The Cheney Northern Pacific Railway Depot

Please be aware that this structure is located on private property and access is prohibited for safety reasons.

From the 1880s to the 1930s, the Northern Pacific Railway Depot in Cheney, WA was the railway division point between the mouth of the Columbia River and Spokane. While Cheney was not a particularly consequential freight terminal or point of debarkation, much of the freight headed to Spokane passed through the small city. The depot was also an important stop for routine maintenance and repair of engines and freight cars. This unique Great Northern Depot is a physical reminder of the importance of the railroad to the social and economic growth of Eastern Washington; the Cheney Depot in particular is a symbol of the city's rise from humble origins and to a heyday in the 1920s and 1930s. Thus, the city's image is inextricably linked to the Depot, and long-term Cheney residents attach great importance to it. Furthermore, as perhaps the sole representative of a Spanish Eclectic-style railroad depot in the northwest, the Northern Pacific Depot is important to the cultural history of not just Cheney, but the Northwest.

The Depot is connected to important regional and national figures, none more closely than Clarence Martin, owner of the Cheney Grain and Milling Company in the 1920s and the most influential man in early twentieth-century Cheney, simultaneously city Mayor and state Governor from 1932-1936. By the 1920s, Martin wanted to attract more commerce to Cheney, but was embarrassed by the dilapidated old depot, built in 1881 when the rail initially came through. Martin, whose political and financial stars were on the rise, was one of the most influential people in the region, and after complaining about it to Northern Pacific officials, the company not only honored Martin's request for a new depot, but allowed him to choose the unusual design. Presumably, Martin selected the unconventional design to differentiate Cheney from the dozens of other small towns along the railroad line.

The new building opened in 1929, just in time to feel the Great Depression's impact on railway freight and transportation. As a result, Cheney's economy slumped and its population slipped into a decline that has continued over time. While it never again reached its Martin-era prosperity, Cheney continued to be a destination for young men and women enrolled at the state Normal School (which became Eastern Washington University), many of whom arrived by train. The city even hosted a visit from President Harry Truman in May, 1950. Traveling by train, Truman stopped at the Cheney Depot on his way from a visit to the Grand Coulee Dam to an engagement in Spokane.

Although small railway depots are ubiquitous in the Pacific Northwest, the Cheney Depot is distinguished by its Spanish Eclectic design featuring a stucco exterior, red tile roof, and distinctive arcaded outdoor waiting area, of which there are few examples outside the southwestern United States. The building is original. Burlington Northern has made no additions, and regular maintenance has left it well preserved. The windows and doors are also all original. Although a a thorough inspection of the interior has yet to be accomplished, it seems that it is structurally sound and comes with the original wainscoting, lighting, and moldings. Since the BNSF terminated passenger service in 1971, the company has used the Depot as extra office space and for storage. In 2013 BNSF announced their intent to demolish the structure, as the Depot's location raises significant liability concerns.

Images

The Cheney Depot, c. 1930

The Cheney Depot, c. 1930

Shortly after it was built, the Cheney Depot boasted a Spanish-Eclectic architectural style, unusual in the Pacific Northwest. Image Courtesy of the Washington State Railroads Historical Society View File Details Page

The Original Depot, c. 1910

The Original Depot, c. 1910

Built in 1881, this depot was torn down and replaced in 1929 Image Courtesy of the Cheney Historical Society View File Details Page

Northern Pacific Train Leaving Cheney, 1912

Northern Pacific Train Leaving Cheney, 1912

Image Courtesy of the Eastern Washington University Archives and Special Collections. View File Details Page

The Depot Today

The Depot Today

Image Courtesy of Charles Mutschler and the Cheney Historical Society View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Frank Oesterheld, “The Cheney Northern Pacific Railway Depot,” Spokane Historical, accessed May 30, 2017, http://spokanehistorical.org/items/show/438.
comments powered by Disqus

Share this Story