Duluth finds home for rail depot

DULUTH - The old railroad depot in Duluth has found its final resting place.

Since 1974, the early 20th century building has served such diverse roles as an office for a rising developer, a home for administrators at a Gwinnett County park and as a front-line arm of law enforcement as a busy police precinct.

But since the corps of officers moved out earlier this year to occupy the city's new public safety center, the depot has lain vacant.

Now, the quaint edifice will be moved once again.

This time, the setting will be most appropriate. Housing the treasured antique will be the Southeastern Railroad Museum on a 33-acre site on Buford Highway near Pleasant Hill Road.

In being placed there, at the city of Duluth's busiest intersection, the upper echelons in both the city and the museum believe the old depot will at last get the recognition it deserves. The actual relocation probably will take about a year.

In the meantime, in a special session on March 29, the city gave a nod to leasing the building to the museum. The cost to the museum of restoring and keeping up the depot will likely suffice as rental payment, city administrator Phil McLemore said at the regular council meeting Monday.

At that same meeting, the council assured officials at W.P. Jones Park, that the depot will stay in place there for at least a few more months. The city plans to build a replacement building next year when the depot departs. Right now, it will chip in $5,000 to clean up the old depot and get it ready for this summer's rentals.

The depot's lively history of changing hands began when the late developer Scott Hudgens bought the old relic in 1974. After using it for an office for years, the civic-minded businessman donated the depot to Duluth, along with a half-acre of land, to use as the city saw fit.

That was in the mid-1980s, according to old records and newspaper clips. So after 20 years, the old building is ending its travels.

On Monday, museum official Mike Dudley said he expects the move from nearby W.P. Jones Park ensuing restoration to take at least one year.

Such projects, if done right, can be long and tedious, he noted.

"Our role is to restore it back to the way it was," said Dudley, the museum treasurer, who heads long-term planning for the organization.

"We will redevelop, rebuild and refurbish it with the classic features it had. We'll have artifacts from the area in there. The new site will make us much more visible from the highway," he said.

In 1998, the museum, which features a working locomotive and trailing cars, as well as furniture from Atlanta's Terminal Station and President Warren Harding's personal railroad car, took a major step toward expansion.

After operating successfully for decades on a site just south of Pleasant Hill, the popular attraction almost tripled its space by acquiring more than 30 acres across the street.