Future Life Of The Illinois Central Passenger Depot
By Jason Croft
Black Dog Smoke & Ale House, a very popular barbeque restaurant in downtown Urbana, will be moving to a second location in downtown Champaign.
For fans of barbeque, this is probably great news and the end of the story. But where the Black Dog is moving to—that—for followers of Champaign history—is where the story really starts.
Tucked in the back corner of Main and Chestnut streets in downtown Champaign, right along the railroad tracks, is long brick building whose roof proclaims “Champaign-Urbana. Pop. 93,500. Fastest Growing Community in Downstate Illinois.” This is the Illinois Central Railroad Passenger Depot.
“I love this building. I’ve always loved this building.” That’s Dannel McCollum. He’s the former mayor of Champaign, the official Champaign City Historian, and basically the guy you call when you want to know something about the history of the city.
The Passenger Depot was built in 1899 when the previous train station burnt down. According to the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District’s website, Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt spoke from its platform. The Liberty Bell was also displayed there on its way to the 1904 St. Louis Exposition.
McCollum explains that is was the railroad that helped put Champaign on the map—literally. It was so important that before Champaign was even called “West Urbana,” it was known as the Depot to the locals--which is not to be confused with this building, which was also called by that name.
“This is the heart of what was Champaign. I’ll put it this way—when the railroad came through, there was just a few buildings here. But almost immediately, because this became the area of importance, Urbana nearly died. So they languished while the Depot…which (it) was originally known as the Depot…grew exponentially till within two years the new town, or the Depot, was larger than the old town.”
When work started on a newer train station started in 1923, the Depot building was moved north 114 feet…
“And they towed it with a—I heard—a turnstile. I think I heard the number of feet a day they moved it. It was not a fast job. But it took a while. But all the while it was being moved, it remained the waiting room (and) passenger station.”
After the new train station opened, the Depot was use as the Illinois Central freight station and the Railway Express Office.
Looking north to south along the rail line, you can see the several train stations Champaign has used since its earliest days—from the Depot (the building) to the station built in the 1920’s, to the current Illinois Terminal just south of University Avenue built in the late 1990’s.
In recent times, the Depot has been closed up, unused, and mostly forgotten. But thanks to the folks at Black Dog, it will be another in a long list of older downtown Champaign building renovated and brought back to life. And McCollum is happy about that, “So, to have a business come in here and renovate it…and particularly because I’m sure they’re interested in the history and the color it presents that is will show off well. It will be a significant attraction for the downtown.”
According to Black Dog co-owner Michael Cochran, they won’t be over-doing it with the history of the building. “There won’t be a train going from one end to the other carrying your food or anything like that. It’ won’t hit you over the head. We might have a couple of pictures. There’s some nice photos of the building through its history so we might have a couple of photos of it up somewhere inside. That’s probably the extent of it.”
Cochran says fellow co-owner Pedro Heller always had his eye on the building. Cochran though it was too narrow. But after looking around, they realized there was enough space there to do what they want to, so they set the wheels in motion to open their new location there.
Interior demolition has already started at the depot, but according to Cochran, there is a lot to do. “We’re doing just short of everything to the building. We’re going to have to build a new foundation for the floors separate from the building foundation—we’ll leave that alone. And then we have to build a foundation for the floors. And then the roof is going to have to be torn off and rebuilt. So, we’re starting from definitely the bottom up and coming from the top down and working or way to in between.”
Since this is such a big project, Cochran admits he can’t really predict an exact opening date for the new Black Dog location. He’s hoping they can start work by November or December and be ready to go by next summer.