Historical Society makes progress on freight building



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The Alton Historical Society is well on its way to completing the renovation of the J. Jones & Son freight building on Depot Street. Pictured here in front of the building is one of the antique crossing gates donated by the Nicolazo family. Brendan Berube. (click for larger version)
July 14, 2009
ALTON — The Alton Historical Society's efforts to transform the former J. Jones & Son freight building on Depot Street into a museum and meeting room are moving closer to success thanks to the generosity of local residents and the unexpected discovery of some long-forgotten artifacts.

Conducting The Baysider on a tour of the renovated freight building last week, Society members Marty and Mary Cornelissen announced that the organization had used a grant it received from Meredith Village Savings Bank in the fall of 2008 to complete electrical work in the museum area.

Rines Electric, they said, installed switches, receptacles, wiring and fixtures for the inside lights, along with smoke alarms, exit and emergency lights, and exterior lighting over the doors and above the sign.

In May, Mary added, the society received a donation of $1,000 from the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region and the DeLong Family Trust, which will also be put toward the renovations.

Marty explained that with the museum section almost complete, the society is hoping to move on to the second phase of the project, converting the other half of the freight building into a conference room where the Historical Society and other town boards and committees will be able to conduct meetings.

The museum, he said, will house artifacts like a grinder and corn husker, along with other "stuff you used to see in the freight buildings," including wooden crates and chicken coops.

"It will kind of show the roots of the town," he said, adding that he recently came across a collection of original freight receipts showing the "tremendous amount of stuff" shipped to Alton by train during the B&M Railroad's heyday, from seeds and grain to horses and even carriages.

Another unexpected addition to the freight building recently arrived in the form of a pair of antique railroad crossing gates recovered from a summer home in West Alton.

According to Marty, Highway Agent Ken Roberts spotted the gates in front of a cottage near Minge Cove in 2004 or 2005, and suggested that he take a look at them, mistakenly assuming that there must have been a railroad station in that area at one time.

Knowing that there had never been a station located near Minge Cove, Marty said he wondered at the time where the gates had come from.

A few years later, he said, he received a phone call from friend Bob Buchanan, who had been asked by the family of a gentleman by the name of Nicolazo to appraise some of the items on their late father's property, including the crossing gates.

As it turned out, Marty explained, Nicolazo had purchased the hand-cranked gates from a railroad in Massachusetts when it switched over to newer electric gates, transported them up to Alton, and used them to block his driveway during the winter.

Buchanan, Marty said, had told Nicolazo's family about the Historical Society's plans for the freight building, and asked if they would be interested in donating the crossing gates, which bear the logo of the B&M Railroad.

With the family agreeing to donate them, he explained, Scott Williams helped the Historical Society dig up the massive gates (which Nicolazo had encased in cement) and transplant them to the freight building.

Pointing to the patent date on the gates (1878), Marty explained that they were used at the turn of the 20th Century by full-time gatekeepers who were stationed at railroad crossings to block traffic during the passage of a train.

"They're pretty cool," he said, commenting that the gates will fit in nicely with the society's educational goals.

"It's for the kids to see," he said. "You don't see these things [today].

"This is the kind of stuff you look for. The kids can come in and touch it, and they can see it work," he added.

Noting that the freight building has "come a long way" since the renovations began last year, Marty voiced the society's appreciation for the help of Buchanan, Williams, and the Rines family, without whom he said the project would never have come so far.

"We don't know what we're going to come up with next," he said, pointing to the crossing gates as an example of the way so many aspects of the project have "just fallen into place."

"You never know," he added.

The Historical Society has scheduled an open house at the freight building on Saturday, Aug. 8, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

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