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The Des Plaines Depot

The downtown train station has long functioned as a vital organ of Des Plaines.

It's hard to understate the importance of railroads to the development of Des Plaines - anyone who's regularly stopped at crossings can attest to that.

It was the railroad station, borrowing its name from the river, that caused the town to change its name to Des Plaines. It was the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad (starting as the Illinois & Wisconsin) that brought the first development to the loose conglomerate of farms, and dictated the orientation of the street grid. It was the railroad that made travel to downtown Chicago quick, leading to residential development.

And the port of all this travel was the train station itself. Des Plaines has had three depots over the years.

The first depot was a wood structure in the folk Victorian style. Erected in about 1853, it was said to be the very first permanent depot on the Chicago & Northwestern, as the downtown terminal was just a temporary shelter at the time. Not too much is known about the station itself, which served until 1914.  The complex as a whole started with only a single track to Chicago; the Des Plaines complex included two water tanks, a pumping station next to the river, a turntable in front of where Olivetti Restaurant is now, a locomotive house for 2 engines, a section house, and two flagman's shanties. Additionally, there were sidings for the two lumberyards and one for the freight house.  In 1884 a second track was added from Chicago as far as Des Plaines.

By the time the station was taken out of service, it was considered derelict and old.However, the building itself had an impressive afterlife. When it was replaced, the relatively lightweight structure was rolled down the tracks for use as a freight house. It sat next to the tracks on the west side of Lee Street until Ellinwood was extended in 1929; the "eyesore" was then moved again down the tracks to Western Avenue & Washington Street. It served as a warehouse until 2004, when one of the first buildings in downtown Des Plaines was demolished with no fanfare to make way for the Stone Gate Condominiums.

The 1914 station will be familiar to many readers. This was the station where Des Plaines' soldiers shipped off to World War I and II, and the station serving the city in its period of greatest growth. It was an all-brick Craftsman Style design with a tan tile roof, much larger than the previous station, and in citizens eyes, much more aesthetic. The Arlington Heights Herald described it: "The new C. & N. W. Ry. passenger station at Des Plaines was opened to the public Nov. 2, 1914. The citizens of Des Plaines may well be proud of this beautiful addition to their village, with its large and well lighted waiting rooms which have been fitted throughout with all the comforts necessary for the patrons. The concrete platforms and sheds as well as the station are fitted out with electric lights. Take it as a whole the C. & N. W. spared nothing in making this one of the finest suburban stations along the Wisconsin division. There is no reason why Des Plaines with its new concrete roads, new high school, new passenger station and other municipal improvements which take the eye of the prospective new-comer, should not enjoy a vigorous and steady growth in the years to come." At some point early on, the building received a small addition to its east end.

Unfortunately, this too slipped into disrepair. With the shrinking of railways in the 1960s and 1970s, the Chicago & Northwestern let maintenance slip. At the same time, the City of Des Plaines was deeply invested in "Superblock", with the Des Plaines Mall, First National Bank Building, and Behrel Parking Deck. The city planned to build a $5 million office building and 3-story transportation center adjacent to and over the tracks, connecting to the Behrel Deck. It would have featured an internal bus depot and many other amenities, although it would also have been a giant wall in the middle of town. Obviously, this never came to fruition, due to a financing crunch, although many variations on this plan were proposed in the 1970s and 1980s by both the railroad and city. With the city intent on replacing the station for over 13 years, the railroad didn't bother maintaining the station, which became a haven for the homeless, covered in grime and deteriorating. It was covered in graffiti, peeling paint, and a cheap roof, far removed from its heyday.

In 1982, the city shifted its focus to a single-story depot, with a station about twice as big as the original. The next year, the bus depot was added, which cramped the possible sites for a new station; plans had to be changed midway through construction to avoid a long, narrow station building. The city council finally received nearly $800,000 in state and federal funds for a new station that year, and selected a traditional design in early 1984, choosing from three alternatives by A.M. Kinney Associates of Evanston. Some aldermen complained that it was too similar to the station being replaced, and others in the community called for rehabilitation of the existing building, but plans moved forward. The old depot was finally demolished in April 1986 and the new station was built over the next year. The city took over ownership of the building to avoid more maintenance nightmares.

You don't have to look far to see what the old station would have looked like if it had instead been rehabilitated. Woodstock, Crystal Lake, and Rochelle, IL all had train stations built to the same plans, all of which stand today.  Crystal Lake restored their station beautifully in 2001, and Woodstock in 1980. Both mesh beautifully with their historic downtowns. The Des Plaines station is nice, and it's become much nicer in the last ten years with improved platforms, fences, landscaping, and air conditioning, but it still has Comiskey Park aesthetics with a standing seam metal roof and long canopies. Newer isn't necessarily better.

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