THE DEPOT AND UNDERPASS OF ST. PAUL, VA
© Jerry F. Couch
Originally posted February 9, 2018 on @StPaulVirginiaRailroadMuseum Facebook page
Rail service to St. Paul by the Clinch Valley Division of the Norfolk & Western Railway began on July 15, 1890. At that time, there was no depot in the town. None was needed because St. Paul (also called “Estanoa”) didn’t amount to much in those days. So… after rail freight shipments were unloaded they were either stacked beside the tracks or stored in nearby sheds owned by the St. Paul Land Company.
Later in the 1890‘s, a white-painted wooden depot was built. It was small because the town was small. The Panic of 1893 had caused the local real estate bubble to burst and the town’s development slowed to a crawl.
Things changed in 1908 when the Clinchfield Railway began its march through Southwestern Virginia. In anticipation of the completion of its connecting link between Dante, VA and Elkhorn City, KY a new depot was built in St. Paul in 1912. It was a beauty, jointly operated by the N & W and Clinchfield railroads.
In the ‘teens and beyond, rail freight was the UPS and FedX of its day. If you ordered a piano from Sears Roebuck & Co., a large crate would arrive at the depot with your shiny new Beckwith packed securely inside. The same would be true of your new Minnesota Model A treadle sewing machine.
When the highway connecting St. Paul and Dante was completed around 1920, vehicular traffic on St. Paul’s Fifth Avenue railroad crossing increased considerably. It was a particularly dangerous spot because two busy rail lines passed within close proximity.
To reduce the danger, a watchman’s tower was constructed at the Fifth Avenue crossing between St. Paul’s Western Front and the Clinchfield tracks. Crossbucks were also installed. The watchman was only on duty during the daylight hours, however. At night, motorists were on their own. It was an unsatisfactory situation.
In the late 1920’s, railroad representatives attempted to persuade the St. Paul Town Council to approve installation of wig-wag signals at the crossing to replace the watchman’s tower. Initially, the council refused to permit the change, but eventually the tower was taken down and the signals were installed.
The problem of vehicular traffic at the Fifth Avenue crossing was finally solved in the late 1930’s when an underpass was constructed on Fourth Avenue beneath the railroad tracks. Originally the underpass featured a concrete interior stairway leading from its pedestrian tunnel to a spot between the Clinchfield and N & W tracks above. In theory, the stairway’s purpose was to prevent impatient pedestrians from crawling underneath stopped trains to get from one side of town to the other. In practice the stairway became a place for the Western Front’s inebriated customers to answer nature’s call – or settle down for a nap after having a few too many.
The stairway became a nuisance instead of a convenience. The entrance was subsequently bricked up and the steps were filled in. Today, the outline of the stairway entrance is still visible inside the pedestrian walkway of the underpass.
St. Paul’s Union Depot was destroyed by a disastrous fire on Saturday, March 17, 1974. Because of the decline in rail freight, the depot was not rebuilt. Instead, it was replaced by a modular office building. Today, even the modular office building is gone and nothing remains to indicate this was once St. Paul’s busiest spot.