Built by the Norfolk & Western Railway (the “N & W”) around 1890, the Railroad Museum is considered to be the oldest surviving building in St. Paul. It occupies an unusual location at the east end of Russell Street near the edge of a cut overlooking the railroad tracks. For many years, the N & W owned all the property that lay between Russell Street and the tracks, extending from the Railroad Museum to the Fourth Avenue underpass.
During the days of steam power, smoke from passing trains below the Railroad Museum would have been a constant reminder of what dad did for a living. There would have been soot on the wash hanging on the line, soot on the house, and soot on everything in the house. Coal dust would have sifted through the cracks around the doors and windows, and even through the keyhole. As those of us who have lived close to the tracks know, “you get used to it.”
In the ca. 1905 photograph below, you can see a path extending from the Railroad Museum to the tracks below it. This path followed the steep portion of Russell Street down the embankment. It was the most direct means for railroad workers to reach the tracks, the town’s first post office, and the Dingus & Hillman Store.
As originally built, the Railroad Museum resembled two shoeboxes stacked one atop the other. The house had four large rooms, two on each floor. The building’s massive chimney served coal-burning fireplaces in each of the downstairs room. In later years, the present tongue and groove hemlock flooring was laid over the original floor, which can still be seen in the closet under the stairway.
Years of N & W ownership spared the house the remodeling and modernization which so drastically altered many St. Paul homes during the prosperous 1950‘s. The principal changes over the years consisted of a full-width front porch and a kitchen on the back side of the building. A bathroom was also added, replacing one of the last outdoor toilets in the downtown area.
After the porch was built, the primary exterior door between the two windows facing Russell Street was boarded up. A second door was added on the front to give access to the porch. This made the building more closely resemble its vernacular Southwest Virginia brethren of the period, which often featured two front doors.
Inside, what remains of the original woodwork is battered from the wear and tear of countless occupants, as well as bumps from the moving in and moving out of their furniture. Some of the woodwork has even been pried off and turned to its less-damaged side.
One upstairs bedroom features what may have been the Railroad Museum’s original front door. The glass pane has been removed and a sheet of plywood has been inserted in its place. Other doors show signs of having been used elsewhere – perhaps even on different buildings. Recycling of used building materials was very common in the frugal past when nothing was wasted.
As built, each of the Railroad Museum’s rooms could be entered directly from outside without having to pass through any other room. The stairway leading to the second floor is accessed from a small foyer through an interior and an exterior door; one door opens onto the porch and one door opens into the adjacent downstairs room. In its earliest days, when the house was used as a site office and dormitory for railroad employees, this ensured both privacy and security.
At the head of the stairs is a small hallway from which both upstairs rooms are accessed. Only one of the upstairs bedrooms has a closet. Occupants of the second bedroom probably hung their clothing on nails driven into the walls. After all, a railroad man’s wardrobe was not extensive in those days.
Many families lived in this house over the years. The 1910 U. S. Census lists the William Breeding family in residence. The Breedings had eight children – and they were boarding two railroad workers as well. This means that, typical of the period, the house had no defined “living room.” Every room except the kitchen would have contained multiple beds with multiple people in each bed (and guess what each bed would have had under it).
The Railroad Museum was well-adapted for the needs of its time and place. Expectations of personal space and privacy were different then. People spent their days working or playing outdoors. They came inside the house to eat, sleep, and get warm in the wintertime.
Jerry Couch, the author of this blog, opens the Railroad Museum on Saturday mornings and at other times upon request. He has been doing so for several years. When he is asked if the building is haunted, he replies, “No…but that may change after I die.”
St. Paul Virginia Railroad Museum Activities