Snow piles up at the Depot Art Center last winter in downtown Steamboat Springs. The depot is on the National Register of Historic Places and now serves as home base for the Steamboat Springs Arts Council.

Photo by Matt Stensland

Snow piles up at the Depot Art Center last winter in downtown Steamboat Springs. The depot is on the National Register of Historic Places and now serves as home base for the Steamboat Springs Arts Council.

Discovering Steamboat: Grass-roots effort saves a piece of history

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— When Lawrence Block, the new executive director of the Steamboat Springs Arts Council, sat down for an interview with me a week ago Friday, I had just begun the process of researching the history of the old Steamboat Springs passenger depot building located on 13th Street between the railroad tracks and the Yampa River.

Exploring Steamboat

Lisa Schlichtman's "Exploring Steamboat" column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Schlichtman here.

I knew that the building dated back to the early 1900s when people in Northwest Colorado traveled by train, and I also knew that the building now is known as the Eleanor Bliss Center for Arts at the Depot and is home to the local Arts Council. What I’d yet to uncover was the herculean “Save the Depot” effort that took place in the early 1980s and ultimately led to the depot’s restoration.

Block said he vividly remembers hundreds of people wearing “Save the Depot” T-shirts and campaigning to spare the building from demolition after it had been condemned in 1980.

“At the time, Steamboat had a population of 4,500 to 5,000 people,” Block said, “and there were 1,500 people marching down the street to save the Depot. That says a lot and is a strong indication of terms of the legacy here.”

Long-time Routt County resident and writer Harriet Freiberger compiled a history of the Depot that she shared with Block shortly after he accepted his new position. Freiberger offers a vivid history of the train station, describing what passengers encountered when they disembarked in Steamboat following a 12-hour ride from Denver.

“Passengers were met by local liveries at the new Depot (circa 1909) and charged 25 cents for a ride to their choice of accommodations,” Freiberger wrote. “Across the river rose the new three-story Cabin Hotel where wealthy summer visitors enjoyed central steam heat and baths on every floor. Farther along on Lincoln Avenue, at Sixth Street, at Library Hall, motion pictures entertained. At the far end of town, a new bathhouse kept over 400 bathing suits on hand. Tourism entered the business picture.”

Freiberger also described the Depot’s “second incarnation” as a hub for the arts. When the doors to the depot closed in 1968, the building was abandoned by the railroad and eventually deeded to the city of Steamboat Springs. A few short years later, the Steamboat Springs Council of the Arts was formed, and in 1974, the group managed to raise $27,000 to open the Depot’s doors again.

As happens with old buildings, more repairs were needed, and in 1980, the structure was condemned by the city. It was that action that prompted the famous “Save the Depot” effort that Block recalled so well.

“Soon, the town’s streets were inundated by wearers of the yellow T-shirts bearing the words, ‘Save the Depot.’ They even appeared in the traditional Fourth of July parade,” Freiberger wrote.

According to Freiberger’s recounting, Arts Council President Karolynn Lestrud eventually presented the City Council with a petition to save the depot signed by 1,311 local residents, and city officials appropriated $105,000 to cover the renovation costs.

That was 33 years ago, and looking ahead to the future of Steamboat Springs’ historic railroad depot, I have the sense that it’s still in very good hands. When asked to describe his connection to the Depot, Block said the building and the local Arts Council are inextricably linked.

“Part of my job is to make sure the building is maintained, and one of my goals is to make the Depot more available to the community,” Block said. “This building is here for the community, and I’d like to see it further utilized.”

Block also spoke of grant funding obtained through a city of Steamboat Springs and Arts Council partnership that will ensure the building continues to be preserved.

“There’s a lot of people keeping an eye on the building and working to take care of it,” Block said.

It is clear from speaking with Block that he understands the history of the building where he now works and his vision embraces the “Save the Depot” spirit that made the structure the arts hub it is today. Next week, I’ll take a closer look at the programs and artists that have flourished under the expansive and nurturing umbrella of the Steamboat Springs Arts Council.

I invite readers to help me discover more about Steamboat and Routt County by suggesting places you’d like me to visit, people you want me to meet or activities you’d like me to try. You can reach me at lschlichtman@SteamboatToday.com or 970-871-4221.

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