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Bemidji celebrates when the rails rumbled; Beltrami County History Center hosts Depot Day

BEMIDJI -- More than a century of history was celebrated Saturday as the Beltrami County History Center hosted its annual Depot Day.

The day's festivities included tours of the depot, presentations from former railroad workers about their experiences, and a paint-a-wooden train activity for children. The Great Iron Horse Railroad Society train club also had its massive model train project open for people to examine in the historical center basement.

"Depot Day is basically a day where we recognize the role of trains and railroads in the community and in Northern Minnesota," said Dan Karalus, Beltrami County Historical Society executive director.

Although the significance of railroads has changed since the Great Northern Depot was built in 1912, it's important to recognize how trains helped shape the Bemidji community, Karalus said.

"Railroads are part of the reason that Bemidji sprung up. There were multiple railroads passing through here connected to the lumber industry, so they helped connect Bemidji to other communities by bringing people here and taking people to other places," he said.

The last passenger service train ran through Bemidji in 1959, but the freight service continued until the 1980s. However, by the late 90s, the train depot had become very run down and decrepit.

In 1999, the BCHS and the Great Iron Horse Railroad Society spearheaded an effort to save the building from demolition and ultimately restore it.

"Burlington Northern Railroad Co. wanted to demolish the depot," said Andy Mack, a member of the BCHS and train club. "But Roger Mackenroth, the train master here at the time, kept putting the demolition request at the bottom of his pile until we were able to get some funds and support from the city and state. We came very close to losing it."

Chris Muller, president of the train club, is especially thankful the depot was saved. Before the depot was restored, Muller said the train club struggled to find a permanent place to set up their model train creation.

"We built what is called a modular system, which has pieces that you can take apart and put together easily. That was really all we could do when we didn't have a permanent place to be," he said. "Now we have our model permanently laid out, and it is much more reliable."

Saving the old train depot was no easy task. The BCHS and train club did most of the actual cleaning and renovating of the building.

"We shoveled so much pigeon manure out of here that officially I probably should be dead," Mack said. "But every area is rich in history, though. Sometimes you have to dig for it."

In the case of the Beltrami County depot, that meant literally.