Saturday, September 24, 2011

Conetoe’s Little Train Depot

Years before Conetoe was more than a creek running through Edgecombe County, William Chase (a resident of the Lower Conetoe Township and railroad employee according to the 1870 US Federal Census) and many other nameless laborers ensured tracks were laid from Williamston to Tarboro. The railroad connected the two major industrial towns in 1882 and a stop was added in 1883 to a little cluster of homes that became known as Warren’s Station. Warren’s Station changed its name to Conetoe and was incorporated as a town in 1887.   
The railroad played a vital role in the growth and expansion of this little community, the trains became the most influential component to everyday life in the small community. Farms and mills depended on the train to provide their products to a broader span of customer. The general public would use it to call on distant friends and relations. And children would ride twice a day in order to attend school in Tarboro. An agreement was made in January 1894 which allowed the Albermarle and Raleigh Railroad Company unlimited use of the tracks belonging to the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad Company, including the tracks leading from Williamston to Tarboro. Within the next few months, the Conetoe train depot was under construction.

“Progress in Conetoe – The railroad company are putting there a neat depot. This has been needed, and when completed will be a great convenience to the people of Conetoe,” (Tarboro Southerner, 17 May 1894).

            The Conetoe train depot is a simple rectangular structure. It hosts a gabled roof and a singular dormer that shelters a pavilion jutting out to allow train agents a clear view of the railroad tracks, weather permitting. A bell mounted to the dormer signaled the arrival of incoming engines with a ring easily heard throughout the town. Large eaves are supported by simple arched braces that provided temporary shelter to passengers and railroad employees. Board and batten siding covered the exterior and a metal roof sheltered the interior.
            On the interior, the depot was split into three separate areas: an agent’s office, a cargo area, and two waiting rooms, segregated for white and colored passengers. The agent’s office and waiting areas were clad entirely with tongue and groove bead board sheathing which was placed horizontally to create wainscoting and capped with a simple chair rail. Ticket windows from each waiting room allowed passengers to purchase travel and doors allowed for baggage to be transferred into the cargo via the agent’s office. The cargo area, which covered approximately two-thirds of the train depot’s total length, remained unsheathed, leaving the framework of the walls and ceilings exposed but protected with a coat of lime-based whitewash.

            Many train agents spent only two years in Conetoe, choosing to rent lodging rather than bind themselves permanently to such a small, rural community. William J. Grimmer, 26 years old in 1900 boarded at Christopher Dawson’s residence. By 1903, William was replaced by
R. A. Lafrange, who was in turn replaced by G. S. Willard in 1905. Mr. Willard was replaced in 1907 with W. L. Bailey, who stayed in Conetoe until S. L. Gardner replaced him in 1911. R. E. Shynn took over agent responsibilities for Mr. Gardner in 1913 and is listed as “R. E. Shryver” in 1915 and 1916 documentation. This is more than likely a typographical error due to poor penmanship. The final agent located was R. Linwood Mone from the 1930 Federal Census, with no other discovered in Conetoe in the 1910 and 1920 records. Mone owned his residence in Conetoe, leading researchers to question how long he remained there.

            The passenger service to Conetoe ended after World War II and the train depot was consequently used very little, eventually forcing it to close entirely. The train station remained unused and empty until 1983, when it was purchased by Tom Glennon, who had it moved 6 miles west to the community of Old Sparta. Mr. Glennon converted the depot into a guest house by shortening the cargo bay considerably and using the reclaimed timber in the construction of a new residence. White washed beams and sheathing can be still be found under the newer residence reused as joists and subfloor. Spare eaves braces were adaptively reused on the porch adding a touch of rural flair.
Many other changes took place after the move to Old Sparta. The roof was replaced with slate only to be once again replaced in 2009 with asphalt shingles. The cargo bay was sheathed with tongue and groove bead board on three sides and the wall shared with the agent’s office was covered horizontally with wide planks butted together. Large bay windows were added to the cargo area emulating the grandness of the original usage and the sheathing on the ceiling allowed the rafters to be exposed, creating a cathedral effect. The agent’s office was remodeled into a kitchen and dining area with stained glass closing the ticket windows permanently. The waiting area was transformed into bedroom space and retaining the original walls and floors. A small bathroom fashioned to remind users of an outhouse was added below the gabled end on the outside of the passenger waiting areas.

The Conetoe train depot is now a full-time residency. It has the same problems common to old buildings everywhere; the summers are too hot, the winters are too cold, the exterior needs to be repainted, and the bathroom can never be big enough. Even so, it is a happy place. A state of euphoria transcends as you enter the building and reminisce of all the people that have traveled through this rural little train depot, the life line of a little town. So if you ever find yourself traveling on North Carolina Highway 42 and come across a crossing once known as Old Sparta, be sure to wave to the Conetoe train depot across the pasture. Perhaps the current owners will even ring the bell once again just for you.