Historic Hutchinson, with the help of McLeod County Historic Partnership Director Monica Wehler, is on a mission to preserve the graffiti history of the Great Northern Railroad depot in Hutchinson. Historic Hutchinson was formed in 1999 and has been saving and restoring historical structures around town including the Harrington Merrill house, St. John’s Episcopal Church and now the Great Northern Depot.
“The purpose of this organization is to restore, to preserve and to protect the living and structural history and the spirit of the Hutchinson area and to showcase these assets now and for the future,” said Wehler.
According to Wehler, the St. Paul and Manitoba Railway (which was then changed to the Great Northern) first came to Hutchinson in 1886, followed closely by the building of the depot in February 1887. In the early days, many men and a few women used coal pieces to write their names, dates and other details on the depot walls. Some of these graffiti creators were just passing through, but many lived and worked in and around Hutchinson and have contributed to the history of the area, both as railroad employees and in other capacities.
Wehler emphasized in her grant application that the ultimate goal of Historic Hutchinson is to preserve all the graffiti and highlight it with an interpreted local history to be shared with the public. “In order to do that, we need to identify it, create a record of it all and research and interpret each graffito’s local historical significance,” said Wehler.
Railroads have been an integral part of Hutchinson for much of its history. But when the last train departed Hutchinson on June 14, 2000, the legacy and history began to fade. The graffiti in the depot is one of the last local remnants from Hutch’s railroad history. Additionally, according to the Great Northern Railway Historical Society, Great Northern’s personnel records were destroyed in the Burlington Northern merger of 1970, so that the only publicly accessible record of Great Northern personnel in the area resides in the Minnesota Historical Society’s archives, which cover only the first decade of the railway’s existence.
When Historic Hutchinson and the city of Hutchinson began work to rescue the depot from demolition and make it into a space suited for modern public use, members of Historic Hutchinson knew immediately that the graffiti covering the inside walls was important to the city’s history. The railroad has been an important employer for area residents, and the graffiti tells that history.
One such piece of this history is in the graffito depicting the name of Fred Knaff. He is part of a family with a strong local presence, with a father and brother both having owned businesses in Hutchinson. Fred, himself, followed up his time at Great Northern by working most of his life as a station agent for the Luce Line Railroad, which also ran through Hutchinson. Luce Line was a nickname for the railroad. It was called Luce Line because William Luce was the financier of the line. The real name from 1924-1956 was Minnesota Western Railroad.
Most of the graffiti has a history that will require deeper research, such as the large wanted poster drawn onto the north wall, offering a $500 reward for fugitive Frank Wolf, who jumped out of a train to escape his captor.
A fire in April 2001 also motivated the attempts to save the history inside the depot, as Historic Hutchinson members realized how vulnerable the depot, and especially the history on its walls, really was. Besides the threat of fire or other natural disasters, the graffiti is vulnerable to vandalism and other human interference. The canvas (the depot itself) has been secured from demolition and vandalism, and Historic Hutchinson is now ready to address the history written on the walls, first and foremost by preserving the data in a way that is secure from all threats.
Historic graffiti expert Alyssa Auten, will advise the organization on the project. Auten specialized in historic graffiti for her master’s degree. She was the executive director of the Nicollet County Historical Society. The goal is to complete the project by late September.