New track for old station: Amtrak site could become civil rights museum when transportation hub opens
A rusty barbed-wire-topped fence that surrounds the Amtrak station off East Montague Avenue makes it look more like a prison than a travel destination.
It sits in an industrial area next to the low-income Liberty Hill neighborhood. The station platform has broken or missing drain pipes and flaking paint. A plant grows from the roof next to big, block letters that advise this is Charleston. At mid-day, its deserted appearance evokes the feeling of a ghost town.
But plans are in the works for a new train, bus and taxi station on West Montague Avenue that will give a much better first impression of the area. At the same time, officials are exploring how the old station might be used.
One option under consideration is a civil rights museum reflecting the Jim Crow-era when the station had separate waiting areas for whites and blacks. A search is under way for the original station placards, said Wannetta Mallette, a project manager for the North Charleston Planning Department.
The future of the station, built in 1956, will be the subject of two public hearings Thursday during which ideas will be received for how the property could be an asset to the community and area.
"We hope the public is interested in weighing in," Mallette said.
The effort is made possible by $2,200 in grant money from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the city of North Charleston, the Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities and the Liberty Hill Community Association. CSX railroad owns the property, and it has agreed to work with the revitalization project, Mallette said.
John Cook, Amtrak lead ticket agent, said the station sees about 2,000 passengers per week. "Train travel through here has always been very steady," Cook said.
Six months ago, the station interior was repainted, the grounds landscaped, new toilets installed and brick steam-cleaned.
"It looks a lot better than it did," he said.
It doesn't make sense for Amtrak to pump a lot more money into refurbishing the station because of the plans for a new transportation hub, he said. "I've been waiting since 1994 to move into the new station."
Another possibility being explored for the current station is a railroad museum in some part of the building, officials said.
The Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority will move its headquarters from downtown Charleston to the new station.
CARTA Chairman Elliott Summey said he favors using the old train station for something that will stimulate the local economy and honor the history of the building and surrounding neighborhood.
"What those folks really need over there is jobs," he said.
Summey, the Charleston County Council vice chairman, said officials are pursuing another grant of about $7 million that is needed before the new station can be built.
"Once we get the money, we'll be ready to roll," he said.
The site of the new train and bus station is 36 acres of palmetto tree-lined grounds including a curved pond with a fountain and newly paved roads that wind past manicured lawn. Known as the Intermodal Transportation Center, it will be located near North Charleston Coliseum, rail lines, Charleston International Airport and the interstate highway system.
Some $10 million has been spent to buy the land, prepare it for construction, provide electrical and sewer capacity and produce building designs. The deteriorated condition of the Amtrak station was a key factor in securing $6 million in grant money.
The new center will be for Amtrak passenger trains, Greyhound/Southeastern Stages and CARTA buses as well as taxis, limousines and maybe regional high-speed rail. As currently designed, the building will look much like the old Union Train Station in Charleston, which burned in 1947.
Reach Prentiss Findlay at 937-5711