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.

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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.

 

Cambria Timeline, Railroad History, & Minor Trivia

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)


 

 

1849. The Virginia-Tennessee Railroad was first chartered.

1851 The Virginia-Tennessee Railroad chose the site for the Christiansburg Depot a mile north of courthouse square on the north side of Zion Hill. (Visit Schaeffer Memorial Baptist Church and the original Christiansburg Institute on the top of Zion Hill)

January 10, 1853. Meal services were first introduced on trains. For more information on the history of dining cars, take a look at James D. Porterfield's Dining by Rail: The History and Recipes of America's Golden Age of Railroad Cuisine. (1993. St. Martin's Press, New York, NY. ISBN 0-312-18711-4.)

1854. The Virginia-Tennessee Railroad reaches Christiansburg. (Take the Dixie Caverns Exit in I-81 and follow US 460/Rt.11 towards Christiansburg. The route parallels the Virginia-Tennessee rail line past Lafayette, founded in 1826, and through two railroad villages: Elliston and Shawsville before climbing Christiansburg Mountain. Stay on 470/Rt.11 until you reach Depot Street in Christiansburg to reach the Christiansburg Depot.)

1857. The first permanent station was built at the north end of Main Street (on the site, more or less, of the "new masonry depot built in 1906). The 1906 depot is currently being used as the "maintenance of ways" office for the district.

January 13, 1857, the same year the original Bangs depot was constructed, Thaddeus Fairbanks patented (Patent # 16381) the first railway scale/ platform scale. An example of the Fairbanks counterweight scale can be found in the freight house at the Historic Cambria Depot. Note: Bangs was the original name of Cambria.

Cambria, The Virginia Tennessee, and the Civil War ----------------->

 


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Historic Cambria Depot
Questions or comments: Cambria Historian
Last Updated: 30 January, 2013