Dennison depot still steaming ahead with war and train history

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Steam locomotive
The steam locomotive at Dennison Railroad Depot Museum.

DENNISON, Ohio — The massive, 350-ton steam locomotive and a half-dozen rail cars that sit at the southern end of the village of Dennison haven’t run in years. The enormous cost of restoring the engine and the liability of steam power make it an unlikely feat.

But the engines and cars parked here today are only idle from the outside. Take one step inside the restored Dennison Railroad Depot Museum, and you know you’re somewhere special — a place decorated in artifacts and the ambience of early rail transportation.

The train and depot led to the formation of the town itself, located midway between Pittsburgh and Columbus, and with railways reaching as far west as St. Louis, and as far east as New York City.

Dennison Depot signs
Dennison Depot signs.

The original rails were laid in the 1850s, the depot was built in 1873, and the main locomotive, a Chesapeake & Ohio 2700, dates to the 1940s.

Because steam engines could travel only about 100 miles at the time on a full tank, the Depot also provided a place for engines to fill up with water. The Depot saw its last passenger service in the 1970s.

Realistic feel

Today, casual music from the 1940s plays in the lobby, and there’s the smell of fresh coffee and cookies — a treat to visitors and also a sentiment from the past — when the Depot housed a canteen for soldiers going off to war.

The depot was a major transportation route for soldiers during World War II, and in 1942, a Canteen operated by women began handing out free coffee and donuts, and meals, to traveling soldiers.

World War II canteen
The World War II servicemen canteen.

Jacob Masters, manager of relations and consumer engagement, said Dennison operated the third largest canteen in the nation, serving about 1.3 million soldier during World War II. Another canteen was offered at the depot during World War I.

Next year will mark the 75th anniversary since the World War II canteen opened. It closed in 1946, following the end of the war and after it served soldiers again, on their way back home.

Main attraction. The canteen remains one of the museum’s biggest attractions. Masters said the canteen’s biggest physical good was feeding soldiers — but an even bigger service was providing emotional and mental comfort.

Soldiers were often leaving home for the first time, headed to a place of uncertainty.

“You’re going off to war, it’s very scary in itself and you’re going to a country you may have never even heard of and you’ve had your last meal, but you don’t know where your next one is going to be,” Masters said.

“And then you pull into this town that reminds you of your own hometown and you have people who look like your grandmother, your mother and your sister — and they’re giving you free coffee, free food… that feeling of ‘somebody is caring about what you’re doing.’”

Front of the Dennison Railroad Depot Museum
Front of the Dennison Railroad Depot Museum.

Masters and the museum staff, including Director Wendy Zucal, have worked to maintain the depot’s ambience and make it a place for all ages to enjoy.

The biggest single event is the Polar Express ride, offered two weekends in December. This Christmas-themed event features an actual train ride, and a reenactment of the award-winning book The Polar Express.

Masters said about 10,000 people come for that event alone — and another 10,000 visitors, including area school children, come throughout the year.

Continuous improvement

Renovation didn’t start until 1984, just hours before the depot was scheduled for demolition. The depot museum opened to the public in 1989, and since then has seen eight different phases of renovation totaling more than $6 million.

The current project is to restore the cosmetic appearance of the main locomotive, and plans are in the works to renovate a Pullman sleeping car into a bed and breakfast.

Funding has been provided through federal and state grants, including the Ohio Department of Transportation Enhancement grants, and various foundations and local donors, including the village of Dennison.

Restored World War II medical car
Jacob Masters, showing the bunks in the restored World War II medical car.

The restored railcars feature a business car that groups can reserve for their own meetings, a World War II military hospital car, an n-gauge model of the whole depot, and a 1940s living room and kitchen.

Different displays

One of the cars is reserved for current displays, and currently features artwork from Holocaust survivor Nelly Toll, who, as a child, was forced into hiding by the Nazis. But one thing she couldn’t hide was her imagination of a better life, which led her to create nearly 60 watercolor paintings. The exhibit is titled Imagining a Better World: The Artwork of Nelly Toll.

Preserving history

Today, the Depot is still one of the biggest attractions in Dennison and in Tuscarawas County. The organization that manages it also manages two other historic places, the Uhrichsville Clay Museum, a tribute to the area’s rich clay resources and industry, and the Schoenbrunn Village, a restored Moravian community formed in 1772.

Each museum tells a totally different part of American history, but Masters said he enjoys the challenge of working with all three locations and the tourists they bring.

“This county in itself has so much rich history,” he said.

Zucal has worked for the museum for 26 years and said it “far exceeded any of the early plans.”

National appeal

The big game changer, she said, is when it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2011. The next goal is to become accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, a process already underway.

“We want to raise the bar to be operating at the highest level of museums in the country,” she said.

The museum continues to improve and expand its offerings. But the focus is still preserving history, and Zucal said keeping young people excited and involved is equally important. Various high school and college youth work as interns at the depot during the summer.

“They’re the next caretakers,” she said. “They’re the next generation that has to take care of this building.”

Plan tour visit:

  • The Dennison Railroad Depot Museum is located at 400 Center Street, Dennison, Ohio. Learn more at www.dennisondepot.org.
  • Learn more about the Uhricsville Clay Museum at www.claymuseum.com. Learn about Schoenbrunn Village at www.ohiohistory.org.

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Chris Kick served Farm and Dairy's readership as a reporter for nearly a decade before accepting a job at Iowa State University Extension. An American FFA Degree recipient, he holds a bachelor’s in creative writing from Ashland University.

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