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depot / station

depot. A railway station; a building for the accommodation and protection of railway passengers or freight. — Webster, 1882

station. A resting-place on a railway, at which a halt is made to receive or let down passengers or goods. It is unfortunate that, in the United States, the stopping-place on railways first received the name of depot—a gross misapplication of the term, since it means simply a storehouse or magazine. In England, the name has always been station or station-house, and there is now a growing tendency to adopt this in the United States, as the only proper word. — Webster, 1882

“And I think the story should begin at the depot. (We always called it Depot.)” – Laura Ingalls Wilder to Rose Wilder Lane, 1937.

The De Smet Depot, built in 1880. This photo was taken after renovations were made in 1896.

In March 1880, Revered Horace Woodworth, his wife, and four of their eleven children left Illinois, bound for Dakota Territory and Woodworth’s homestead near De Smet. Just fourteen years old, son Jim had spent less than a year as an office boy for the Chicago & North Western Railroad, now he was being sent to be the depot agent at the new town of De Smet. Although Jim would run the depot and telegraph, his father’s name appeared on the books as the official agent. Later in life, Jim would admit that he was far too young to have taken on such an assignment, yet it was one he held until March 1883, and by all accounts, Jim did an excellent job. Jim Woodworth left De Smet and moved to St. Paul to be the chief clerk at the general agent’s office of the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railroad. James Grant Woodworth went on to be Vice President of the Northern Pacific Railroad. In 1919, “Jimmie” wrote to his old friend, Charles Dawley (husband of Laura’s former teacher, Florence Garland):

Dear Charley: In the course of a recent inspection trip we covered the old Dakota Central Line and it made me feel like an old man when I found so few men on the railroad who were there in 1880, and according to the report there have been many changes at De Smet. / When we stopped at D.S. I thot they had made a mistake because I expected to find the depot in the old place on the north side of the track nor was I prepared for the other complete changes in the general appearance of the town, the only familiar things to me being the Fairview hill west of the station and the dry lake east of the station. / According to all reports you are about the only living survivor of that period, and I was sorry that I could not see you. Until I made this recent trip I had never been in that part of the country since I left it in 1883, and while I have never regretted the change I have been sorry that I could not keep up my acquaintance with the men in De Smet who were kind to me in those days when they were really entitled to a full weight station agent. / As you know, I was Vice-President of the Northern Pacific when the Government took control of the railroads. I came down here in January, 1918, expecting to remain only a few weeks, but the date of my return to St. Paul now seems very uncertain. / I would like to see you if you ever come to Chicago, and if I can do anything for you at any time I hope you will not hesitate to call on me. Very truly yours, J.G. Woodworth.

The Woodworths had arrived shortly before the first train reached De Smet. Until an empty boxcar was left to serve as the first depot — with a packing crate as the loading platform — Jim ran the telegraph key “on the ground.” The new depot was in the process of being built at the time, and its design was not at the whim of the carpenters in De Smet. The C&NW Railroad had standard sets of plans for railroad buildings such as the coaling station, section houses (what Laura Ingalls Wilder called the Surveyors’ House), water tower, ash pit, platform, and depot. On Tuesday, May 11th, 1880, at 3 o’clock p.m., the Dakota Central Railway reached De Smet. The Daily Press and Dakotaian in Yankton reported on May 20, 1880: “A depot is being built at De Smet. The Dakota Central now carries freight through to De Smet. De Smet will have the longest side track on the line. Good water, good wells and plenty of them at De Smet.”


Sunday June 23, 2019, at one o’clock in the morning, I happened to be browsing on ebay and spotted an over-sized black and white photograph for sale. It was titled “De Smet South Dakota Railroad Station, c. 1900.” I immediately paid the $28.50 buy-it-now price.

On the back of the photo was written, “from Beaumont Newhall,” and my first thought was that there was a connection to the Newhall family who had lived in De Smet during the Little House years. A little research revealed that Beaumont Newhall (1908-1985) was photography historian and curator of the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, beginning his work there in 1945. In 1969, under Newhall’s direction, the museum purchased a large portion of the collection of Zelda Mackay (1893-1985), a San Francisco collector who frequently corresponded with Newhall.

