The Sanderson Depot was built in 1882, a few months after the railroad reached the dry creek bed that marked the halfway point between San Antonio and El Paso. Abandoned since 1995, the 120-year-old, two-story building that is a symbol of the railroad era in America and was once the lifeline of the town now teeters on the brink of demolition.
After local residents spent nearly eight years applying for grants and making plans for the depot's restoration, the Terrell County Commissioner's Court has balked at spending the $79,000 budgeted to match the Texas Department of Transportation's federally allocated restoration funds. Without the county's portion, says Cliff McSparran, a member of the Friends of the Sanderson Depot organization, the building's fate will revert to the Union Pacific. When the railroad quit using the depot eight years ago, officials in Del Rio and San Antonio recommended it be bulldozed.
Built in a style common for Western depots during the late 1800s, the building and its architecture aren't very remarkable, unless you consider that few buildings of this style remain. It was the first substantial structure in a settlement of adobe huts and tents when the rails were first laid on their way to California. "Sanderson is here because of the railroad," McSparran says.
The railroad used the town as a place to change crews, load cattle and sheep from area ranches, and deliver supplies to this remote area of the state. Roy Bean operated a saloon here before moving to Langtry. The last train robbery happened nearby in 1912, when two members of Butch Cassidy's Hole in the Wall Gang pulled their pistols on the train's engineer. An alert freight worker killed the would-be robbers and ended an era of Western history.
Train crews would work the rails as far as Sanderson, spend the night in the bunkhouse across the street from the depot, and then the next morning work the trains going back the way they came. At one time more than 300 railroad jobs centered around Sanderson, McSparran says. The bunkhouse barely stands, with its faded brown and yellow paint and green roof offering a faint reminder of the railroad's once-proud colors. The Sunset Limited stops in Sanderson six days a week, albeit briefly. A round-trip ticket between Austin and Sanderson costs $194 (www.amtrak.com).
Known as the "Cactus Capital of Texas" and the "Eastern Gateway to the Big Bend," Sanderson has become a watering hole for modern iron horses. McSparran estimates about one-third of the visitors to Big Bend National Park travel U.S. Hwy. 90 through this town. Local businesses are trying to find ways -- in addition to the four motels, two gas stations, and the four to six restaurants operating at any given time -- to get travelers to stop in town.
The citizens are trying to obtain money from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to build hike-and-bike trails into the hills surrounding the town. A movement is also under way to rebuild the old town square to make it more inviting to visitors. "This town used to know what buttered its bread," McSparran says, referring to the importance of the tourist dollar.
Sanderson, population 861, is the county seat of a two-town county. Dryden, the other town, has a population of 13. Another 100 or so people are scattered on the sheep and cattle ranches or working the oil and gas fields. It takes a special breed of person to endure the unique beauty of the rugged, desert landscape.
Terrell County Judge Leo Smith calls the preservation project too expensive and prefers that the funds revert to the county's contingency fund and the federal funds go somewhere else. With a 2-2 vote by county commissioners, Smith cast the deciding vote. At a five-hour meeting on March 10, tempers flared, voices were raised, and few opinions were changed. "We're a fairly social town," McSparran says. "We can disagree and still get along." Supporters of the project have until TxDOT's June 30 deadline to alter the fate of a fading icon of American transportation.
Sanderson maintains the look and feel of an Old West town, from the adobe buildings that line the streets to the colorful sunsets that fill the evening sky. For more information, call 915/345-2324 or go to www.sandersontx.org.
615th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.Train station blues