By John Kanelis
Walter Wolfram is an Amarillo lawyer and a man in a hurry to complete a project he has been working on for a long time.
"I don't have much time," Wolfram said. "It needs to open now. I am 83 years old."
So, he's pushing harder and harder to see a dream of his come true: establishing a railroad museum in one of Amarillo's more historic buildings, the Santa Fe Railroad Depot.
Wolfram has submitted a proposal to the Amarillo City Council. He's asking for financial help in establishing a museum at the depot structure. Wolfram said the estimated cost of renovating the depot is about $3.5 million. He is asking the city to kick in around $2 million. Wolfram vows to raise the rest of through private donations.
Wolfram is thinking big on this project.
Wolfram has been involved for many years in a number of political causes. He most recently ran unsuccessfully this past May for Place 4 on the City Council; Mark Nair was elected in a runoff with Steve Rogers in June. Back in the mid-1990s, Wolfram opposed the Amarillo Hospital District's effort to sell Northwest Texas Hospital to a private, for-profit health care provider. The hospital eventually was sold to Universal Health Care.
Lately, though, Wolfram – who's also been active for years with the Golden Spread Council of the Boy Scouts – has turned his attention to establishing a railroad museum for Amarillo.
The non-profit organization Wolfram founded – Santa Fe Railway Museum, Inc. -- has published a mission statement, declaring its intent to "provide an educational and entertaining atmosphere enhanced by technology that conveys to our community the importance of the railway system to our community's history and present economic well-being."
Wolfram had sought initially to put the museum on the second floor of the Santa Fe Building, but concluded after meeting with then-Potter County Judge Arthur Ware that the Santa Fe Building site would be impractical.
Then he turned to the Santa Fe Depot.
"I have what I call a bathtub brain," Wolfram said. "I don't have many original ideas, but I collect ideas like a bathtub collects water."
He said he collects "ideas from the museums we have visited."
Wolfram said the Santa Fe Depot is located perfectly, just east of the Civic Center/City Hall complex and would be a good fit for the city's downtown revitalization efforts.
He intends to fill the depot with artifacts he said he's collecting and storing in the second floor of the Santa Fe Building.
"I've got some real interesting things in there," Wolfram said, ticking off a list of items.
"We have a 1903 surveyor's transom," he said, describing the device used by surveyors to measure tracts of land. "We've got pristine paperwork, photos of train wrecks, tons of uniforms, hand tools and tons of technical journals on how you run a railroad," he said. Wolfram also wants to have "mannequins that talk" about railroads and their impact on the Texas Panhandle.
The Santa Fe Railroad once was huge in the Panhandle. Indeed, the Santa Fe Building at Ninth Avenue and Polk Street served as the division headquarters for the railroad before it was vacated in the 1970s.
Wolfram submitted his proposal to the city this past March. He's waiting for a response.
His five-page proposal spells out his plans for the depot, how he intends to finance it and what the city's financial obligation would be if it "intends any use at all of the railroad station building." Wolfram writes in his proposal that the depot "cannot be used as a passenger train station because of the current elevation of the train (tracks) to the landing deck of the station."
He proposes granting a 30-year lease of the south four acres to the non-profit organization Wolfram founded.
Wolfram had been raising funds with help from the Amarillo Area Foundation and has gotten design help from the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum at the West Texas A&M University campus. "We were quite successful at first," Wolfram told the City Council in his proposal. "We were not turned down on any grant application until the downtown of the national economy" in 2008, he said. "We suspended the fundraising pending a better national outlook."
Wolfram said he has $350,000 "in the bank – right now," and expects to collect another $100,000 in pledges.
Wolfram does get excited when talking about the potential for the depot as a home for a railroad museum. He laughed out loud while recalling one of the plans that had been floated for the railroad depot. "They wanted to put a bus station and a (taxi) cab stand at the depot," Wolfram said. "They wanted to ruin this historic depot."
How did he respond to that idea? "That's like using the Declaration of Independence," Wolfam said, "as toilet paper." He said his dream for the depot is to honor the railway industry and insisted a museum is the perfect way to make that dream come true.
Wolfram thinks he has sufficient support on the City Council to move his proposal forward, citing the election of the three new members – Nair, along with councilmen Elisha Demerson and Randy Burkett.
One exhibit he plans to display at the museum would include old and abandoned railroad cars. He said he's been visiting railroad company offices, asking officials if they have "bone yards, where they keep those old old rail cars."