One day about three years ago, Katie Bowles and her mother were driving through downtown Mount Sterling when Katie took notice of the town's dilapidated train station, once the hub of Montgomery County activity.
”It was nasty,“ she said. ”I said that someone ought to do something about that building since the rest of downtown has been renovated and looks beautiful.“
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Her mother, Ronda Bowles, a teacher at the Area Technology Center on the Montgomery County High School campus, where Katie was a sophomore at the time, said: ”That would be a good project for you.“
And so it was.
Katie has since worked with two friends, senior Brittany Hackworth and junior Suzie Bellot, and some teachers to secure some $200,000 in funding for the renovation and to get her entire school involved in the effort.
For her work spearheading the renovation, Katie was nominated by school guidance counselor Donna Wilson to receive the $1,000 Prudential Spirit of Community Award, which she picked up during a three-day trip to Washington, D.C., in early May. She was one of 102 students honored out of 20,000 applicants.
”Not only has Katie always been a dedicated volunteer on other community service projects, but she has shown a great maturity in lining up support from local and state agencies before seeking grant money for the train depot project,“ Wilson said. ”For years, many adult groups have tried to find funding for renovation of the depot, but Katie and other students were able to succeed where those groups had not been successful.“
The renovation, under way for about two years, has become a schoolwide community service and hands-on learning project for teachers and students at Montgomery County High, many of whom will work at the depot over the summer months.
Math students at MCHS were given geometry assignments dealing with the enterprise, social studies students researched the history of the station, and the English Department began work on a coffee-table book about the depot while accounting students started keeping track of expenditures.
But the main help came from the carpentry and Skills USA students who are doing the actual day-to-day work under the guidance of instructor Jeff McCarty.
”It is a great hands-on tool for my students,“ said McCarty, who also leads students in building two Habitat for Humanity houses each year. ”We know the value of working outside the classroom.“
Each school day, various classes of McCarty's students are bused the few blocks downtown to work on the depot from 9 a.m. until noon and from 12:30 p.m. until 3 p.m.
Most recently they have been working on replacing the roof shingles and breaking up concrete.
The Walker Construction Co. has provided heavy equipment to haul away concrete and other debris. Rumpke of Kentucky has provided a dumpster and the Mount Sterling city and street departments have also provided equipment and support.
”This has been a great learning experience for my kids,“ McCarty says. ”They are always asking, "Why do we have to take math and geometry?' Now they have to use it every day, and they understand why.“
He says that the students discovered ”a boatload of information when they got inside the building.
”They were fascinated with the old receipts, train schedules and newspapers we found,“ he said. ”Some of the newspapers go back to 1927. Besides the graffiti left there by people who had broken in over the years, the interior of the depot was in good shape.“
Several years ago, the Montgomery County Historical Society replaced the roof.
”If they hadn't done that, everything would have been lost by now,“ McCarty says.
Tyler Riddell, a Bath County High School senior, takes technology courses at the Montgomery school each morning and loves working on the train station.
”This is a great way to learn,“ he says. ”I want to be a carpenter, primarily in restoration, and I have learned there is a lot more planning to it than just laying down shingles or tearing out windows.“
Junior Alex Stamper has become something of a student assistant to McCarty during the project.
”I have learned that the three-tab shingles we are taking off don't last as long as the slate ones we are putting on. Slate lasts about three times longer. My father is a union carpenter, and I have been working with him since I was 13. Now, my goal is to have the skill and knowledge to run my own crew.“
Pride also motivates Stamper.
”Thirty years from now you can drive by this station and everybody can see what we have done. It's a good feeling that you don't always get in the classroom.“
Some can still remember
The Kentucky Heritage Council is working closely with the students. Doors and windows must be refurbished and not replaced, whenever possible.
There's a lot of history to preserve at the depot, the students have learned.
The Chesapeake and Ohio line was a mainstay for Mount Sterling passengers, but the Lexington and Big Sandy was its earliest antecedent, established in 1852. At first, trains went only to Lexington, Louisville and Cincinnati, but after the 1880s, the local line was linked to the east coast. Mount Sterling's depot was built around 1910, and it became a major market center for goods from the East and Southeast.
Some older residents can remember nostalgic school trips, visits to doctors in larger cities, returning home for the holidays from college and watching the George Washington puff to a stop at the depot in the afternoon.
The last passenger train left the station on May 1, 1971, although a steam engine pulled an excursion passenger train for one last trip on July 4, 1979. Freight service ceased on June 30, 1985, ending 115 years of rail service to Mount Sterling.
Probably the most historic individual moment for the depot occurred in 1948, when 5,000 people gathered by the rails to hear President Harry Truman as he campaigned on his famous whistle-stop tour that helped him win an upset over Thomas Dewey.
Overhang would crown it
When the train depot renovation project is complete it will house a railroad museum, a conference center and a third area that so far is uncommitted.
The project may take a couple of more years. When it is completed, McCarty would like to add another phase.
”There is another building beside the depot that was probably part of the freight station,“ he says. ”Rails to Trails (for bicyclists) will come through here, and I would like to turn the freight station into bathrooms, water fountains and a place to rest.“
Originally, the depot had an outdoor overhang that shielded travelers catching trains from the weather. Ronda Bowles says she would like to eventually see that restored.
”That would really make the project complete,“ she says.
Katie is a senior, but she says she will closely monitor the renovation after graduation.
”I have learned,“ she says, ”that if you want something done, you have to do it yourself. You can't stand on the sidelines.“