Beloved landmark: History behind downtown Burlington’s Depot

By Chandler Holland
Times-News correspondent

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This photo is of the Burlington Depot in May, 1904, after the fire. This was the 1893 wooden depot. It was replaced in July 1904 by the brick "old depot." [Photo submitted

The Historic Depot in downtown Burlington is a well-known local landmark, yet most don’t know much of the building’s history.
According to information from local historian Walter Yates Boyd; Lisa Kobrin, a reference librarian at May Memorial Library in Burlington; and articles from the Times-News in Burlington, here’s a synopsis of the Depot’s history:
In 1854, North Carolina Railroad’s (NCRR) chief engineer, Walter Gwynn, drew up plans to build “Company Repair Shops,” with passenger and freight Depots. Neither of the planned buildings were constructed so, in 1857, when the John M. Worth store was built it served as both passenger and freight Depots.
In 1871, the NCRR leased its tracks to the Richmond & Danville Railroad, which started moving operations out of state. The repair facilities at Company Shops were then slowly phased out.
The first of many changes to the Depot began in 1874, when Worth’s store burned down. In its place, a one-room wooden building was constructed, used solely as a passenger and freight station. Unfortunately, no photographs of this building are known to exist.
A freestanding freight Depot was built on the same site as both the previous Depot and the Worth store, and in 1893 the new passenger Depot was built further to the west — close to the center of Main Street — directly adjacent to the tracks and connected by a covered walkway to the prestigious Railroad Hotel.
That same year, Richmond & Danville went bankrupt and Southern Railroad took over operations. Four years later, the associated shops permanently closed.
In 1904, more change came to the Depot when an angry former hotel employee set a fire, and both the hotel and Depot were consumed in the flames. A new brick Depot was built on the same site — the one we all enjoy today. In 1912, former president Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt stopped at the Depot during his re-election tour, when he gave a speech from the back of his campaign train.
   After the rundown shop buildings on the northern side of Main Street exploded in 1919, the station was moved yet again, in 1921, to the site of the former Railroad Hotel. A fire had already destroyed most of the buildings in 1918. Burlington businesses wanted to expand Main Street, and move across the tracks, but Southern Railroad had refused to do anything with the derelict buildings.
Some people say that it was the mayor who was responsible for the explosions; others say it was local citizens taking initiative. Whatever the cause, the explosions opened up Main Street, and the Depot was moved so that Main Street could be built in a straight line rather then needing to bend around the station.
In 1964, Southern Railroad discontinued passenger service to Burlington, only briefly reopening the station for Lady Bird Johnson’s visit later that year. The Depot was then abandoned until 1971, when Southern Railroad announced plans to tear down the building. Local citizens rallied to save the Depot and in 1977, it was renovated and reopened to the public as a historic site.
A year later, it was moved for the final time. When Webb Avenue was straightened and changed from two to four lanes, the Depot was in the way. In 1978, it was moved to its current location at the end of Main Street, positioned to face downtown rather than the tracks.
In 1993, Burlington celebrated its 100th anniversary. To commemorate the event, a large mural was painted by Rodney Moser on the walls of the Depot’s meeting room showing the history of Burlington from 1893 to 1993. Twenty years later, a documentary on the mural, narrated by Don Bolden, was released depicting the history of Burlington.
So what is Burlington’s Depot used for today?
As a historic building, it is maintained by the Burlington Recreation and Parks Parks Department. Free outdoor concerts, as part of the Sunset Rhythms Concert Series, are held at the Depot’s amphitheater during the spring and summer. The Alamance County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) is housed in the building, as well as the Paramount Theater Director’s office. Acrylic painting classes, taught by Skee Johnson, are offered by Alamance County Community College in the Depot, and the building and plaza host numerous events — both public and private. Walk inside Burlington’s Historic Depot and take a step into our past.

Chandler Holland is a home-schooled high school graduate and a Teens & 20s writer. She looks forward to attending Warren Wilson College, and is obtaining her NC Environmental Educator Certification during her gap year.

If you go

• The Historic Depot: 200 S. Main St., Burlington. For more details, call 336-222-5001 or visit www.BurlingtonNC.gov/facilities/facility/details/historic-depot-5. The amphitheater event calendar can be found at www.BurlingtonNC.gov.

• Restored caboose: in downtown Burlington (behind the Historic Depot). For more details, call 336-222-5030. Hours are 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays.

• Outdoor plaza: Includes the original stone turntable from the round house, mounted in the center of the railroad statue in the courtyard, donated by the Atwater family.

• Mural (inside Historic Depot): Indoor access to the Centennial Mural varies. Call 336-222-5001 for availability. The Centennial Mural film is available online at www.BurlingtonNC.gov/1519/Centennial-Mural-Documentary.

• Alamance Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB): Hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays. 336-570-1444.

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