Permian Basin Railways turns old depot into new Wolfforth office
A 93-year-old retired station agent for the Whiteface Depot was on hand March 28 when the restored depot opened in Wolfforth as office space for the Permian Basin Railways.
Ed Jennings lived in a house built by Santa Fe Railroads in Whiteface for 56 years before moving to Lubbock about a year and a half ago with his wife, Fae. They are now in assisted living, but Jennings speaks fondly of his 23 years as the service agent before retiring in 1978.
A few years after his retirement, the railroad sold the depot to a man who planned to make a bed and breakfast in it. But that plan apparently never took off, and when the Permian Basin Railways purchased the depot to restore it and place it in Wolfforth as an office. An employee said he thought it was about five years away from deteriorating to the point where it would not be salvageable.
“I thought it was a dead duck,” Jennings said of the depot. “I think it deserved better than to fall apart by the highway.”
Jennings spent 40 years working with the railroad in different areas. But most of his time was in the Whiteface office near the bay window. He made a painting of his office as it was and donated it to the Wolfforth Depot office.
Last week, Jennings’ daughter, Anne Sims, brought him to the Wolfforth Depot, where more than 100 people gathered to see a ribbon cutting for the depot by the Wolfforth Area Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture.
“I think it’s wonderful,” Jennings said. “I just don’t have words to say thank you.”
He said he did get confused inside the depot. Permian Basin Railways added a freight and baggage area that had been removed from the building in the 1970s, but Jennings said the restoration had it on the opposite end of the building from where it had been. It now extends east from the original portion of the building, but the freight and baggage area once extended west, he said.
Jennings has no complaints about it, though.
He told railroad employees, public officials and anyone else in earshot that the restoration of the building was “just simply beautiful.”
When he worked in the building, Jennings said he handled the shipments of freight, including cotton and grain.
“Our best year was 1961,” he said.
That year, the Whiteface Depot shipped more than 500 cars of grain and 27 cars of cattle, and he estimated it could have shipped as many as 50,000 bales of cotton to Levelland to be compressed.
“I don’t know how many bales of cotton, but it was thousands,” he said.
The freight business gradually tapered down from there, he said, but in 1971, about a month before the tornado that hit Lubbock’s downtown area, a tornado ripped through the warehouses in Whiteface. That really cut into business, he said.
When it came time to relocate closer to Lubbock from Brownfield, the Permian Basin Railways looked at land it has owned since 1918 — in Wolfforth.
At 103 N. Steck Ave., where Wolfforth had a depot until around 1943 or 1944, a “new” depot originally located in Whiteface, has been moved and renovated.
Bruce Carswell, vice president of Permian Basin logistics, said the railroad kept the land, leasing it out for a grain elevator until 10 or 15 years ago. The land near Wolfforth City Hall has remained vacant after it was torn down.
Carswell comes from a railroad family, and has worked for several different railroads over the years. While it’s not his usual type of project, he said it has been meaningful to him. He’s researched through the National Ranching Heritage Center at Texas Tech, which has a similar train depot on its grounds.
Permian Basin Railways President Ed Ellis directed Carswell to look into acquiring the Whiteface depot, which he said was purchased in the 1980s for a restoration that did not happen.
Carswell said contractors have grimaced at the cost of renovating the old depot.
“Our contractor has pointed out several times that it would have been cheaper to build a new, modern building,” he said.
But he said he and Ellis wanted to have a railroad building for the base of operations. Permian Basin Railways is aware that rail lines hold a rich heritage for the West Texas communities they serve. Restoring the building is partly a tribute to the people of the South Plains who came before them, Carswell said.
“The depot had sat out in a field near Reese Air Force Base since 1983,” Carswell said. The owner had obtained original plans for the station, known as Standard Plan No. 3 Branch Line Depot.
The depot was built in 1925 in Whiteface by Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. It was originally 24 feet by 80 feet. It had a waiting room, an operators bay and room for freight and baggage.
But by 1970, the freight business for trains had given way to trucking businesses like FedEx and UPS. So the railroad tore down the part of the building that housed freight and baggage.
Despite that, Carswell said he found a bill of lading from 1953 for school clocks to the Whiteface Consolidated Independent School District inside the depot, which still has various cabinets inside. A safe that was in the building has been removed for restoration, but will be brought back, he said.
In the restoration effort of the depot, the wood walls in the waiting room and operators bay remain, but have been sanded down and cleaned up. Insulation has been added, Carswell said, to keep the power bills down.
The freight area has been recreated on the end of the depot, and was being painted shades of tan and brown on Monday. Carswell said the original parts of the depot will also be painted in similar shades, and new pine wood floors will be put in the waiting area, while more durable wood-type floors will be put in the office spaces.
The outside of the depot has been painted colonial yellow and bronze green, colors that Carswell said were used on depots around the time period in which the depot was built.
Five rooms were added in the freight area, which will be used as offices and a conference room for five to six employees who will spend most of their time in Wolfforth. The building will also be a base for 10 field employees, including conductors.
Carswell will have an office in the original operators bay where clerks once sold tickets and handled freight and express business matters. Although the window facing into the waiting area will be working because it is important to restore the building to its original state, Carswell said he doesn’t plan to take orders through it.
The depot might be the starting point of the Polar Express tours around Christmastime.
The railroad also built another building nearby, a locomotive shop for repairing trains. The shop already has a locomotive stored inside, where routine inspections, maintenance or repairs could be conducted.
Mayor L.C. Childers, said city leaders are excited that the railway chose to locate its office in Wolfforth.
“It’s going to bring some jobs,” Childers said. “It’s a plus for us, because railroads are here to stay.”
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