Potlatch Depot Restoration
The Washington, Idaho & Montana Railway Depot was the first commercial building erected in Potlatch, Idaho and was completed in June 1906. Measuring 24’ x 100’ on the first floor, 28’ x 100’ on the second-floor, with walk-in vaults on both levels, this impressive wood structure was designed by C. Ferris White of Spokane, WA.
Built to house three sets of offices—for the WI&M Railway, Potlatch Lumber Company (PLCo), and the company town of Potlatch—it became immediately obvious that the depot’s 5,200 square feet was of insufficient size for the monumental administrative tasks at hand. A hastily constructed office near the mill became the PLCo office a few months later and for several years thereafter.
(A PLCo and company town office building was constructed in 1913 on the hillside behind the depot. This building has housed the Potlatch City Hall since the company buildings were sold to city occupants in the 1950’s. It was restored in 2005-06.)
As business declined in the 1930’s, the second-floor depot offices were remodeled as apartments and rented for many years. But the platform level of the Depot, and the adjoining Annex building, were used exclusively by the WI&M, and every railroad company that operated the rail line thereafter: The Milwaukee Road in 1963; the Burlington Northern (BN) in 1981; and the Palouse River & Coulee City Railroad (PCC) in 1996.
The WI&M Ry History Preservation Group (HPG) purchased the WI&M Potlatch Depot, along with 3-acres of line side property, in July 2001, from the PCC, a subsidiary company of Watco, Inc. of Pittsburg, KS. Donations for purchase of the depot were raised from HPG members, local residents, and history-minded individuals across the country.
Dubbed the “Founding Fifty”, these donors’ contributions to purchase and save this historic building cannot be overemphasized. Without their support, this National Historic Structure would have been lost to time and the elements.
In February of 2001, armed with only a Watco letter of intent to sell, the HPG’s vice-president, Jack Coyner, had applied for a $500,000 Transportation Enhancement grant, for restoration of historic transportation structures. Administered by the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD), the HPG was awarded the grant in October 2001.
Receiving the restoration funding took much, much longer. The project design was finally approved by ITD in July 2006. The restoration contract work was bid in April 2007. Initial work raised the structure, replaced the old foundation, installed a new roof, and restored the depot’s exterior. All aspects of each contractor’s work was directed by then-President, Don Somers, and VP Jack Coyner.
Interior restoration of a portion of the first floor was accomplished by HPG volunteers in the spring of 2010. The former ticket office and men’s waiting room were restored as built. The women’s ticket areas and rear hallway were reconfigured into an office space, kitchenette, ADA restroom, and janitorial closet. Much of the work was performed by Brian Magelky, Don Somers, Jim West, Jack Coyner, and Karen Rohn.
A doorway was inserted into the stairwell from the north hallway, utilizing a door saved from the 1906 Genesee School. A matching door was installed to access the 950 sq ft former freight room. The walls were insulated, new lighting, and a gas forced air heater. (This area is now used as an event center and is available to the public by reservation.)
With the assistance of US Bank employees (organized by HPG officer and director Kenny Cada), and many local volunteers, 31-tons of plaster and lath was removed from the second-floor in the spring of 2011. The second floor was taken down to the studs and rafters. Every nook and cranny was weather sealed and insulated.
The sash windows were individually restored, their pulleys and counterweights re-fitted with new cord. (A 2017 fundraiser allowed us to mount low-E storm windows outside each one.)
Most of the second-floor doors and some of the wood flooring had been “pilfered” in previous decades. Thirty-one mahogany transom doors were acquired from the 1910 Railway Exchange Building in Portland OR (now the Oregon Pioneer Bldg.). Likewise, 300 sq ft of Douglas “Coast” Fir wood flooring of a proper vintage was located and purchased. All were re-purposed.
Transom hinges and hardware were installed to allow “old-school” air circulation from every room. Appropriate light fixtures, fans, and bathroom porcelain were chosen and purchased, along with carpeting, re-coring the original locks—every detail needed for tenant occupancy, down to the electrical switch plates.
The second-floor renovation was directed by Jim West. Much of the Depot carpentry work was either performed or supervised by carpenter, Bob Behal. Both volunteered their hours. (It’s important to recognize that every volunteer that has ever worked on the Depot since 2001, donated all of their hours.)
After several thousand volunteer hours, and the work of local electrical, plumbing, drywall, and flooring contractors, restoration of the second-floor’s twelve offices was completed in 2016. The HPG immediately hired a commercial manager to attract and retain business and commercial tenants, with all rental receipts banked to pay the depot’s future maintenance needs.
Our organization is honored by the individual and combined efforts of our volunteers and our community partners from 2001—2016. While it was unfortunate that economic and government challenges delayed completion of the Potlatch Depot Restoration and Renovation project by ten years, our volunteers persevered. We are very proud of their work and tenacity. Their care is showcased in our restored and renovated Depot.
An interpretive display and exhibits of the WI&M Railway and Potlatch Lumber Company (PLCo) histories is featured in the former ticket office. With much of its original woodwork intact, all but one pane of its original glass, and historic photos adorning the halls on both floors, the Depot is an exhibit in itself.
The HPG, now WI&M RY.org business office is built around the first-floor vault. The second-floor houses our historic archives, and those of the Potlatch Historical Society (PHS), which is headquartered there as well. (All archives are managed by retired UCLA librarian, Gary Strong. Besides national awards for his work, Gary is both an HPG and PHS officer.)
Self-guided tours are open for public viewing during regular business hours. (Please be considerate of the businesses on the second-floor.) To fully appreciate the Depot’s remarkable history, a guided-tour is recommended and can be arranged via phone or email.
The first-floor former waiting room is home to an eclectic art and vintage gift shop, Blackbird at the Depot. The WI&M RY.org Company Store next door sells books, shirts, and railroad memorabilia.
Current business hours are 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM Thursday thru Saturday. For more information about BlackBird or the Potlatch WI&M Depot, please call 208 875-1357.