Talk about a Rough History...

Cambria has seen
its share of angst.

The Christiansburg Railroad Station (better known as the Cambria Depot) has never had it particularly easy. Sure, it has great lines, nice eaves, a slender tower, but for quite a few years she looked like she was bound for the scrap heap. Certainly the demolition order on the front door suggested that her days were numbered. As Earl Palmer said when Jim and Helen Dorsett first bought the depot, "as goes the station, so goes Cambria." The history of the town of Cambria and the history of the Depot can not be separated in part because one has always followed the other.

The original depot was built by the Virginia in 1857, at the encouragement of Jeremiah Kyle on land sold by the Montagues. The Kyles and the Montagues, who owned the original Merrimac Mines, saw the railroad as an economic necessity. Originally is was slated to pass through the middle of Christiansburg, literally, but the town fathers took exception at the placement of the station and the track and were concerned about the impact the railroad would have on the town and on the virtue of the young ladies of the town. So they built the station on the other side of Zion Hill

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In her heyday (1870 to 1940), Cambria was a booming place. The place to be. The center of the known universe. If you came to Montgomery County in 1908, the chances are you got off at the new depot and spent your first night at the Cambria Hotel, right across the tracks.

In 1913, the Sanford Map Company created a map of Cambria and Christiansburg. Many of the buildings from that time are gone, although you can still see the Cambria Depot (Cambria Toy Station and Dorsett Publications), the Lee Merchantile (Cambria Emporium), Palmer's Store, the Altamont Hospital (Tech Express), and the Dew Drop Inn (Embroidery Etcetera). .

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By 1920, the Town of Cambria was booming. The Phoenix Furniture Company, managed by Henry Tallent, was cranking at chairs and desks and bedsteads. Two flour mills, a saw mill, and an ice factory brought industrial jobs, and more than 50 commercial businesses gave folks plenty of places to spend their hard earned money.The Depot was in its element. In 1906, the railroad built a new passenger station up the track because they needed more freight and office space to accommodate all of the goods being shipped into and out of Montgomery and Floyd Counties. Life was good. (Click on the image to the right to see the depot in 1920).

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For another another 40 years, the Cambria Depot served as the primary shipping point and entry point for the two counties. Every mail order house, every new car, every Sears Wishbook Christmas order came through the Depot. She also saw soldiers leave and return, alive and dead, for four wars (Spanish American, WWI, WWII, and Korea). In 1930, Montgomery County considered moving the county courthouse from Christiansburg to Cambria. Perhaps if they had, Route 11 would have followed Crab Creek, paralleling the track, rather than Plum Creek and the history of Cambria would have been far different. (click on picture to the left to see the Depot in the 1930s).

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The construction of Route 11/460 and the shift to truck transport rather than rail signaled the end of Cambria's dominance.

As goes the depot, so goes Cambria. In 1964, with water and sewer systems failing, Earl Palmer, the mayor at the time, and the town council decided to give up town status and agreed to be annexed by Christiansburg in swap for new infrastructure and sidewalks throughout the town. One happened, the other didn't.

The depot was decommissioned by the railroad in 1960. Normally when depots are put out to pasture, they are either razed, burned, or dismantled. Generally the first two rather than the last. Fortunately for Cambria, Cash Lumber bought the building to use as a warehouse. From Cash Lumber, it passed to an outfit selling Davis paints, and then to Mitchell Sales. While the front half housed the Better Signs (now up Cambria Street), the freight house was used to store fertilizer. As far as anyone could remember, the old girl hadn't been painted since the railroad took its leave, so her shabbiness increased each year. By 1981, her siding was bare wood, the roof was more rust than metal, and a good portion of the windows were lost memory.

The story varies based on whose account you hear, but an engineer was taking four "pusher" engines back to Radford late on December 31st. Some say he stopped at Cambria for a cup of coffee or to use the facilities or to see his girl friend...as I said, the story varies based on the telling and the listener. Thirty one years have passed, so it is unlikely anyone actually knows the real story.

He got off the train at Cambria and forgot to set the breaks and bleed the air. Perhaps he didn't expect to be gone or maybe he thought the rail yard was flat. It looks flat until you watch a train go by and realize that it takes some extra power to get it over the Continental Divide a quarter mile down the track. There was a boxcar sitting at the stub out of a siding at the rear street side corner of the building (the depot used to extend all the way to the loading platform). As the engineer was in the other station, his four engines decided to head to Radford without him. Fortunately for all, except the depot, involved, the engines went down the siding instead, built up some speed, hit the boxcar, and sent it into the back corner of the Cambria Depot.

