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Franklin depot faces uncertain future

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More than 100 years of railroad history is preserved in a converted railroad depot in downtown Franklin.

Signs instructing passengers where to line up and workers what to check at each stop are nailed to the walls. Coal shovels speak to the time when the “iron horses” were powered by steam.

Signal lanterns are encased in glass, showing the ways that the trains communicated before radio. A large-scale model of a Michigan Central Line car is the centerpiece of the room.

But history lovers and railroad aficionados don’t know how much longer the depot will remain operational. The building’s longtime tenant, the Franklin Chamber of Commerce, moved into a new office this year.

The space adjoined to the museum is being rented to a local merchant. But the Franklin Education Foundation, which owns the depot, might be forced to close or move it to a new location.

“The thing I am most interested in is not that it is occupied. I was most interested in making sure it remains part of the community,” said Max Fitzpatrick, a historian and member of the education foundation. “But we still don’t know what we’ll do with the building.”

The station was a stop on the New York Central Line, one of the largest operating American railroads in the eastern part of the country. Trains running from Fairland stopped in Franklin at the station, letting off fuel, lumber and other goods before continuing to Martinsville.

“The railroad is important to Franklin because it carried grain and coal and fuel in those early days. That’s what supplied the town,” Fitzpatrick said.

But the line closed the depot in the 1960s. When the railroad stopped using it, local preservationists discussed the best way to use the old building.

The Franklin Education Foundation purchased the abandoned structure for $1 from the railroad.

“It had been on fire. It had been given to the Boy Scouts. It had also been used for things where people didn’t want to spend the money to fix it up,” Fitzpatrick said.

Originally, the depot building was located north of the downtown area, on Cincinnati Street. The foundation moved it on a flatbed truck to a spot off Jefferson Street, near the existing railroad tracks.

Moving the structure posed its own challenges, Fitzpatrick said. At one corner, a large tree prevented the flatbed from turning safely. When word spread that they were planning to cut the tree down, a local resident protested, climbing in the tree to prevent it from being chopped down.

“I had to give her $1,000 to get her out of that tree,” Fitzpatrick said. “I still have a branch off of that tree.”

Education foundation volunteers fixed up the building and looked for tenants to rent the space. It housed the United Way and Johnson County Red Cross, but both organizations eventually moved out. Then in the late 1970s, the Franklin Chamber of Commerce was looking for a new home.

“I told them, if they needed a permanent home, this would make an eye-catching office for a lot of people,” Fitzpatrick said.

At the same time, the educational foundation created a museum devoted to the county’s railroad history in half of the depot, said Bill Green, president of the education foundation.

The museum includes artifacts from local people. Many items came from residents who worked in the railroad shops in Beech Grove, a major hub for Indiana railroads. Others were left from the interurban that ran to Indianapolis through the city.

For more than 30 years, the Franklin Chamber of Commerce occupied the depot. The museum was used for school field trips and opened to the public every year at the annual Franklin Fall Festival. But this year, the chamber moved into a new office in downtown Franklin. That left the education foundation with no tenant.

Fitzpatrick started making contingency plans for the building. He approached charitable organizations throughout the community, but the space didn’t fit any of their needs. He and other volunteers also talked to railroad clubs about taking over the structure.

The education foundation board was approached by the Indiana State Fair about moving it to Indianapolis, to be put on display on the fairgrounds as a educational exhibit.

“It’ll always say ‘Franklin’ on the front but would be a Johnson County artifact on the fairgrounds. That way, the museum would be kept up,” Fitzpatrick said.

Still, the board has not made any final decisions about the building, Green said. Currently, a new local business, Simplify: A Country Store, is renting the space by the month.

A final decision will be made next summer, Fitzpatrick said.

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