By Brenna Walch
The Lee Hall Depot, a historic railway station turned museum, is open to the public with attractions for everyone.
After 20 years of fundraising, work and preparation, the staff at Lee Hall Depot is ready to welcome visitors with educational fun throughout the station. Chessie’s Place, a room named after the depot’s beloved cat mascot Chessie, sports activities for children of all ages — such as putting together model train tracks, dressing up as railway workers and enjoying coloring books.
Anne Miller, superintendent of historic services, who has been with Newport News Parks, Recreation and Tourism for a year and a half, says there is also a “full-size cut out of Chessie for photo ops.”
One of the depot’s historic site coordinators in charge of daily operating responsibilities, Laura Willoughby, added of Chessie’s Place, “There are storybooks in the depot that parents are welcome to grab and read to their children.” She also says more fun programs at Lee Hall Depot are being planned.
Mary Kayaselcuk, historic site coordinator, who has been with the station’s restoration since the beginning, says she “plan[s] to have a scavenger hunt for children to find all the Chessie pictures” which are scattered throughout Lee Hall Depot.
Another exciting attraction is the locomotive cab simulator, in which visitors can fit into a life size locomotive cab and pretend to drive a train while a video of that train moving down the tracks plays. The video itself is actual footage of a train trip from Williamsburg to Newport News, and gives an extra boost of realism to the simulator.
Those who plan to visit Lee Hall Depot in search of a historic learning experience will be surprised and pleased. A couple of period rooms showcasing life in the 1900s as a live-in station master and as a general occupant of a railway station were restored, thanks to the Lee Hall Train Station Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded with the purpose of restoring Lee Hall Depot for its use as a historic site attraction.
The upstairs living quarters from the 1940s era are complete and currently available for viewing, and other rooms at the station are in the process of being restored. Before-and-after photos were placed inside the period rooms to, as Kayaselcuk says, “put Lee Hall into perspective.”
Willoughby praised the restoration’s quality, saying, “Our curator has done a great job of furnishing the kitchen and the parlor,” as well as noting how the rooms serve to “emphasize life back then for the station master and family.”
Miller noted that besides the restored living quarters, there are also waiting rooms and a ticket seller’s room. “Inside the ticket seller’s room is a space for children with interactive activities,” she says. More period rooms will be available to view and learn about as the restoration process continues.
Prior to its use as a museum, Lee Hall Depot was a hub of activity for military traffic that came through it during both world wars, especially World War II. Willoughby says, “More than 1,680,000 servicemen and women passed through the depot during that time. Train travel was the most common form of travel back then.” Lee Hall Depot had a large freight room for shipping all sorts of products, including livestock, produce and furniture, as well as eight coal stoves to handle the station’s heating needs.
Kayaselcuk says of the waiting rooms and Jim Crow laws, “The waiting rooms at the time were segregated because of race and gender separation with a ticket officer in between the segregated sections.”
Eventually, the use of the locomotive fell out of the mainstream, and Lee Hall Depot became a dilapidated storage building. Then, in 1999, the Lee Hall Train Station Foundation took over, and 10 years later managed to move the entire station across the tracks and put it back together.
Now, Lee Hall Depot is open every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with admission, promising plenty of fun and educational activities for everyone.
A dedication event is upcoming; however, no date is set yet. The staff at Lee Hall Depot also wants to open the station for fall field trips for schools in Newport News so students can learn about history, science, technology and engineering. Plans are being finalized for National Train Day on May 7, 2022, when Lee Hall Depot will have a singing conductor and other performers.
TO THE POINT:
Lee Hall Depot
Address: 9 Elmhurst St., Newport News, VA 23603
Contact: Anne Miller, superintendent of historic services
Contacts: Laura Willoughby and Mary Kayaselcuk, historic site coordinators
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