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Old depot gets back on track

 
Published Jan. 22, 1996|Updated Sept. 15, 2005

Eighteen years after the last train rumbled away from the San Antonio Railroad Depot, the tiny old station building is about to come alive again.

A restoration project, two years in the planning, is scheduled to begin next month to restore the dilapidated building to its 1940s appearance.

By the time the work is done this summer, the building on Railroad Avenue will have a fresh look, with new windows and doors and a new coat of gray paint with purple trim.

Eventually it could house a museum of the history of San Antonio and the railroad, as well as a public meeting room, said project director Eric Herrmann.

The estimated total cost of $66,000 is being covered through donations and a $15,600 grant from the state Bureau of Historic Preservation.

The effort has been a family affair for Herrmann, whose grandfather, Joseph, donated land for the project. Eric's father, Edward, helped fight an earlier battle to keep the building from being moved out of San Antonio.

Moreover, Edward bought the last regular passenger tickets sold in San Antonio, in 1972. He is a co-author of the book Historic Places of Pasco County, which lists the depot.

"One of my goals is for people who used to ride from here, when they walk up to it when it's done, they'll have almost the same feeling as when they were here," said Eric, 27.

As in most small towns _ San Antonio's population is only 776 _ the rail station was a focal point of the city's development and history.

Rail service to San Antonio began in 1888 with the Orange Belt Railway. The line ran from Sanford to St. Petersburg, and was built by Russian immigrant Peter Demens, who gave St. Petersburg its name.

The rail line was acquired in 1896 by Florida rail baron Henry Plant. Atlantic Coast Line bought it in 1902 after Plant's death.

Passenger travel was difficult in those years, according to Historic Places of Pasco County.

A historian at Saint Leo Abbey wrote that a monk returning from a journey to Hudson was "weary and fatigued. The train goes at the rate of 3 to 5 miles an hour. Few people can imagine what such traveling is unless they have experienced it themselves."

Early freight included timber to the San Antonio Lumber Co., which still exists nearby, and luggage from Saint Leo College students. Eric Herrmann has obtained old photos showing the luggage stacked along the depot's siding.

In 1926, San Antonio was renamed Lake Jovita because supplies sent to local builders, who were busy with Florida's first land boom, were ending up in San Antonio, Texas, instead of the Florida community.

The name of the town and its depot were switched back to San Antonio after five years.

The city's first rail station had been built in the 1880s about a quarter-mile west of the existing site. Saint Leo had a separate rail station one mile to the east, and by 1927, both communities were pressing Atlantic Coast Line to build them new stations. Saint Leo eventually gave up and agreed to one station on the present site to serve both towns.

The 1927 station burned in 1949 and was rebuilt with the current structure.

In 1967, Atlantic Coast Line merged with Seaboard Air Line Railroad. But freight and passengers would pass through the station for only five more years. The waning of America's rail industry resulted in such smaller lines being consolidated and shut.

Entrepreneur Robert Most next tried running a tourist attraction called the Orange Coast Line, which offered visitors a short rail excursion. It operated from 1976 to 1978, when it shut and the tracks were ripped up.

In the early 1980s, CSX Inc. came to own the defunct right of way, and tried to get rid of the depot building by selling it to the State Fair Authority for display at the state fairgrounds in Tampa.

But after the intervention of the late Mayor Malin Marsh and Edward Herrmann, the fair authority relented and gave the title to the city at no charge.

Eric Herrmann has been leading the effort to restore the building since 1993. He has collected old photographs of the depot and old freight log books from the widow of the longtime stationmaster, A. J. Swanson.

Herrmann secured the original plan for the 1949 building from the dusty archives of CSX. When the restoration is finished, the building will have insulation, new interior woodwork and a handicapped-accessible bathroom. The depot still has two sets of bathrooms and waiting rooms, a legacy of segregation.

The city still is raising money to cover the project's cost by selling prints of a painting by local artist Peggy Befort showing what the restored station will look like. They are for sale at City Hall.

If enough money is left, Herrmann hopes to bring back some old track and set up an old boxcar outside the depot.

"I've always thought this town was the closest thing you could get to Mayberry," he said. "This is my way of giving back to the community where I grew up. In a way, I'm finishing what my father started."