Navigation Menu+

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.

In March 1880, Revered Horace Woodworth, his wife, and four of their eleven children left Illinois, bound for Dakota.

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 in De Smet. Although Jim would run the depot, 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 a job, yet it was one he held until March 1883, and by all accounts, Jim did a good job. After leaving De Smet, Jim Woodworth went to St. Paul to be the chief clerk at the general agent’s office of the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha Railroad.

The Woodworths arrived only shortly before the first train reached De Smet. An empty boxcar served as the first depot, with a packing crate as the platform. The new depot was in the process of being built, 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.

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:

The photo is of the first depot at Lake Preston; the only difference in the original De Smet depot was the reversal of a door and window facing the tracks in the waiting room to the west. You can see a sketch of the original De Smet depot in the 1883 bird’s eye view.

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, 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 board to burst into flame. Almost immediately, an empty boxcar was 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, and although it’s not the building Laura knew when living in De Smet, she and Almanzo would have seen it when they visited in the 1930s, 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), see also hay, ash withe
     depot agent (LTP 9, PG), see also Woodworth, Jim
     station (THGY 14; PG)