Zelda Onita Powell was born in Alameda County, California, on March 1, 1893, to Chester E. Powell (1859—1930) and Candace A. Herrick (1856—1936). The Powells were from Vermont but moved from a claim in Lake County, Dakota Territory to Oakland, California, around 1884, after their first-born child died at age 2. Chester Powell had filed on a homestead in Lake County (just south of Kingsbury County) in 1882, relinquishing it in 1884. He also filed on a tree claim, which he converted to cash in 1884, and then sold.

Zelda Powell attended the University of California, Berkeley, receiving a teaching certificate in 1917. She taught French at at Heraldsburg High School and also taught in the Oakland public schools. Zelda married Ralph Stuart Mackay (1889—1914) on June 24, 1922. The couple moved to San Francisco, where they had one child, Ralph, Jr. (1924—1994). Zelda left teaching and began collecting old photographs in 1930, writing in her collection journals that she just sort of “drifted into collecting.” She went to hobby shows and thrift stores to look for old photos to buy, and she gave many talks to civic groups and other collectors about her photos.

Beaumont Newhall’s revised The History of Photography (1947) included some of Mackay’s photos. Mackay sold part of her collection to the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, including all of her her stereoviews (773 in number). These became the Zelda Mackay Collection of Stereographic Views, online HERE. Some of the Zelda MacKay Collection of Daguerreian Era Photography in California (which include 109 rare images of California gold rush and western photographs) is online HERE. The remainder of Mackay’s collection was sold to the George Eastman Museum for $5,246. It arrived there in August 1968, and the 1,179 photos, medals, correspondences, postcards, and Mackay’sjournals were accessioned in 1969.

The roughly 6 x 8 inch tintype of the De Smet depot was one of the items acquired from the Mackay collection; my photo is a print copy made by the museum and sent to someone by Beaumont Newhall. The person who listed and sold the print to me on ebay had no record of where it came from. At the time I purchased the photo, the Eastman Museum’s online information about the tintype [the location was corrected after I contacted them, but they did not change the date] read:

Unidentified American tintype, Railroad station at Desmet, Idaho ca. 1885. Image 6 x 8 1/8 inches (15.2 x 20.6 cm whole plate). Item was purchased. 1969.0207.0022 Inscribed on verso of plate: DeSmet (Mich) / Manchester 1 mile. Inscribed on verso of board: #785. Inscribed on verso of board: Desmet was a rural community in one of western or midwestern states (Utah or Idaho) known as the location of an industrial school for girls.

Zelda Mackay kept notebooks filled with details of over eight hundred photos she acquired between 1930 and 1972. Her notes for her “Entry 785” (the De Smet tintype) are:

Fine 7×9 tintype of R.R. Station at Desmet (in one of Western or Midwestern States, possibly Idaho or Utah.) Large station with sign lumber outhouse and smaller sign “1 mile to Manchester.”

Zelda Mackay died in 1985. It remains a mystery how a tintype of an early Dakota Territory depot ended up in California. Because she failed to correctly identify the depot’s location in her journal, Mackay must not have bought the tintype because of her family’s connection to Dakota Territory. There were a number of early De Smet residents whose family members ended up in California who may have once owned it, however, including some familiar Little House surnames: Bradley, Fuller, Dorchester, Harthorn, Ely, and Wright. No newspaper mention of photographs taken of the 1880 depot have yet been found, so for now, the trail of the De Smet tintype remains a mystery. The names of the five men in the photo are unknown, but I have a few guesses based on my research.

CAPTURING A MOMENT IN TIME. 1880 DE SMET DEPOT PHOTOGRAPHED FOLLOWING 1896 RENOVATIONS. The tintype shows the original 1880 depot plus renovations made in 1896. Five men stand on the platform, and a ladder leans against the block signal. On April 24, 1896, the Kingsbury County Independent, published in De Smet, reported: The railway company have completed their repairs at the station and it now looks like new. The new water tank is east of the station, and the old one has been torn down. The station itself has been lowered, set on new underpinning and newly sided. The platform has been taken up from the north side and a new one laid on the south. The partition in the waiting room has been moved so as to give more room in the office, and a baggage room has been built on the west with a window and door opening into the office. These and other changes will make it more convenient for the agent to do business. A small grove of trees has been set out across the track on the south side of the station. The station will now be in first-class shape.