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The resulting crash razed the back 30 feet of the depot, knocked the remaining freight house 18 inches out of plumb, shattered the foundation, broke many of the remaining windows (those that were not already broken), and pushed the back end 12 inches off of the foundation. While the Mitchells, the owners at the time of the accident, tried to stabilize the building, within a year a demolition order appeared on the front door.

Enter Helen Dorsett. Helen, a miniaturist and an architectural historian, loved Italianate architecture. The daughter of a signal maintainer in Kansas, she also loved old railroad buildings. For the year after the depot was hit, she would drive by, look at the building, and then go home and complain that "someone should do something." Jim, tired of hearing her wistfully refer to the old place as a gem, told her to do something or stop talking about it. She tracked down Mac Mitchell and bought it on an unsecured note, and then went home and told Jim. They spent two years and far more money than the building would ever likely be worth rebuilding the Depot. With the help of a contractor named Don Loop and any friends and family they could rook into the project, they started rebuilding from the ground up. The story of the reconstruction is a whole different tale and will have to wait for another time, but in 1985, the Cambria (Christiansburg) Station went into the National Register.

In the intervening years, Cambria, itself, entered the National Register as a historic district in 1991. Most of the major buildings in the district have been rehabilitated over the past thirty years, but as anyone who owns an old building knows, restoration is an ongoing process. The Emporium is underwent a second round of restoration in 2009 and is currently being redeveloped as both an antiques mall and a craftsmen's mall. Blue Ridge Heating and Air has added a new shop as well, expanding the eclectic shopping choices in Cambria. As each building is restored, new stores crop up and add to the flavor of the district.

The Cambria Oral History Project
An Open Invitation

The "Letters" section is something of a misnomer. We are collecting stories about Cambria, about the depot, and about life in the center of the known universe (keeping in mind that the definition of universe in this context is somewhat relative). If you would like to submit a Cambria story to the collection, email Historic Cambria and we will add your material to the online collection.

Darcey Rogers,  October 2008 Plantation, Florida

My name is Darcey Rogers, and I currently live in Plantation, FL.  During the winter of 1966, I was a student at Virginia Tech (We called it VPI then) and a Junior in the Corp of Cadets (“O” Squadron).  I have a story to tell about an experience involving the old Cambria Train Station.  During one very cold January week that year a fellow cadet and I decided to “hitchhike” to Virginia Beach over the weekend and return in his car that he planned to pickup at his parents’ home. 

We set out late that Friday afternoon on foot and found several rides up to Appomattox, Va.  We should have paid more attention to the weather forecast for that weekend.  Our last ride dropped us off at an open gas station in Appomattox.  It was now dark out with the temperature falling quickly and snow starting to come down very hard.  That meant no cars on the road and no rides for us.  We didn’t know what to do.  I do remember that the gas station was open only because the owner couldn’t get home in the snow and was stuck there…it was that bad already.  He let us know that the N&W train station was only a short distance away, and that the train from Cincinnati (the Powhattan Arrow) to Norfolk would pass through about 9pm.  He knew because it came by the gas station every night…but it never stopped!

We walked to the station through the snow anyhow.  There was no one at the station and only a hand-marked chalk board on the back wall indicated that the train would pass through at 9pm.  I still remember that time (or was it 10pm?).  The gas station owner was correct and the train was not scheduled to stop.  We were freezing and had nowhere to go, and had to try something.  In our youthful ignorance we decided to try and “flag down the train”.  No Kidding!  At about 9pm we stepped down beside the tracks, and with one of us on each side, waited.  If I remember correctly, we didn’t wait long.  A good thing too, considering how cold it was getting.  By then it was most likely in the mid 20’s, and we didn’t have all that much on to keep warm.

We saw the train light and heard the whistle.  I lit my Zippo lighter and my friend waived a white handkerchief.  We both were jumping up and down as the train flew past going (what seems like now) about 60/70 MPH.  I do remember the train Engineer looking down through his window, right at me, as he passed.  Just about as fast, we head the train put on its breaks and start coming to a halt well past the station.  That wonderful Engineer stopped the train and proceeded to back it up into the station.  We got up on the platform and the conductor opened a door to let us on.  We both paid what cash we had to the conductor and he gave us a ride to Norfolk.  My friend called his father, who picked us up.

