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The Kaleva Depot - Remember When

Written by Cynthia Asiala, Kaleva Historical Society for the Manistee News Advocate


The village that is now Kaleva was called Manistee Crossing in 1880. It formed around a depot built where two railroads met, the Manistee and Northeastern (M&NE) and the Chicago and West Michigan, later purchased by the Pere Marquette (P&M). The two railroad companies raced to build the tracks to meet at Manistee Crossing to transport the white pine trees harvested to build the cities far from there. At the time the town consisted of a depot and a post office, a store and a house that became a hotel. 

After the forests were gone, the Michigan Land Society sold the land to Jacob Saari, who formed a company that persuaded Finnish people to come here. They named the town Kaleva, after the Finnish epic poem and gave the streets names like Osmo, Panu, Tavi, and Wuoksi, in an effort to attract  immigrants from across the US and from Finland. Many of the settlers bought their land, sight unseen, in Manistee and took the train to Kaleva where they disembarked to a very dismal scene of stumps and sand. However, many of them stayed and the railroad became a necessity for travel and receiving and sending out goods. Legend has it that at one time 19 trains per day traveled through Kaleva to points east and north, as well as west and south. A friend remembers traveling to Traverse City for a day of shopping with a classmate, going and returning the same day.

The original depot burned in the early 1900’s, along with the businesses that had been established on Walta St. across from the depot. The present depot was built around 1908, based on the use of exterior bricks which were made in Manistee until around that time. The depot continued to be  very important  as the town grew. The grocery stores, farmers, creameries, coal suppliers and many others counted on the depot as their main means of transportation. Young men left for the services and wars on the trains, and passengers embarked on trips to near and far away destinations from the depot. The sound of the train whistle was a familiar sound to everyone.

The last trains traveled through Kaleva in the late 1970’s. The tracks were disassembled and all that was left were memories and the abandoned depot. However, the village of Kaleva took possession of their town’s depot and a new roof kept the building sound. In 1996 the Brethren High School Service Learning class was started. This class chose to work in Kaleva in an effort to preserve history and culture. One of the first projects was to renovate the Depot and form a railroad museum.

It was a daunting task, the windows were broken, the rafters and floors needed repair. It would take two years (4 semesters) of students’ work to reach the goal. Every day Monday through Thursday, the school bus brought around 18 students to Kaleva to work on various sites. The Depot crew was dropped off to spend approximately 45 minutes painting, hammering, building shelves, glazing glass into window frames or whatever task they were assigned. In springtime it was work outside the depot, landscaping, placing a rail sculpture designed by students, cleaning up junk dumped near the depot. It was often cold, dirty work. But the students’ determination and enjoyment of what they were doing carried the project along and soon it was time for an opening of the Kaleva Depot Railroad Museum.

The opening took place in June 1998 (20 years ago!). Students planned the program, invited special guests, set out the chairs and enjoyed a beautiful afternoon program. The band played, the mayor, the superintendent and a state representative spoke, an errant passenger showed up late for her train, and the students basked in the admiration of what they had accomplished. But what would happen now that students’ work was done? 

A train club from Benzonia was looking for a place to hold meetings and showcase some of their railroad memorabilia. An agreement was made to allow them to use the depot and in exchange they would staff it during open hours on summer Saturdays. This arrangement worked for several years. A bunch of local retirees, dubbed the Depot Crew decided to help out with upkeep and continued improvements to the project. They found an original pot-bellied stove, installed authentic looking light fixtures, added to the exhibits and enjoyed meeting together Tuesday mornings. Eventually an M&NE engine, which had actually traveled through Kaleva during its lifetime, became available for the price of moving it to Kaleva. The Depot Crew found tracks, laid them (YES, these retired 70 & 80 year olds turned into John Henrys!), and finally the engine made its way to Kaleva. The Village cooperated in this project which became quite costly. Nevertheless, the engine is home, the depot is now staffed by a local enthusiast and is open summer Saturdays from 12-4 pm.

This history is memorable for many reasons: it focuses on the early years of the area, the importance    of the railroads for transportation, the change when the trains were replaced by automobile and truck transportation, the realization that an important part of history was sitting empty and neglected, the students’ seeing the need to revive this part of the past, being willing to work hard to renovate the building and turn it into a museum with school and community support. The Kaleva Depot was saved!

Today the Depot is a stop on the Manistee County River Valley Quilt Trail, which leads visitors to historic sites in the area. The quilt square was chosen because it resembles the crossing of train tracks which is how the Kaleva Depot came to be almost 140 years ago. It is definitely a place to visit and reminisce of days gone by.

The Kaleva Historical Society is able to maintain and staff the Depot due to the generous contributions of the following sponsors: Cherryland Electric Co-operative, Fruit Haven/Lutz Farms, Kaleva Country Flowers, Kaleva Telephone Company, Northern Michigan Dragway, Terwilliger Funeral Home. 

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