DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Restoration of the 1874 Tamaqua train station took ten years and $1.5 million.
Ten years ago, a spirited group of volunteers showed what can be done when a community decides to build rather then destroy.
The Tamaqua Save Our Station committee set their sights on the town's 1874 train station with a promise to return it to glory as hub of the community.
The never-say-die band of rail fans made sure the 1874 Philadelphia and Reading Passenger Depot would re-emerge as the shining jewel of Schuylkill County's largest borough.
The obstacles to a $1.5-million overhaul were very real. But SOS members, borough council and residents of Tamaqua area believed it was time to preserve. And preserve they did.
In 1874, the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad built the elaborate Victorian-styled passenger station to replace an earlier wood structure that had been located near today's QA Building. That depot was destroyed by fire.
The size, style and elaborate appointments in the new station were evidence of the growing importance of Tamaqua as a major railroad hub in the anthracite coal region.
When completed, the unique passenger station was one of the first Victorian train depots built of brick and one of the only small-town train stations in the U.S. to feature a full-service restaurant.
More than 40 passenger trains stopped at the station daily during peak years in the first half of the 20th century. The surrounding station grounds comprised alluring Depot Square Park, meticulously cared for gardens and fountain. Tamaqua's depot had become a showplace of the mighty Philadelphia & Reading Railroad and the focal point of downtown.
But with the decline of passenger and coal trains, the depot fell into disrepair. It was heavily vandalized and even torched.
By the 1980s, many believed it was ready for the wrecking ball despite interest by the Tamaqua Historical Society and others.
In August 1992, the station was purchased by Tamaqua SOS, a nonprofit organized for the purpose of rebuilding it.
"There are a lot of people working hard at this to try and make it happen," said the late Kenneth A. Smulligan, SOS president.
To set the pace for progress, the Tamaqua Rotary Club restored the station's massive front doors in 1994, a project done in memory of longtime member Joseph Prysbeck, owner of Price's, a mom-and-pop corner grocery store at West Broad and Lehigh streets.
A future use study suggested the depot be converted to a regional reception center and visitors' stop, complete with a restored restaurant and perhaps a sports shop catering to hiking and biking enthusiasts.
In fact, the depot's historical significance had been acclaimed repeatedly by experts and consultants, all who advocated returning the restaurant to some level of food service.
The goal was to restore the building to its 1910 appearance, showcasing marble fireplaces, high ceilings, carved woodwork and period lighting.
But even Smulligan wondered if SOS could work magic.
"What will probably happen is that we'll prepare it as a shell to ready it for future occupancy sort of like the Moose building project. It would be up to the new tenant to complete the interior work," he said.
Still, visitors would be able to get a glimpse of how the restaurant looked in its heyday, no matter which décor a future tenant might choose.
The station's former baggage area also would be leased to a commercial tenant to help pay the facility's operating expenses. Preference would be given to a hiking or biking retailer or a craft and gift shop.
Among the local groups supporting the train station's rebirth were the Tamaqua Historical Society and Tamaqua Area 2004 Partnership, Schuylkill County's first visioning program.
Dream came true
It took 10 years of struggle and $1.5 million, but the big day came on Aug. 1, 2004.
The station was unveiled during a formal dedication ceremony, drawing a crowd of several hundred.
The depot was preserved for generations to come, returning the landmark to a place of prominence in the region.
The eatery became a reality, too, with visitors welcomed by waitstaff dressed in period outfits and an ambience of 1890s gentility. Opened as the Restaurant at the Station, it was supplanted by fine dining of Vonz Restaurant on June 19, 2013.
Gift shops, crafts centers, candy stores and similar tourist-friendly initiatives have operated in sections of the depot. Retail space is currently available, and fundraising is still necessary for operation of the complex.
"We still have a mortgage to pay," said Linda Heigele, treasurer.
Tamaqua SOS continues to seek membership support and donations. The mission continues, they said, because the depot is special.
"This was the second-most important station in the Reading's system," said Dan Schroeder, SOS president, who wants to see the depot not only survive, but thrive.
The station is individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a strong contributing resource to the 55-block Tamaqua National Historical District.
It serves as an official visitors center for Schuylkill County and Schuylkill River National & State Heritage Area.
And it's much more than a building; it's a vital anchor that proudly tells the story of an important industrial town and the passion of its people.