If nothing else that would have been a great story, but there is more and it next involves the station in Cambria.  We had the bad luck of setting out on the weekend of the “Great Blizzard of ‘66”.  At least that’s what we called it.  Now we were stuck in Va. Beach, because the weather reports that Saturday said all the roads in the Virginia piedmont area and west were closed.  So we weren’t going to be taking his car back after all. We had classes Monday morning, and had to do something.  So we took the train back.  I remember my friend’s dad purchased a ticket for us both. 

We stopped at the Richmond, VA, station.  I’m not sure, but I believe we changed trains there as well.  I do remember we picked up quite a few Tech students in Richmond, along with girls returning to Radford College.  It’s been too long for me to remember exactly how many students were on the train, but it seems like it must have been about 20 to 30. It was here at the Richmond station that we also found out that Va. Tech had canceled all classes on Monday, the next day.  We could have stayed in Va. Beach another day…but we didn’t know.

That Friday night and the following Saturday it had snowed several feet in the area around Blacksburg and Radford.  I seemed to remember someone saying 42” of show fell that weekend, but that could be in error.  Still, it was a LOT!  It was also very cold in Cambria when the train dropped us all off at the Station there.  All 20 to 30 of us piled into that small wooden structure on one of the coldest Sunday nights I can ever remember.  It was still open and there was an attendant there. We were all glad, because the temperature that night dropped down into the low teens, with several feet of snow covering all the roads in sight.  The Radford girls had planned to pick up a train in Cambria and take it over to Radford, but that ride was “snowed in” somewhere up North in New England.  So they were stuck there as well.

Now that station was, and still isn’t, very big.  I recall we did our best to rest that night.  Some slept between Coke machines to stay a bit more warm. All the benches and practically all the floor space was used to sleep on.  It was packed!  Still…we had a great time together.  We all shared what we could to stay warm and to make the best of it.  I’ll never forget that night in Cambria.  Sometime Monday morning a “rotory snowplow”, with a number of Taxi’s from Blacksburg following behind, got to the station. We all had a ride back to campus.  What a weekend it had been, and we still had to go back to Va. Beach to get my friend’s car some other time.

I wish I had taken my camera that weekend.  I took a number of pictures around the Tech campus that Monday. No classes!  There were “big bumps” in the snow around the area where I figured the Drill Field should be.  Those bumps were cars buried in snow, where the owners had left them that previous Friday night.  In some places snow had drifted up to the second story windows against dorms located on the Upper Quad.  All in all, it was quite a trip.  

Editor's Note: We'll add more stories on the oral history pages as they trickle in. To contribute to the collection, please email Historic Cambria.

 

The Christiansburg Depot is one of the only two known surviving railroad structures erected during the Reconstruction period in southwest Virginia. the building is significant not only because it is one of the oldest depots in the state of Virginia, but also because it embodies the elements of high style Victorian Tuscan Italianate architecture made popular by the pattern books of the period. Few stations of its size remain which are as imposing. The board and batten, Italianate structure with its central tower, overhanging eaves, and deep bracketed frieze is a prominent commercial landmark in the region as well as being the most impressive structure in the community of Cambria. (Quoted from National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form, 1985)

Historic Preservation...Why Bother?

The following is taken from a letter written by James Dorsett in 1986; clarification added and comments by Meghan H. Dorsett, 2009. For more information on the restoration, read Jim Dorsett's Journal in the History section of this site.

September, 1986

To some degree, the restoration of the Christiansburg Depot provides a practicum on historic preservation in an era when public monies (federal and state) are no longer available for such philanthropies and by individuals whose personal financial circumstances are such that they can derive no benefit from the shelters (even though as in this case the restoration has qualified for such treatment by the NPS and IRS).

To return to your question of "Why?" I teeter between the extremes of bragging and being self-effacing...neither of which we desire. I guess that we restored the Cambria Depot because it ought to have been done. It was simply the last of its breed. The Town of Christiansburg had ordered it razed as a safety hazard, which it certainly was: leaning 15 degrees out of plumb over the street and supported by little more than inertia and the stubborn integrity of its basic structure of timbers and beams. Much of the vocal, local sentiment (which we heard repeated to the point of exasperation during the period when the initial structural work was begin done, voiced by countless strangers) was that the building hulk ought to be torn down in favor of what they really needed, a parking lot. My stock rejoinder was that I would be happy to do so as soon as they, returning from their most recent vacation...or any vacation...could show me all the photos of parking lots they had taken:

"Isn't the Grand Canyon lovely in the late afternoon with the deepening shadows playing over the varied colored rocks?"
"I don't know...but let me show you the really neat photos we took of the really great parking lot on the South Rim!" etc.

