The Depot at the John Hay Center started as the long-time dream of retired Salem newspaper editor Cecil J. Smith whose hobby has been collecting toy and model trains and railroad memorabilia.
With the help of many, his dream of having a railroad museum in Salem became reality when The Depot was dedicated Sept. 22, 2001.
Smith’s love of trains was sparked Christmas Day 1946 when he found a Lionel O gauge passenger set running in circles under his family’s Christmas tree. Smith was 8 years old.
In 1965 he accepted the job of editor of The Salem Leader and The Salem Democrat and he and his wife, Martha, moved to Salem.
While writing stories on the demise of Monon passenger trains in 1967, he met Eugene Wolfe, the Monon’s agent at Salem, and began learning about the Monon Railroad. He became fascinated with the history of the railroad that got its start in Salem.
In 1970 Smith built a model railroad in an old carriage house behind the Smith residence on North Water Street and began collecting railroad memorabilia and toy trains. The following year, the carriage house, now dubbed The Train Shed, began hosting free tours to schoolchildren, club members and individuals.
Over a 30-year period, thousands of visitors watched toy trains running in the 2100-square foot building and on the lawn in front of The Train Shed.
In 1995, John Campbell of Salem began improving and rebuilding the HO gauge model railroad on the second floor of The Train Shed. His son, John Jr., also worked on the layout, developing an automated operational system that would later be used at The Depot.
For a number of years, as the collection grew, Smith dreamed of moving it to the John Hay Center where it would be more accessible to the public. In 1996, Cecil and Martha talked with their four children about the future of the collection and all agreed if a suitable place could be found for it at the John Hay Center, the collection would be donated to the Washington County Historical Society.
Following a meeting with the society’s board, a lot at 206 South College Ave. was set aside for the construction of a replica of the Monon’s Salem depot which was torn down in 1982.
Smith’s greatest fear was financing for the project, but retired banker D. Jack Mahuron assured him the money could be found.
The first break came when Lilly Endowment, through the Washington County Community Foundation, awarded The Depot a $160,000 grant.
The second big break came when Ron Zimmer, instructor of the Building Trades Class from Prosser School of Technology, asked if his students could help with the project. The students, part of a Prosser satellite program, were from Salem and Eastern High Schools in Washington County.
Midway through the project, as funds were running out, the Paul Ogle Foundation in Jeffersonville awarded The Depot an $110,000. Also, a grant was received from the Washington County Community Foundation and numerous businesses and individuals donated to the project.
Thirty-nine students worked on the building over a two-year period, completing it at the end of the school year in 2001. The Depot opened in June and was dedicated in September of that year.
The students also helped move items from The Train Shed to The Depot, including two 14-foot benches that Smith salvaged from the Monon station the night before it was bulldozed, the large steam radiator that sat in the middle of the waiting room, and the electric sign that hung along Main Street informing motorists of the location of the Monon’s Salem station.
In October 2000, Smith retired from the newspapers to volunteer as stationmaster at The Depot.
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