Column: The Lone Driver Notebook: By Ozzie Tollefson
How do you feel when you see an old building being demolished? Quite frankly, I feel saddened when I watch a bulldozer smashing down a house, store or church that has stood in place for decades. A building carries a history, but when it is reduced to rubble, voices from the past are silenced and memories are lost.
All this was running through my mind as I sat in the refurbished Cascade Street Station visiting with the owners, Craig and Anna Gantner. They have not only created a beautiful restaurant, Dining Car #423, and bar, Steel Wheels, they have preserved a cherished Fergus Falls landmark. Looking around at the old photographs of rail travel, seeing the fine woodwork, glancing up at the stained-glass dining car transom windows, and stepping on the brick floor in the hallway to the restrooms–all this brought me back in time. I was in a railway museum.
The station sits on a branch line, which splits off at Wadena from the main Northern Pacific line coming up from St. Paul. It later rejoins the main line to Fargo and terminates in Tacoma, Washington. First opened on October 10, 1882, the original Cascade Street Station was a wood structure located across the street from the present station. That building was completely destroyed exactly 100 years ago this coming Saturday. On June 22, 1919, Fergus Falls was hit with a deadly tornado, killing 57 people.
I found on the internet a “New York Times” article on the tornado, which mentions the old station. “Two members of the Federal Grand Jury were in the Northern Pacific Railroad Station and clung to the office safe, while the storm swept the station away over their heads.” Work on the present Cascade Street Station began shortly after and was completed in October of 1920.
About the owners, Craig grew up in Random Lake, Wisconsin. He met Anna from New Hope, as they both worked for Northern States Power Company in Minneapolis. Both in their late 50s, they have a son, Tim, 31 and a daughter, Lauren, 30. The Gantner family moved to Fergus Falls in 2005, when Craig got a job with Otter Tail Power Company. They bought the station in 2012, and what a mess it was! The basement was flooded, and there were 15 stubborn pigeons that ignored repeated eviction notices! It was all boarded up, and the roof was leaking. Craig explained, “It was like a shower stall in here when it rained.”
Craig learned construction from working with his uncle, remodeling houses. And over the past seven years, he has certainly put those experiences to good use. I asked him what all this work has meant to him. He said, “Buildings from the past outlived their builders and were constructed to show pride in workmanship. That is not so true anymore. We took the time to do period style restoration work as an example of how things used to be done. The project will certainly outlive us, and hopefully it will set an example of what can be done by creatively reusing and repurposing old buildings. We see a better alternative for historic buildings than tearing them down, replacing them, and forgetting them.”
And the work goes on. Anna enjoys creating events, and she has plans for large gatherings in the 80-by-40-foot freight room on the east end of the building. For Craig, he must balance the workload as bar and restaurant manager with continued construction. He explains, “Some of the completed work needed to be modified somewhat to adapt to how we are practically using the building. I wasn’t able to plan every exact detail, and I also just flat-out made some mistakes! Also, there are many interpretive displays, photos, etc. that I would like to do, and we would welcome any help from the community. This would dovetail with our efforts to add Cascade Street Station to the National Register of Historical Places.”
I came away from my visit with added hope for preserving our nation’s historical buildings. Craig and Anna have given us a window into the past, years before the first automobiles, when riding the rails was a unique adventure. Take your youngsters to the Cascade Street Station; show them the photographs and artifacts. It will be an educational experience beyond anything found in a book or on the internet. And above all, enjoy the excellent food!
Ozzie Tollefson lives near Phelps Mill and is the author of “Mr. Teacher.”