As the work progressed, I think we began to question the certainty of our own motives. WE had raised the war chest for the structural work by mortgaging about everything of substance that we owned up to the hilt: house, car, collectibles. We were betting that we could restore the basic structure within the strictures of that budget. Therefore, much of the work that could be done by us (interior restoration) was done by my wife, my daughter, and myself (estimated 1200 hours of work).

Daily you monitor the rapidly shrinking budget and gauge the work yet to be accomplished by contractors, conscious of the fact that there is no acceptable "half-way" point where you can pause and regroup with some slim chance of survival. You review every decision and search for yet another way that the work can be done at a lower cost without compromising the integrity of the job. For instance, instead of replacing window sashes in which pockets of dry rot had affected one part of a framing piece, we borrowed a technique from a local sign painter who seals the edges of exterior plywood signs with Bondo...i.e., resin auto body patch. Chiseling out the pockets of rot as a dentist might repair a tooth, we filled the cavities in the remaining good wood with successive layers of Bondo...thus achieving the dual goals of restoration and solvency!) But after months of contending with successively revealed and unanticipated horrors (i.e., regardless of how carefully you study the project before hand and budget accordingly, you really haven't the foggiest notion of what the job really entails until you remove the first stick of wood. Then you know..and on successive days you begin each day by revising yet again the work orders and the budget.), you start to lose sight of your goals under the welter of small decisions in the on-going process. You begin to lose sight of the "Why?" of the whole thing. You go home every night and bathe away the accumulation of 100 year old soot with Lava...and the sharp edges of your original "Why?" are no longer as crisp as they once had been. You see no end in view and begin to question the fit of madness that launched you in the first place.

I guess we had gotten to that point late one afternoon as we were swabbing down the blackened interior of the track-side waiting room with Sal-Soda (trisodium-phosphate) in 1984 when a young guy, maybe 24 or so, came through the door with a young daughter on his shoulder. He was a real string-bean of a kid and the girl was maybe 4 or so. He ducked down under the door opening into the room and began his inquiry with the same line we had learned to expect from the parade of doubters who value parking lots above all: "Are you the people who are doing this?" (That was usually followed by the suggestion that "we certainly must have a lot of money to waste.") I thought to myself, "Don't say it! You're too young to be so jaundiced.") Then he continued, "I don't want to bother you but we would really like to take a look around. I told my daughter that I would show her what a depot really looked like." After he left, we returned to the job of swabbing down the walls but with a sharpened sense of the "Why?' of the thing. Perhaps a hundred years from now, when Jim and Helen Dorsett have been pushing daisies longer than memory will serve to recall their names, a young guy with a kid on his shoulder will duck through the door and look around because "this is what a depot really looked like." And that's the "Why?" of it that no photo, no written description, no recording of fading memories will serve. That's why it was important to try to save a rotting, leaning old hulk that had become an embarrassment and a danger.

There is a Spanish proverb which, roughly translated, says: "Let us be crazy...but not stupid." We have from the outset tried to be the one without being the other. Without public monies to augment the effort, The Depot is, of necessity, a commercial building which must pay its own way...even though it is in the Virginia Register and the National Register....In the foreseeable future, it will remain a commercial building...of necessity. Any further work (paint?) will have to be covered by the income it generates (unless some philanthropic pocket can be picked...aside from our own).

