For Sam Johnson, his revitalizing vision for the derelict train depot is finally coming true.
For the train depot that sits near the Columbia River Maritime Museum, a fresh coat of grout is just the tip of the iceberg for the nearly 90-year-old building, that will be made clean, stable, sturdy and light.
And for Astorians and visitors alike, a one-of-a-kind space for school, boats, guests and events will soon be open and available.
It’s a win-win-win, as the museum kicks off a $2.5 million project to restore the train depot and give it new life.
“I thought, ‘Hmm ... 6,500 feet of empty space. I wonder what we could do with that?’,” Johnson said. “I’m a boat builder. And when boat builders look at empty space, they say, ‘Let’s build boats.’”
The Columbia River Maritime Museum’s plans for the depot were approved last week by the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission to make exterior alterations, in addition to interior improvements and restoration for the building that will soon house boat making programs and workshops for the museum and the community college, a chandlery and a versatile event space.
The alterations include a remodel to all elevations and interior of the existing building, including seismic upgrades, restoring the historic windows and doors, altering some doors to meet current handicap accessibility requirements, adding contemporary canopies over some doors, removing the chimney down below the parapet wall and remodeling the interior for the purpose of the tenants.
One of the most important upgrades to the building, however, is the seismic retrofit.
“We talked about the degree of seismic upgrade we wanted,” he said. “And somebody asked the question of, ‘What’s your goal? Is your goal to have your building be perfectly upright after a seismic event? Or is it just to make sure people get out safely?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know,’ since nobody has any clue as to what the big one will be. I’m guessing that if we encased this whole thing with metal inside, after a big earthquake all the brick would fall off and you’d just have this big metal lump sitting there.
“What we’ve opted for is sort of a moderate thing. It will be strengthening both inside and outside enough so that people can get out of the building. In a light earthquake the building will be repairable. In a big earthquake, we just don’t have any idea because we don’t know what it’s going to be.”
The building was designated historic by Astoria’s Historic Landmark’s Commission in 1988.
Wednesday, workers sawed out grout between the bricks, anchoring pieces to make the building seismically fit.
“This is original and they made a mistake, whoever put the mortar in,” Johnson explained, pointing to the material between the outside bricks that sticks out rather than goes in. “Nowadays, it curves in. When it sticks out like this, water gets caught on the lip and it absorbs it.”
The masonry started this week and the fencing around the construction area was fenced off. Next week, the contractors will begin working on the interior demolition.
“At the same time, I’m not exactly sure when but within the next month, all of the hardscape, will start to be torn up,” Johnson said, pointing to the outside pavement that surrounds the building.
‘We won’t replace it all or tear it all out at this point because trucks and things will be moving over it. But we’ll be bringing in power and all of the utilities underground so it will look good. There won’t be any wires showing.”
The train depot was constructed for the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railroad in 1925, designed with a women’s waiting room on the west end and a men’s waiting room next to it. Between the two areas was the baggage room and the ticket counter. The east side held freight.
“The intent is once they get the interior stripped, then they’ll bring in the steel and put the steel around in the corners and where it needs to be to strengthen the interior of the building,” Johnson said.
“At that point, the east wing, the freight side, there’s not going to be any fancy wall coverings or panels or anything like that. It’s going to be left as an industrial kind of building. On the west side, the men’s and women’s waiting room, once they get the steel up, then they’re going to have to put a false wall up and bring it all back to it’s historic appearance.”
That includes taking out added walls, restoring windows and glass and revealing the ceiling that has been covered by a drop-down ceiling in recent years.
The last passenger train left the city on Jan. 15, 1952.
Since then, it briefly housed a boat building and repair shop in the early 1990s.
It was given to the museum in the 1980s by the Burlington Northern Railroad.
“Until we acquired the armory, it was used as storage for some of our boats and heavy stuff. Not our fine arts because it’s not climate controlled,” he said.
The space will now serve serveral purposes, including a portion of the building as a workshop for Clatsop Community College’s historic preservation class.
The class has already worked to replace windows in the east side of the building and will continue in partnership with the museum.
“This will be shared by the college and the museum for large boat building,” Johnson said of the east wing. “We’re going to be moving in some heavy duty wood-working machinery. And they will use it during the school year for their historic preservation workshops. And then during the summers, it will revert back to use by the maritime museum for boat building programs here, too.
“We like having them here because the more activity that you have going on here, the better off it is for the building and for the museum and for the whole community.”
