Railroad group hopes its fans get onboard

POTLATCH, Idaho — In some respects, witnessing the renovation of the Potlatch Depot is like watching a phoenix come out of the ashes.

At least that’s how Potlatch resident Karen Rohn described the old train depot’s transformation during the past 13 years since being purchased by the Washington, Idaho and Montana Railway History Preservation Group.

“It’s really inspiring,” said Rohn, the group’s vice president and a member since 2010.

The Potlatch Depot was purchased in 2001 by the historical group started in 1998 by Jim West. In 2007, the depot underwent its first major renovation. Rohn said at that time the focus was on exterior features, like pouring a new foundation, replacing siding and reroofing the main building and lower-level awnings.

“That’s when all the stuff to keep it weather-proof and stable happened,” she said.

From there, the group moved inside in 2010 to begin renovating the first level by tearing out particle board flooring, installing storm windows, painting and building walls, a bathroom, janitorial closet and a wrap-around deck. Four years later, Rohn said, the project has reached the building’s second floor, but after wiring only one half, the group’s funds have been depleted.

The overall cost to renovate the second floor is estimated at well over $100,000, Rohn said. Funding will be needed to finish the wiring, install lighting and heating, purchase insulation and sheetrock for the walls, storm windows and doors, along with paint and flooring.

Since about 2010, volunteers have torn out about 13 tons of plaster and a pile of lath that made up the walls in order to update the wiring. The lath – thin, narrow strips of wood used as backing to support the plaster for the walls – will also be used for a fundraiser to cover the stairway walls. For $5 a letter, Rohn is wood burning people’s names into the lath.

“Everything original that we can reuse, we’re going to try,” she said.

Tearing out the plaster and lath required a lot of manpower, Rohn said, and was done in little increments with help from whoever showed up on “work party days.” None of the depot’s renovation could have happened without the support of people in the community, she said.

“Everything that happens to the depot only happens because of the community,” Rohn said.

People have donated money, time, labor and materials. Rohn said Electrical Contractors Northwest in Pullman did the wiring for upstairs and donated their hours to reduce the overall cost of electrical work. The group also received grant funding, including a $500,000 Transportation Enhancement Grant that helped to fund the exterior renovations in the past.

Once the second floor is complete, Rohn said there will be space for offices or studios for people to rent. The group has determined that the depot needs six upstairs tenants so it can cover costs.

And they already have a couple people interested.

Robin McKinney, who owns Thread It, has laid claim to a corner space on the second floor for her shop that is currently tucked in a space on the first floor. McKinney sews clothing from wedding dresses to maxi skirts, including alterations and other custom sewing items.

“As soon as (the second floor is) finished, I’ll be going up,” said McKinney, who opened her shop at the depot March 1.

The seamstress was working in her house but asked West about a spot at the depot last October. She also became the group’s secretary.

“It’s worked out really well,” McKinney said. “My business has expanded a lot just by being out of my house and in the public.”

Rohn said the depot has one other person interested in an office spot upstairs as well. The former freight room has also drawn a crowd with events like Evening at the Depot, featuring live bands and dancing.

“That’s the final goal is to have this historical building take care of itself, so to speak,” she said.

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