June, 2009

A week ago, while rehabbing the floor and working on the trim paint in the front entry, an older man and his grand daughter stopped by because he "promised to show her what a depot really looked like." While entering through the front entry was out of the question, I walked back to the freight house, opened one of the sliding freight doors, and invited them in to look around. The flood on May 15th, left us with some significant water damage to the front floors, and a good portion of the stuff housed in the front of the building had been shifted to the freight house, so the place was chaos embodied. On the street side of the freight room, the freight scale still stands as testament to the history of the building. It is a counterweight scale and has round 1000 and 2000 pound discs that function in much the same way as the scales at a doctor's office. The grand daughter took an inordinate amount of pleasure in picking up the equivalent of 5000 pounds, a feat she was certain even her oldest cousin couldn't claim. While she sat at our "board room conference table," (an old work bench converted to other uses) and looked at the large beams that run the length of the building, she asked "what did they do here?" For the next half an hour, I told stories I had heard from Bill Harmon (the last station master) years before about Sears Mail-Order Houses and Christmas gifts, china and factory pressed dining room chairs, produce and livestock, new cars and farm implements, and soldiers and coffins arriving and leaving through Cambria. For almost 100 years, from 1868 to 1960, nearly everything that came to Montgomery and Floyd Counties, whether Christiansburg, Riner, or Floyd, Yellow Sulphur Springs or Blacksburg, came through Cambria and through the Cambria/Christiansburg Freight Station. In that 100 year span, the depot saw the deployment of soldiers to four wars (Spanish American, World War I, World War II, and Korea) and saw the coffins return. From 1868 until 1907 , the Cambria/Christiansburg depot functioned as both the freight station and the passenger station, and as such was the point of entry for the immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, who came to Montgomery County because of the mines. Indeed, one can not talk about the development of both Montgomery and Floyd Counties without talking about the depot.

Twenty-six years after the first "why?", we are still answering the question with the same phrase..."because somebody ought to." Not only is the building worth saving, but so too is the legacy. The history of the depot is not the history of great acts. It is, in many respects, the embodiment of what Historian J.D. Furnace would have called "the history of the mundane, of the hearth...domestic history." It is, as noted above, the history of Sears mail orders from an early wishbook, of families traveling and returning, meeting loved ones, kissing loved ones goodbye. Not, per se, the history studied in school or printed in text books. It is, instead, a central thread woven in the local fabric. In 1913, Sanborn released a map of Christiansburg and Cambria. Depot Street started at Courthouse Square and wound around Zion Hill to Cambria, crossed the tracks and headed up hill to Yellow Sulphur Springs. The road running to the east passed the 1907/08 depot before circling the east side of Zion Hill and joining with Rock Road (now know as Roanoke Street). Wagons coming from Floyd came north on Franklin Street, crossed Courthouse Square, and continued around Zion Hill to reach the only shipping point for the entire County. Wagons from Riner came north up Five Points Road/ Main to Courthouse Square, turned left and followed the same route as those from Floyd. All shipping came through Cambria. A comparison of the two towns indicates that Cambria was the industrial center of Montgomery County, not surprising given the railroad. Cambria, like Lafayette, declined with changes in transportation and shipping modes and new routes that bypassed old patterns. The construction of Route 11, which followed Rock Road into Christiansburg from the east, joined with Main Street, and then wandered west towards Radford, and the coming of the truck signaled the decline of Cambria. The collection of china shops, jewelers, hardware stores, and general stores disappeared. Rather than remaining central to the County, Cambria became anonymous. When we bought the depot in 1983, very little of the Cambria Business District was left, destroyed by fire and neglect. Indeed, Cambria was no longer its own town, having been annexed by Christiansburg ten years earlier. This is the history worth saving. This is also the answer to "Why?" Do we want our history marked by a graceful old depot or by non-descript boxes distinguished only by the signage above the front entrance?

We are still dealing with the challenges presented by the depot and by the surroundings. Since 1983, the roadbed and the railbed have risen between 18 and 24 inches, so stormwater has become a constant threat. After surveying the damage from the flood on May 15th and mopping up the aftermath, we are now to the point of having to deal with the depot's surroundings. Now, as then, repeating the ruminations of my father, I sat at the kitchen table this morning, feeling a bit like Sisyphus, and played with a budget, trying to figure out how we were going to retrench the drainage way on the trackside of the building and construct berms and rain-gardens around the building. While the flood damage to the depot was not nearly as extensive as it was across the street at the Cambria Emporium, it effectively closed down our businesses for over a month. When it reopens in July to parents bringing children to see "what a real depot looked like," the Cambria Toy Station (the toy store established to support the longterm maintenance of the building and pay the land rental fee to the NSCorp--a fee that climbed from $680 dollars per year to $6000 last fall) will have relocated to the street-side waiting room and the workshop for Dorsett Publication and the museum and miniatures will reopen on the track-side. Perhaps by the end of the summer, we will have the berms and rain gardens built, replacing the front parking area with a small park and shifting parking to the street side of the depot. Even after 141 years, the depot is still a work in progress.

What will become of the depot and Cambria in the long run depends on a number of factors, not the least of which is for the broader community and for the Town of Christiansburg, to begin to look at historic areas and answer "Why?" with "because we ought to."

 

 

 


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Historic Cambria Depot
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Last Updated: 3 December, 2015