As the Rock Island raced to build its short line from Herington to Salina in 1886, the railroad also built a series of depots along the way. In Abilene, depot construction began in 1887. A Clay Center contractor built the wood frame structure that measured 22 by 110 feet and consisted of four rooms: an office for the agent with an area for ticket sales, waiting rooms for men and women, and a very large freight room. The structure still has all its original woodwork and stained glass above the windows and outside doors. The depot, which initially stood at the corner of Fifth and Buckeye on the north side of the tracks (across the street from today’s Greyhound Hall of Fame), was finished in 1888—in fact, we know from looking at old newspaper accounts that the Rock Island let off the very first Abilene-bound passengers in January of that year. The railroad used the depot until the 1950s, when Rock Island officials decided that they no longer needed depots on the Herington-Salina subdivision.
The structure was moved from its original location in 1959 to make way for the sprawling campus of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum—in fact, President Eisenhower is buried in the chapel that is located just a few feet away from the original depot site. To make way for the Eisenhower campus expansion, workers put the building on a giant trailer and moved it two and a half blocks east to its present location at the north end of Old Abilene Town. In 2008, community volunteers began a restoration process as the depot became the operating hub for the Abilene and Smoky Valley Railroad.
The depot’s freight room has been transformed into a railroad museum, named in honor of A&SV co-founder Fred Schmidt, who passed away in 2009. An ardent collector of railroad memorabilia, Mr. Schmidt left his collections to the railroad to be put on public display. A&SV volunteers rounded up other artifacts in the following years, and in 2017, the Fred Schmidt Railroad Museum opened to the public. Among the exhibits is a G-scale model railroad and a working railroad telegraph apparatus that taps out the message “WELCOME TO THE ABILENE AND SMOKY VALLEY RAILROAD” in Morse Code. Admission to the museum is free, but donations are accepted.
Today, the Rock Island Depot is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.