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Photo courtesy of Terry SkibbyDepot hotel

Walking through history: Free weekly tour offers glimpse into Railroad District past

A lot of history happened in Ashland’s Railroad District and every Friday morning at 10, history buff and archival photo collector Terry Skibby stands ready to lead you on a fascinating 90-minute tour of it.

Native Ashlander Skibby, who was born in the town’s first hospital (where Stevenson Union now stands) launches his talk at the Applegate Trail marker, explaining how brothers Jesse and Lindsay Applegate in 1846 blazed the Applegate Trail, a cutoff from the Oregon Trail in Idaho. They wanted the alternative because both lost sons on the dangerous Columbia River whitewater.

It led into what would become Ashland. The plaque stands in Railroad Park on land that would be claimed and settled by Lindsay Applegate. The land would later play host to tracks for the Southern Pacific line and, at 5:04 p.m., Dec. 17, 1887, Charles Crocker, vice president of Southern Pacific, would drive a golden spike completing the rail loop around the nation, explains Skibby, a member of the city Historic Commission.

In his capacious photo albums of Ashland history (many are in the public library), Skibby can show you no picture of the golden spike moment. The reason is simple: it was dark. Snow in the Siskiyous had held up the train, which was originally supposed to arrive in mid-day. Each hammer blow by Crocker was tapped out to the nation on telegraph, Skibby says.

Centered around A and Fourth Streets, the old Railroad District for decades was the bustling second hub of Ashland commerce. Skibby pulls out stunning shots of the giant train depot-hotel with its large, upscale dining room (white linen and napkins!) and large, well-dressed crowds awaiting troop trains.

Except for a smaller south wing, now offices across A Street, the depot died in a 1937 fire. A big event in 1987, he notes, showing a glossy black-and-white shot of it, was the Golden Spike centennial, with Senators Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood, and Mayor Gordon Medaris reminding the crowd of Ashland’s big moment in U.S. history. Hatfield reenacted history by driving a pretend golden spike again.

Everyone has noticed the obviously historic but dreadfully ramshackle house on Fourth at the corner of Seventh Streets. It’s the old Parker Davies house, from the turn of the century — once proud and now being restored, reports Skibby. It already has a new roof. It was later owned by an S.P. engineer, then by a barber at the Peerless Hotel.

Skibby’s photos tell the story of “the old cider man,” William Powell, whose cider cart refreshed rail passengers. His confection store on A Street, facing north between 4th and 5th, was popular and stood next to the Chop House (which, as everyone knew back then, meant steak house). These were popular not only with train riders, but scores of train workers and their families, who built most of the early homes in the Railroad District.

With these seemingly minor details, Skibby nonchalantly spins the web of history and you start finding yourself back there, expecting them to walk by, tip a hat and invite you in for a cup of fresh cider.

The actual Liberty Bell sat on these tracks on a 1915 tour of the nation. So did President Theodore Roosevelt, barking from the caboose of his train after passing through a floral arch, made by locals. The last passenger train left Ashland in 1955.

Turning the corner up 4th Street, Skibby points out the 1908 fire station #2, which had a jail in the back (you can still see the screenlike bars on the side) where, about 1910, police put “hobos” — this a necessity because they did so much larceny in the evenings, stealing clothes off clotheslines and grabbing and roasting chickens. This building is made of “Miracle Block,” which looks like quarried stone but is really concrete. It is across from Noble Coffee.

The walking tour winds down historic B Street, lined with vernacular and Queen Anne homes, to the present Ashland Food Co-op, which once was the huge Natatorium and Sulphur Baths — and later Twin Plunges. They were gone by 1972.

The tours continue through Aug. 28. They are free and public. The federal government takes note of the district at www.nps.gov/nr/travel/ashland/rra.htm.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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