Story: Rapid River Depot Ends 86 Years of Service - 1975

From the Escanaba Daily Press, December 17, 1975

RAPID RIVER. The telegraph key is silent at the Soo Line Railroad depot at the foot of Ackley Street here for the first time in 86 years. The antique Seth Thomas clock that hung on the wall opposite the passenger ticket window is gone, the wooden benches in the spartan waiting room are already gathering dust, soot is beginning to cover the windows of the living quarters and office.

It was on Friday that the Soo Line, for economic reasons, officially closed the railroad depot.

On the same day, Gayhart (Gay) M. Gullickson, a veteran of 38 years with the Soo Line, and the depot agent here for the last 18 years, sent and received his last telegraph messages and announced his retirement.

Gullickson was 60 on Sunday, and the railroad delayed the depot closing to coincide with his retirement date.

The depot, built in 1889, has served the community in many ways. Senior citizens in the area recall the names of Kniskern, Gerlach, Wilford, Buchman and Barboo, who were merchants, livery and dray operators.

The horse drawn dray wagons (and in the winter, sleds) would meet the trains, load groceries, furniture and other supplies for delivery to the homes, business places and numerous lumber camps that flourished decades ago in the area.

Millions of board feet of lumber, logs and pulpwood were routed through Rapid River to the markets of the world. Familiar lumber company names from years ago, now forgotten except by a few, were Madden, Collins, Garth, Escanaba and Bay de Noc, remain a part of the heritage of this area.

Countless tons of iron ore rolled over the Soo Line tracks, destined for the giant blast furnaces of East Chicago and Gary, Indiana, according to Myron O. Whipple, veteran of half a century of Soo Line service, and now retired and living in Rapid River.

During the depression years, many local people would obtain all their winter fuel by picking up cord wood that had accidentally fallen by the railroad right of way.

One enterprising Rapid River man of dubious character, long gone to his reward, wasn't satisfied with that arrangement. He went to the top of the loaded cars when they were temporarily stopped and threw the cordwood to the wayside and pretended it had fallen there, picked it up and carried it home.

Passenger service at the depot here ended in 1969. The train would stop twice daily, in the morning and in the evening, traveling east to Sault Ste. Marie and west to Minneapolis. Many immigrants disembarked at the depot on their final leg of their long journey from Scandinavia, Germany, Croatia, France or Great Britain.

They stood on the station platform anxious for their first glimpse of relatives or friends who had pioneered to the area before. Disappointment crossed many faces when they found the street was not paved with gold.

On this platform, parents said goodbye to their children, wives and sweethearts bid a sad farewell to their men who were off to aid our nation when in peril.

Grown men recall when they were small lads standing on the depot platform as the train passed by, waving to the engineer in the cab and the thrill when he would wave back. The cowboy, lumberjack or policeman stage had passed and he was sure now he wanted to be a railroad engineer.

Some rode the passenger cars; many rode the rods (a favorite place for hobos underneath the cars) during the depression years prior to World War II. Others arrived in the baggage car destined for the final resting place in a small plot of land on top of the Whitefish Hill.

No longer will anxious faces peer through the soot-stained windows of the spartan waiting room on a rainy evening, trying to catch sight of a loved one returning after years of absence in the service of his country.

Years ago, the local depot was manned by two men - a depot agent and station operator. About the time Dave Wilson was operator and Herb Harris was agent, this was changed because traffic on the railroad was beginning to slow down. Wilson was transferred to a new station and Harris began a duel role of agent and operator, a role that had continued until last Friday.

Gullickson, who is of Norwegian heritage, was born on a farm near Barron, Wisconsin. He began his railroad career in 1938 after briefly working for a cement contractor for 45 cents an hour. He became disgruntled and discouraged with his job when every two weeks most of his p[ay went for new gloves, overalls and shoes.

Gullickson had a friend whose father was a depot agent, and through him began what was to be his life work.

He was stationed in various cities served by the Soo Line in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. His longest tenure in one place was at Rapid River. Gullickson is married to the former Lorraine LaFave, whose father was a train conductor out of Minneapolis. They have three children and six grandchildren.

