For a long time, train was the way to travel to Pullman, and each year hundreds of college students arrived downtown at the Northern Pacific Depot.

It was where Pullman residents greeted eager students and drove all their luggage to campus, says Washington State University archivist Mark O’English.

“In the school’s early decades, they didn’t have enough cars to carry all the students,” O’English says. “So you’d have this parade of students coming in and hiking up the hill to meet their luggage at the top.”

Train stopped in front of Pullman depot around 1920
Train stopped in front of depot c. 1920
(Courtesy WSU Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections)

Those who pass through the depot doors today⁠—and into the Pullman Depot Heritage Center⁠—can explore how the railroads transformed agriculture, the University, and life on the Palouse.

Once the “hub of town,” this iconic red-brick depot building was a vital part of the region’s growth, says Linda Hackbarth, cochair of the center.

“It’s what kept the town moving,” Hackbarth says. “Now we are asking, how do we recapture some of that history?”

The depot has been accepted to the National Register of Historic Places and work is underway to restore the building.

“It will be a gathering place for Pullman,” Hackbarth adds. “It’s not a bunch of artifacts sitting in cases, but something that will be continually growing.”

A “Fix the Bricks” campaign was launched to replace the roof and restore the exterior bricks beginning this summer and future interior renovations will let visitors feel they’ve stepped into the past.

It wasn’t so long ago passenger trains still ran through Pullman. The last ones ran in the 1960s. But for decades, Cougar Special trains brought students to Pullman from Spokane, Tacoma, or Seattle.

The back-to-school service on Cougar Special trains in the 1920s boasted a friendly atmosphere, modern travel conveniences, and famously good “Big Baked Potatoes! Big Baked Apple! Lemon Pies!”

In addition to delivering students, trains carried Extension’s agricultural demonstrations across the state, transported blood donations, and even into the 1980s brought textbooks and school supplies to Pullman.

While the trains may no longer run, the depot has found a new purpose in the community and remains a visible part of downtown, says committee member and fundraising chair Debbie Sherman.

“We want to keep it as a focal point as we help people learn about where they live,” she says.

At the depot, people across generations can connect with the region and its past⁠—whether they’ve spent a lifetime in Pullman, a few college years, or are just passing through for the day.