Programs will be taught at the facility on a variety of topics including traditional boat building, with the potential of a partnership with the wooden boat school in Maine, the publishers of Wooden Boat magazine.
That will be accompanied by classes on how to make sails, masts, oars and how to rig boats traditionally.
Other programs will be decoy making.
“Decoys are a real folk art. And the decoys of the lower Columbia River are highly sought after as collectable items,” Johnson said. “There are people around today that still know how to make them and do a really fine job of creating true life decoys for the region.”
Johnson will also teach at the facility.
“I teach foundry,” he said, adding that he is going to Maine to teach courses in a few weeks on pouring hot metal.
“There’s about 50 different subject areas that we’ve identified. We’re not sure yet, but one of the things that might be fun to do is teach a course on diesel engine maintenance.”
The space will also be a platform for boat building, with a repair and exhibit area.
“The men’s waiting room is what I am calling the ‘Columbia River ship chandlery.’ Chandlery is a business that sells supplies for boats, fishing, supplies for maritime trades,” Johnson said. “We’re not going to do all of that but what I want to do is, somebody will always be in here building a small boat. Volunteers will be working on it and people can come in and see somebody working on a boat, so they can stop and talk about it, ask questions.
“Additionally, we’ll have some other wood-working set up.”
The museum has an antique nail machine that will also be set up for people to buy copper boat nails. The machine is from the 1930s and is one of only two in the world that Johnson is aware of. The museum will be the only manufacturer of the nails in all of North America. The other machine is in England.
“I have hopes, and I know, that we’ll make some money off of them. It will be done in a demonstration setting, because it’s a cool machine to look at, but it’s also something that we can sell the boat nails on the web to people all across the country and all around the world,” he said.
The museum has already had inquiries from Norway for the nails.
The last section of the three-part building is the women’s waiting room, which will be refreshed, revitalized and restored, but will remain open space for events, boats, demonstrations and then cleared out.
“The idea is to create big empty rooms that we can move stuff in and out of,” Johnson said.
“We will not have anything in this room. This will be just as you see it. It will be an empty room that can be used for anything.
“From a boat building perspective, all you have to do is just move in some sheets of plywood, set up your boat on that, class comes in, and off it goes, and then you have an empty room again. The next week, if someone wants to have a wedding in here, fine. Whatever we want.
“This will be the only meeting space in Astoria that you can pull a truck up right to the door and load up a machine. It doesn’t matter if you make a whole lot of noise in the place, dust, smells, things like that, it doesn’t matter.
“Because it’s not going to disturb the main museum, it’s not going to disturb our neighbors. It’s the only place in Astoria for that. Then I began thinking about the beer fest, and really I was thinking too limited. This could easily be an extension of the outside and an extension of the inside and vice versa.
“We’ve got 10 acres between the city and the Maritime Museum right around this building. So if you have 10 acres, and all of these spaces, you can use them together in a way that no other space can be used either. There’s a lot of potential here.”
The Astoria Music Festival’s leaders may also be interested in the room because of the acoustics, Johnson said.
The project was originally designed to be done in three phases but Johnson said the construction manager explained the project would be more economical if done all at once, providing they had the money to do so.
The project is still approximately $400,000 short, with $2.1 million raised through grants, fundraising and donations.
All of the major foundations in the area gave gifts, adding up to approximately 50 percent of the total cost.
“I think we’ll do it. And some of it may come from some other small foundations, but for the most part it’s going to come from individuals,” Johnson said. “I’m enthusiastic about it.”
It is set to be completed by the end of October.
Johnson says his hope for the future is to one day recreate the Butterfly Fleet, centered on the Depot building, bringing in a boat builder who is also an instructor, and then inviting six participants to come in – three from Washington, three from Oregon – that were in the gillnet fleet at the turn of the century.
“Why not invite them to come back, join in and build this boat?” Johnson said. “Then they can go back and recruit five more people, teach them to build the boats and we’ll help fund it, and then next thing you know you have two boats in the river.
“One boat’s OK. Two boats, you’re racing. Pretty soon you’ve got six, a dozen, and then you’ve got the Butterfly Fleet back.
“Then those boats will belong to the communities or the service groups. And when they need to be repaired, they can bring them back here and teach them how to do those repairs.
“We’re bringing back a tradition of an iconic boat for the region. We’re also carrying on part of our mission to preserve the maritime culture of the region.
“Part of that maritime culture is not just the artifacts, but the process. I don’t see why that won’t work.”
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.