Gay gives much credit to his wife for a long and successful railroad career. "She's been great, helping in the station through the years."

For six years, the family lived on the second floor of the depot. For the past 12 years, the have lived in their own home in Rapid River. They plan to do some traveling but their home base will always be Rapid River, they said.

A depot agent has many lonely evening ours, especially if his duty called him to an isolated station like Nahma Junction or Inland Junction.

One time the station clock wasn't keeping good time. He began tinkering with it and soon had it working perfectly. His interest in clocks continued and he taught himself, becoming very proficient at his hobby.\He plans to continue this as an avocation.

The repair of a cuckoo clock owned by a family in the Stonington Peninsula once had him stumped. Made in 1892, the family heirloom was hand-carved and the metal parts were all hand-filed and fitted. However, with Norwegian perseverance and expertise gained over the years, he successfully repaired it.

Gullickson was especially proud of his unique rail bike. He uses an ordinary two-wheel bike with an attachment which converts the bike into a rail bike.

He remembers December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day. He was stationed at the Gould city depot between Manistique and Gulliver. A railroad snowplow went by and "knocked out every window in the station."

In 1939 when he was at Inland Junction, his family lived five miles from the Junction in a cabin on Pike Lake. He traveled back and forth on the rails on a velocipede, a 3-wheeled handcar used on the railroad.

In 1948, Orville Hoover was conductor on a train passing through the Nahma Junction station when an eight-foot stick of pulpwood about eight inches in diameter hit the station platform, upended and hit the train, then ricocheted into the depot and demolished all the windows in front where Gullickson was working. Glass flew every which way and happened so fast he didn't have time to think. Hoover stopped the train and came running back to find out what happened to Gay, who was only cut on his forehead.

There was one incident involving his son Billy, that Gullickson vividly recalls. It almost ended in tragedy Gay was driving away in a car with a friend when he happened to look back and saw Billy, a kindergartner at the time, standing in the middle of the tracks gazing at his father driving away. An engine and caboose were bearing down on the unsuspecting, unconcerned youngster. Gullickson yelled to his son to get off the tracks and Billy obeyed. Only seconds later, the "caboose hop" passed over the spot where the boy had stood. A friend said Gay's face had turned chalk white when he saw his son in such grave danger.

When asked what he would miss most, Gullickson said, "I'll miss the guys in the area, the switchmen, the loaders, the pulpwood shippers and my customers. I have always tried to do  good job for my customers."

He certainly must have done a good job. About 2:30 p.m. Friday, they came to the depot - the railroad men, the loaders, the shippers - bearing gifts, cards and warm, friendly congratulations. A short time later an official Soo Line car drove up and railroad executives entered the depot to bid Gullickson goodbye.

Gullickson was overwhelmed by the appearance of persons he had known only be voices over the telephone. By actual count, there were 101 friends and associates on hand that day who came to wish Gay well.

The abandoned weather-beaten depot is silhouetted against the bleak, cloudy sky, a lonely sentinel, a symbol of the past. It is an end of an area that began in the peaceful horse and buggy days and reached the perilous age of nuclear fission.

What's to become of the depot? Someone suggested using it as a senior citizens center for the almost 500 active elderly people in the area who have no permanent meeting place of their own.

Gullickson said the building is still sound and would like to see it preserved as an historical marker, perhaps as is but still used as a center.

But, for now, only memories remain. [EDP-1975-1217]


The following sources are utilized in this website. [SOURCE-YEAR-MMDD-PG]:

  • [AAB| = All Aboard!, by Willis Dunbar, Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids ©1969.
  • [AAN] = Alpena Argus newspaper.
  • [AARQJ] = American Association of Railroads Quiz Jr. pamphlet. © 1956
  • [AATHA] = Ann Arbor Railroad Technical and Historical Association newsletter "The Double A"
  • [AB] = Information provided at Michigan History Conference from Andrew Bailey, Port Huron, MI

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