Columbia Falls has endured an “interesting” history with railroading.
The relationship harks to a time when Columbia Falls didn’t exist, when “The Bad Rock District” and “Half Moon Prairie” were more aspirations than actual places. It was a time when the Great Northern Railway just discovered a route through the Rockies. Many speculated about where the railroad would establish its division point – and instantly prosperous division-point town.
Some reckoned Half Moon would be the place. In fact, a fellow named J.P. Bowen established a post office at Half Moon in November 1890 and named it “Hill” in honor of the Great Northern Railway founder and president, James J. Hill.
Speculation spread like fever when a railroad clerk spoke loosely and it became known that the railroad would pass through Bad Rock Canyon. Barely a moment passed before the Northern International Development Company was established and Columbia Falls was platted in March 1891 – anticipating the all-but-certain arrival of the railroad division point.
However, railroad executives didn’t choose Hill, Columbia Falls or Demersville. They chose Kalispell instead. With much less fanfare, the railroad passed through Columbia Falls. And when the railroad depot was built, it seemed shrouded in spite: it marked a place that should have been.
In 1904, the Great Northern decided to leave Kalispell. Surely, Columbia Falls would become the division point it always should have been. But the nowhere place of “Stumptown” (aka Whitefish) was chosen instead.
Decades later, it seemed the splendid, late Victorian depot at Columbia Falls would finally get its chance. President Harry S. Truman planned to make a whistle-stop at Columbia Falls, en route to dedicate the Hungry Horse Dam in October 1952. But the depot was shunned once again, and deemed too old for a presidential visit.
The depot was chopped into three pieces, dismantled, and moved down Nucleus Avenue so another, more “modern” depot could be built in its place. Many long-time residents may recall the depot then became Linc’s auto repair shop for many years.
After decades as a repair shop (and falling to disrepair), Colette Gross purchased the building in 2008. At the time, perhaps her decision appeared to make more sense, as in “sense of place” (and not so much in avoiding things painstaking or back-breaking).
While renovating and restoring the depot for her antique shop, Collete discovered a board – dated March 18 1908 – in the attic. It was a discovery 100 years in the making – a striking coincidence that led to the name of the store: The Shops at Station 8 (the “8” refers to the board from 1908 discovered in 2008).
Thanks to Collete’s care and concern and meticulous restoration, the depot seems to make sense now. True, it is no longer trackside, rather roadside, but the railroadiana and other artifacts once hidden in the walls are now proudly displayed inside the shop (by the way, if you’re looking for things vintage, shabby-chic, primitive, and local in home décor, this is the place).
The telegraphers’ station at the depot also seems busy once again, as the check-out counter has taken its place.
Likewise, glimpses of the exterior architecture, once steeped in steam and coal smoke, can be found in various nooks throughout the shop. And much of the original maple floorboards can still be found refinished underfoot.
Fortunately, the depot still holds charm. And befittingly the depot serves as a great place for things historical and antique.
On Dec. 5 Jaix Chaix will be at the Flathead Beacon at 17 Main St. in Kalispell, 5-7 p.m., to celebrate First Friday and the release of his latest book “Flathead Valley Landmarks: Historic Places & People of the Past.” His other local history books will also be available for sale.