Bill Peacock—just an unknown name faintly scribbled across an old freight scale in the historic Central of Georgia Depot in Madison. It’s one of many faded names written across planks and walls inside the freight room of the depot, which was built in 1901. But it wasn’t just trains that came through the depot, but people. Each name left behind represents a life that partly unfolded in Madison’s busy depot during the early 1900s. Most of their stories have been lost to time. But Joe Smith, the architect overseeing the restoration of the depot, has uncovered some of those stories while researching the mysterious names on the walls. As it turns out, some of the stories are rather remarkable.
“I went down the rabbit hole,” said Smith. “Preservation is about people, not just buildings. I care a lot of about this building. I’ve taken the time to get to know the history of this building and through the building, get to know the people who built it and were here in it.”
So Smith did some digging and was able to find out more about Bill Peacock. He was an African-American porter for the Central of Georgia Depot who earned local praise in the Madisonian in 1929 after saving “a small colored boy” from being hit by an oncoming train near the depot. Smith also discovered Mr. Peacock worked for the depot for nine years, served in World War I, and lost an eye.
“These are stories we don’t hear, that have been long forgotten, but they are the stories of Madison, just as much as the antebellum period of history in Madison,” said Smith. Smith has found biographical information for some of the other names and companies memorialized on the wall. “We are keeping all the graffiti,” said Smith. “We will share whatever we can find out about each of the names and each of the companies that were a part of this place.”
The City of Madison identified the Central Georgia of Depot as part of its broader plan to revitalize the West Washington Gateway, which is one of six areas in need of improvement under the Downtown Urban Redevelopment Plan, which was created in 2011. City officials, under the guidance of the Historic Madison-Morgan Foundation and the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), plan to transform the Deport into a multipurpose space, serving as an environmental center and trailhead, as well as a conference, training, community and tourist center.
“This has been years in the making,” said Smith.
After the City of Madison acquired the historic depot, it was relocated just 75 feet away on North Bull Street across the railroad tracks. Smith and his crew recreated the waiting area of the depot that was torn down in the 1960s. The exterior of the depot is almost complete, with just some minor work left to do.
“Next, we start on the interior,” said Smith. However, there is no timeline set for completion on the restoration and rehabilitation of the inside of the depot until enough funds have been raised to complete it. A new fundraiser kicks off in August, aiming to do just that.
The Historic Madison-Morgan Foundation is hosting a beach party, featuring the musical group “The Swinging Medallions” at the Madison Morgan Cultural Center (MMCC) Hall on Saturday, August 11, from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tickets are $75 per person. All the money raised through that event will go toward the ongoing restoration of the depot.
For Smith, the Central Georgia of Depot restoration project is particularly special and pertinent in telling the story of Madison.
“Madison is known for its history and how well it has preserved its history. But the depot represents a time in Madison that is not well known,” explained Smith. “The depot encapsulates the purity of Madison’s history that not a lot of people know about.”
The depot was a booming center of commerce and travel during the post-bellum period decades after the Civil War.
“Everything came through this depot—groceries, furniture, cars,” said Smith. “There is no space in Madison that interprets this period in Madison’s history. There is not a lot that talks about what Madison was after the Civil War and that is why I think this is such an incredible building.”
According to Smith, the depot’s prominence in Madison dwindled after roadways improved and bus service became available in the 1920 and 1930s.
“By the 1950s, they discontinued passenger tickets altogether,” said Smith.
For Smith, recreating the waiting room that was torn down in the 1960s deeply impacted him.
“You know, they had segregated waiting rooms. That’s not a pleasant part of our history, but it still needs to be told,” said Smith. “We think we are so far passed all of that, that we are uniquely different from the people who lived before us. But learning about how people were treated with these segregated waiting rooms, you realize, it just wasn’t that long ago.”
Smith is currently looking for ways to preserve the historical integrity of the depot while adding modern standards of safety and equal access. The building must abide by current fire codes and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards.
“We must tread-lightly,” said Smith. “The first rule is to do no harm. We are to stabilize the building and leave it mostly as-is while adding minimal modern updates.”
Smith is looking forward to the day when the depot is complete and ready for the public.
“This is a very special place and will be a great asset to the City of Madison,” said Smith.