The Kansas City Southern Railroad track still runs past the vacant Mansura Depot that served train passengers and freight trains for many years, including welcoming a number of orphans to the state during the so-called Orphan Train program in the early 20th Century. The depot will have a new life as a community center and museum. {Photo by Raymond L. Daye}

Mansura Mayor Kenneth Pickett admires the workmanship on a new door installed at the Mansura Depot. {Photo by Raymond L. Daye}

This ticket window, facing the railroad track, once welcomed visitors to Mansura when passenger trains were a common means of travel. {Photo by Raymond L. Daye}

Some day the old Mansura Depot will welcome visitors with open arms and all the hospitality that Avoyelles Parish is known for. However, for now a white and red sign (on first window) tells would-be visitors to "Keep Out" while remodeling is being done to turn the 93-year-old structure into a home for a museum featuring the area’s history and the important role the railroad played here. {Photo by Raymond L. Daye}

Mansura Depot museum taking shape

Phase I may be finished this summer

It might take a bit of imagination to see a tourist attraction where an empty shell of a building now stands, but there are definitely indications of good things to come.

“This is going to be very good for the Town of Mansura,” Mayor Kenneth Pickett said while looking at the progress on the historic Mansura Depot. “This will be a fine museum. Mansura is known for being a railroad town and for being an important stop for the Orphan Train in Louisiana,” Pickett said. “We will be gathering donated items to display in the museum.”

Pickett said the project presents an opportunity to forge partnerships with other agencies in the community.

“We will partner with the high schools for students to build display cases and we will work with the Tourism Commission at the AgCenter to promote the museum as a tourist attraction,” he said.

Some walls have been painted and there is evidence of recent carpentry work around the depot.

On this day, the only workers on site were Bruce Gaspard and Trey Dauzat, of Service Air & Electric in Hessmer, who were working on the heating and air conditioning system -- a promise that future visitors won’t be as uncomfortable as current ones are.

“This is a long time coming,” Pickett said. “Connie Ducote, who recently passed away, spearheaded this project when she was on the Town Council.”

Phase I of the museum project is being funded by a $277,200 federal Transportation Enhancement Fund grant, which is administered by the state Department of Transportation & Development.

Once this phase is finished, the town hopes to obtain another grant to remodel what is now a warehouse area of the depot.

The town will erect a fence between the railroad track and the depot, Pickett said. There will also be work done to improve the parking area for visitors. There is an abandoned stretch of track in front of the depot that Pickett said would be ideal for one or more train cars -- such as a caboose, passenger car or dining car.

The federal grant was approved in 2007, but paperwork and details postponed the go-ahead to remodel the former Louisiana & Arkansas/Kansas City Southern depot until last year. In addition to the grant funds, Mansura has spent or will spend another $62,000 of town money in this phase of the project.

The museum will focus on Mansura’s history as a railroad town, including its role in the famous “Orphan Train” program that brought many orphans from Northern cities to find loving homes in Louisiana. The Orphan Train program was the precursor to today’s foster care program.

The trains carried orphaned, abandoned and homeless children from the New York Foundling Hospital to Louisiana between 1873 and 1929. The trains stopped in several Louisiana towns, including Mansura.

The first depot in Mansura was a wooden structure built by the Louisiana Railroad & Navigation Co. in 1902. That depot was built close to the current depot site. The current structure was built in 1924. Louisiana & Arkansas Railroad bought LR&N in 1928 and then merged with KCS in 1932.

KCS closed the depot in 1973 and donated the site and building to the town.

The structure was added to the National Register of Historic Places on Nov. 1, 1996. Pickett said that while the national listing adds prestige to the property, it also makes remodeling and restoring the structure more demanding because the work has to hold true to the historic qualities of the building.

Of course, some exceptions -- air conditioning and indoor restrooms, for example -- are allowed for those historic sites built before the advent of those “luxuries.”

Wayne Coco, the architect for the remodeling project, said work on this phase should be finished by the end of summer.

“It has required some meticulous work on the wood and a lot of detailing,” Coco said.

He said contractor Brent Scallan has gone the extra mile to help the town deal with the maddeningly slow nature of funding the project.

“The town will have to wait until after the project is finished for the grant funds to be released to the town,” Coco said.

Pickett said the solid wooden doors installed in the depot are an example of the care being taken to make the 2017 version of the depot as much like the 1924 version as possible.

Pickett said some original benches and furnishings of the depot will be restored and returned to the building when the work is finished.

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