For many years, the photo at right (actually a xerox of a manipulated image) has been on display in the agent’s bay window at the Depot Museum in De Smet, and the image is described as “what the first De Smet depot looked like,” according to people in the area. I have a copy of a photograph of the first depot at Lake Preston, and the De Smet depot was said to be similar to that one as well. The image on display is actually pieced from a 1974 photo of the depot in Rolette, North Dakota, built in 1905. That photo appears in H. Roger Grant’s Living in the Depot (published 1993), page 77. The center section of the Rolette photo (upstairs single window and downstairs window and door) was copied from the right-hand side and added in to show the location of added door and window. Note that the Eastman photo has two chimneys, but the De Smet birds-eye view only has one. This is because the tintype was made after the 1896 improvements.

The De Smet Depot tintype is online as part of the George Eastman Museum collection HERE. Today is February 7, 2020, and I predict that pretty much every Laura Ingalls Wilder publication from this date forward will include a copy of the De Smet Depot tintype. You’re welcome.

Although there were many sets of depot plans on record – from simple to elaborate – those built in Dakota Territory in the early years were often a combination depot, a single building having freight room and living quarters under one roof. They were often variations on two main designs, called simply the Number One and the Number Two. Both were a building 60 feet or more in length, with one story freight room at one end, with the office and waiting room(s) beneath a four or five room apartment for the station agent and his family. A central bay with windows on three sides afforded a view up and down the tracks without having to leave the building. My drawings of the two main building plans are below:

You can see a sketch of the north-facing facade of the original De Smet depot in the 1883 bird’s eye view. The south-facing facade is shown in the 1896 photo above. According to early De Smet records, the depot living quarters were around 20 x 32 feet, meaning that the freight room and the office / waiting room below were each similar in size. Stairs to the living quarters were located in the office. One set of representative plans (redrawn by me from the original plans) are shown above. I have found no existing photographs of the interior of the first De Smet depot other than near the bay winow in the office, so it’s possible that the layout varied from the arrangement shown. In the plans I saw, there was only a partial wall separating the kitchen from an adjoining space, which I have designated as the dining room. Plan Number 1 differs only in that the overall square footage is less, and the stairs have a turn in them; they arrive between the kitchen and living room on a smaller, open landing.

In Little Town on the Prairie, we see the depot through Laura’s eyes, when she and Mary Power attend Ben Woodworth’s birthday party (see Chapter 20, “The Birthday Party”). The girls enter at the waiting room, then they pass through it (and the office) to get to the stairs.

At the top of the stairs was a little hall (enclosed landing). The girls would have gone through the living room to Mrs. Woodworth’s bedroom, where they took off their wraps. Unless the rest of the guests arrived while Mary and Laura were primping, the text suggests an arrangement by which the girls can access the bedroom from the landing, then pass into the living room (swap the living room and adjacent bedroom locations).

According to a De Smet newspaper (January 1883), Jim was still in the habit of shocking visitors long after Ben’s party: Highly interesting experiments in electro-magnetism are conducted by Prof. James Woodworth, at the depot. They are most deeply interesting to the experimentee. The look of pained astonishment which he assumes is only equaled by the gentleman who discovers that some guileful plebeian in whom he confided has worked on him a twenty cent piece for a quarter. Jim Woodworth went on to become Vice President of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

The De Smet depot burned to the ground in April 1905, due to a lit match causing the oil-soaked platform boards to burst into flame. Almost immediately, an empty boxcar was again brought in to serve as a temporary depot, and a new depot — the one still standing in De Smet today — was built in 1906. The original two-story depot was replaced with a smaller, one-story depot. The De Smet depot was used until 1969, when it was closed by railroad officials. The building was purchased by S. Neal Meyer and donated to the city in 1984, to be used as the city museum. It is the Depot Museum today (shown below), and although it’s not housed in the building Laura knew when living in De Smet, she and Almanzo would have seen it when they visited in the 1930s, and Ma and her sisters knew it well.


depot (SSL 1, 3-4; TLW 8-9, 11, 15-16, 18, 31; LTP 10, 20; THGY 16-17; PG)
     depot agent (LTP 9, PG), see also Woodworth, Jim
     station (THGY 14; PG)