Traveling with Ken Wayand

Discover Vintage America - JANUARY 2017

Volunteers restore historic depot in Keokuk, Iowa

When it was completed in 1891, the Union Depot in Keokuk, IA was the latest achievement for John Root of the Chicago architectural firm of Burnham and Root. Built in Romanesque Revival style at a cost of $75,000, it boasted a sweeping roofline capped by clay tiles, a majestic 64-foot tower and grand embellishments – similar to many other public buildings of its day. It was the last building John Root would design; later in the year he would die of pneumonia at the age of 41.

1910 postcard sent from the depot (Ken Weyand collection)


Some early history

Keokuk was settled near the confluence of the Mississippi and Des Moines rivers, and chartered in 1847. A limestone outcropping kept Mississippi River boats from venturing farther upstream, and Keokuk warehouses stored goods that reached the Upper Mississippi on other boats. In 1887, the Government Canal was completed, bypassing the shallow rapids and securing Keokuk as a river port. The Plough Boy, a small stern-wheeler, connected Keokuk with nearby Warsaw, IL and Alexandria, MO.

By the late 1800s, most travelers and freight arrived in Keokuk by train. By 1890, five railroads served the town, and together they formed the Keokuk Union Depot Company. Railroads were booming, and river travel was beginning to fade.

About that time, my grandfather, a rural mail carrier in Kahoka, MO, frequently rode the Keokuk & Western Railroad, a line that extended from south-central Iowa across northeast Missouri and ended in Keokuk. By 1901, it was absorbed into the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. At least once he attended a Rural Mail Carriers Convention in St. Louis by traveling to Keokuk by train, and taking a packet boat down the river.

Along with the CB&Q, other railway lines connected Keokuk with Illinois and beyond, including the Toledo, Peoria & Western; the Wabash Railroad; and the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific, or "Rock Island Line."

The end of an era

As years went by, the Union Depot fell into disuse. In 1937, a fire damaged the tower. By about 1950 the tower was leveled, and shingles replaced the clay tiles. However, many travelers still viewed the Union Depot from the windows of the streamlined Zephyrs operated by the Burlington Route. Two trains were scheduled each way through Keokuk as late as 1959. But as highway transportation increased, the railroads declined. According to the depot's website, the last passenger train to serve Keokuk was the Zephyr Rocket on April 8, 1967. The Union Depot closed shortly thereafter.

In 1981, the Keokuk Junction Railway bought the shares of the Keokuk Union Depot Company and used the Union Depot as a base for its tourist train operations. In 1996, Keokuk Junction Railway sold its assets to Pioneer Railcorp, who used the depot as a storage building.

Workers install clay tiles on tower. (all photos by Ken Weyand)


Restoration efforts begin

In 2011 the City of Keokuk acquired the Union Depot from Pioneer Railcorp and established the Union Depot Commission, which succeeded in getting the Union Depot listed on the National Register of Historic Places. An ambitious restoration project had begun.

In 2012, the Keokuk Union Depot Foundation was formed as an Iowa not-for-profit corporation to develop funding for a major restoration of the station's clay-tiled roof and tower. Interior restorations began, funded in large part by Questers, an historic preservation group that has contributed more than $14,000 toward the project. Other funding has been provided by private donations, contributors to a "Depot 125" matching capital fund drive, and purchases of souvenir and gift items. Another source of funding is revenue from use of the building for community events, wedding receptions, etc.

Depot interior, showing red oak beams

In 2012, Jeff Hunt with the Hawk Eye, a newspaper in Burlington, IA, interviewed Debra Marion, chairwoman of the commission. In the interview, Marion described some of the early fundraising efforts, and expressed her concerns. "What if the commission wasn't able to carry out the plans they wanted to do," she said. "The city would have to demolish the building."

She mentioned grants that were being applied for, including one that would allow a film crew to visit the site and produce a video. "I think that will give us a lot more clout to get more grants," she said.

Marion added that the next step was to get a structural analysis. No completion timeline had been set. "I would like to see it finished in my lifetime," she said.

Stephen Celania describes restoration progress.

The Union Depot today

Four years (and many hours of hard work and fundraising) later, the basic tower was finished in time to celebrate the Union Depot's 125th anniversary in July 2016. Major funding was a $333,000 one-third matching grant from the Jeffris Family Foundation. At that time, the Union Depot Foundation announced it was confident the remainder of the million-dollar goal would be reached by mid-2017.

Marion said the up-river section of roof tiles should be replaced by next spring, with the down-river section finished by next fall. She also said the commission was within $20,000 of getting the necessary matching funds.

Volunteers repair edge of roof.

When I visited the project recently, Stephen Celania, vice-president of the commission, showed me the restoration progress. As volunteers worked on the roof, we went inside and viewed the dramatic buttressed roof, supported by massive red oak timbers, and the restored wall paneling.

"An Amish wood-worker visited not long ago," Celania said. "He was amazed how well the depot was originally built." Celania added that it took only 10 months to build.

Tiles covered the original floor, built on bedrock, Celania said. "The tiles were overlaid with another surface in the late 1930s. We hope to eventually restore the floor as it was originally built."
The restoration work continues, with window, sidewalk and platform repair projects planned, along with numerous fundraising events. Learn more at

If you'd like to be part of the restoration effort, your donation is tax deductible. Email or phone Debra Marion at 319-520-8830.

Ken Weyand can be contacted at Ken is self-publishing a series of non-fiction E-books. Go to and enter Ken Weyand in the search box.