like when we started and how far we have gotten, you would know we are on the downside of this effort now," he said. "But I still need all the volunteers and donations I can get."

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