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(rshsdepot) Mobile, AL

Architectural gem that served trains reborn in Mobile

Associated Press Writer

The ornate GM&O terminal - an architectural antique near Mobile's
riverfront - served rail passengers in its thriving days as a railroad hub.

Now an investment of nearly $19 million in public and private money is
bringing it back to life as a bus terminal that includes business and retail
offices, but no longer trains.

The Spanish Colonial Revival building, with an eye-catching red mission tile
roof, was constructed in 1907. It is expected to have tenants opening for
business in May or June.

Its rebirth cheers 75-year-old Charlie Dowdle, who locked up the building
for the last time in 1986 when it closed and fell into decline. Dowdle
stepped back inside Wednesday with a half-dozen former railroad co-workers.

They had a surprise around every corner, with big doors replaced by glass
and elevators where restrooms once were located. In the rear of the L-shaped
building, there's new landscaping and a reminder of bygone days - an aging
green Southern railroad passenger car.

Dowdle was building manager and director of the railroad freight audit for
the entire Illinois-Central system, from Mobile to Omaha and Chicago and all
the stations in between.

"Back years ago, the Rebel passenger train was really something in it's
heyday," Dowdle recalled. Passengers also could take the two-car "Doodle
Bug" in the early 1940s up to Jackson, Miss., he said.

There was no air conditioning.

"Back in the 1940s, you could open the windows and the cinders would come
in," said Frances Ashcraft, who worked 36 years for the railroad.

Ben Schmerbauch, 60, said something was going on all the time in the GM&O
when he worked there.

"It was like a soap opera with a lot of jokes and pranks," Schmerbauch said.

Some workers brought an overnight bag to work and took a free train ride to
St. Louis or Chicago for a long weekend, said Bill Van Loock, 74. He said
employees could ride free but while working they got no coffee breaks.

"We were not allowed to leave our desk," he said.

Some former passengers still live near the terminal, like 92-year-old Callie

Aldridge said she took the train to St. Louis for church conventions back in
the 1940s.

"It was a beautiful building," said Aldridge, whose apartment gives her a
view of the restored GM&O -- the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio passenger terminal.

It stirs fond memories, too, for Maxine Williams, who remembers coming to
Mobile from Youngstown, Ohio, on the train as a child. She also can see the
terminal from her porch and has watched the renovations.

"I tell my children about taking the train," she said.

In time, the railroad leases changed and passenger trains were eliminated at
the terminal in 1958.

The city this year had explored the possibility of routing Amtrak's
Florida-bound Sunset Limited - the port's only passenger service - through
the GM&O terminal, but the track patterns would not allow it.

Dowdle said he hated to see the terminal close when he retired after about
42 years on the job.

"I'd say 300 people worked in that building. Could have been more," Dowdle
recalled. "I hated to see it close down because people lost their jobs."

They were given choices of moving to Chicago or Jackson, Miss., or accepting
a buyout from the railroad.

Some of those former GM&O workers still have an annual reunion in Mobile,
Dowdle said. While their numbers decline annually, at last count, there were
56 attending, he said.

"My husband and I worked in this building for a combined 67 years," said
Madeline Ralls, who retired in 1984. She admired the terminal's renovations.
"This is my little corner," she said, finding the spot where she worked 30

The terminal cost $400,000 when it was constructed nearly 100 years ago. It
now sits across from the new Mobile Register building at the entrance to the
Alabama State Docks and beside an interstate ramp at the intersection of
Beauregard and Water Street.

The $19 million to restore it included an $11 million federal grant, $2.2
million in city funds and $5.6 million from Carbone Properties of Cleveland,
Ohio, the developers with a 50-year lease on the city-owned building. Their
renovation project began after a private investor's attempt to convert it
into a casino failed.

"We are very proud of the project, the work done to date, and the nearly
completed project," said Carbone spokesman James Haas. He said the
three-story building has 54,500 square feet of space.

Some of the new tenants include the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and
Firearms, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Metro Transit, the port
city's bus system.

The second and third floors will be office space and the first floor will be
a mix of office, food and retail. The main building and site will be
complete by March 15, Haas said. He anticipates tenants will open in May or

The GM&O's reopening comes as work has begun about a mile away on the
state's tallest building, the 37-story RSA office tower and hotel, also on
Water Street.

The Railroad Station Historical Society maintains a database of existing
railroad structures at: http://www.rrshs.org


End of RSHSDepot Digest V1 #603

The Railroad Station Historical Society maintains a database of existing
railroad structures at: http://www.rrshs.org