Danville train depot could be preserved as museum, café

The old train depot and railroad tower in Danville’s historic warehouse district could become tourism attractions if the city can successfully negotiate a deal with Norfolk Southern.

Officials including Mayor Mike Perros and City Manager Ron Scott are on board with an idea to turn the historic building into a museum, restaurant and tourist attraction, said John W.D. Bowling, a member of the local Architectural Heritage Board and a former Danville mayor.

Ben Kleppinger/ben.kleppinger@amnews.com
John W.D. Bowling, a member of the Architectural Heritage Board and a former Danville mayor, talks about his idea to acquire the old train depot building during an AHB meeting Wednesday morning.

“That depot has been close to my heart for many years, so I’ve asked this committee to … formulate a letter to the mayor to send off to (Norfolk Southern) requesting the acquiring of that building for a museum-slash-cafe, a major tourist attraction that I think would help that end of town and the community,” Bowling said Wednesday during an AHB meeting. “We did this some 15 years ago, when I was the mayor at that time and got it through the corporate offices in Cincinnati, which basically agreed with us. They had to send it to their legal department in San Francisco, which shot it down because there was too much potential liability because the station was too close to the railroad tracks.”

When Bowling approached Perros and Scott about restarting the effort to get the depot, he learned the city was already attempting to acquire the nearby railroad tower from Norfolk Southern, Bowling said.

“What we would like to do (is) eventually secure that piece of historic property so … we don’t wake up one day and it’s falling down and it’s beyond the curve and nothing that can be done,” he said.

Scott said Bowling’s plan is a “great idea” and he hopes he can work with the city commission and city attorney to come up with a way for Danville to provide “indemnification” for Norfolk Southern from liability.

“The question is still going to be the same, and that’s how to address the liability issues that the railroad will wish to have addressed before they grant that property to us if they choose to do so.”

The liability issue is created because the railroad tracks by the station are still in active use.

AHB Chairman Tom Tye said he knows of other cities in central Kentucky where old depots next to active tracks have been successfully converted for tourism purposes by local government.

“I know Berea, Williamsburg, Corbin — there’s several (where) they didn’t move them and they’re open to the public and they’re using them,” Tye said. “There’s got to be a way to do this. I don’t know what it is, but there’s got to be a way.”

Bowling said if the effort is successful, the depot could become a great tourism draw for the community. He held up Biloxi, Mississippi, as an example — he said that city has a restored train depot that is now a museum and restaurant.

“To get in, it’s a $10 fee — and you stand in line to get in this building,” he said. “I know we’re not Biloxi, Mississippi, but … it’s just another asset — as I’ve called it many times, it’s a diamond in the rough. And it’s just sitting down there doing nothing.” 

Bowling said he believes right now, the depot building is used as a “storage house.”

Scott said after the meeting that when he sent a letter to Norfolk Southern in 2016 inquiring about the railroad tower, the depot building was still in use.

“I think they still may be using it now,” he said, adding that the company “may be occupying it for insurance reasons.”

Scott said figuring out an insurance plan that would satisfy Norfolk Southern will likely be the “main hurdle” but “I think it is solvable.”

If that hurdle can be cleared, “then would be questions of how to raise money or generate money to actually maintain and develop a tourist attraction like that,” he said.

“It would be a nice challenge to have in the future because it is a beautiful area,” he said.

The AHB voted unanimously in favor of drafting a letter that Perros could send on to Norfolk Southern beginning the conversation.

Scott said that letter could be approved at the AHB’s April meeting before being sent on to the Danville City Commission.

According to the National Register of Historic Places’ entry for Danville’s Warehouse District, “Danville became a major link in the Southern Railroad system after the construction of High Bridge over the Kentucky River in 1877.”

“The Warehouse District provides visible evidence of Danville’s late 19th and early 20th century prominence as a rail transportation hub,” the entry reads. “The rail system attracted industries related to the refinement, storage and distribution of local agricultural products such as lumber, hemp, tobacco and flour.”

Helen Powell/National Register of Historic Places
A photo from October 1984 shows Danville’s train depot building along Harding Street.

Helen Powell/National Register of Historic Places
A photo from October 1984 shows the railroad tower along the tracks in Danville.