Down a wide flight of stairs, through a couple sets of old doors, the destination bloomed in multi-colored subway brick.
It hid shower and bunk rooms in the back and was lined with cast iron benches and clerk counters.
Updated to its well-preserved state in 2013, the Immigrant Waiting Room is a hidden gem within the Depot, located on West Michigan Street in downtown Duluth and now three years shy of its 130th birthday.
Shuttled along from Ellis Island on the Atlantic coast to middle America, immigrants to the Northland would spend several days traveling by rail, transferring track to track while never really hopping off until they reached Duluth, said Mary Tennis, executive director of the Depot who started in that role in July.
“This room has really impressed me and I didn’t really know how important it was,” Tennis said from within its walls. "If you’re a second or third generation living in this area and your ancestors came through to work in the mines or farms on the Iron Range or in St. Louis or Lake counties, or anywhere in the immediate area, your ancestors came through this room. They got their papers stamped and were processed here, and the first time they really set foot on American soil was here in Duluth.”
People would wait days housed within the Depot until family members or employers would come to claim them, Tennis said.
“It’s a profoundly important room,” she said.
When it opened in 1892, the Depot served seven different rail lines and accommodated up to 5,000 passengers at a time, said its website.
Now owned by St. Louis County, it is home to eight entities making up the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center, including the county historical society, Veterans Memorial Hall, and both a train museum and scenic touring railroad.
It is ticketed to one day again become a commuter train station, as the Depot is a planned destination for the Northern Lights Express passenger train between the Twin Ports and Twin Cities. The project has the support of a rail operator, Amtrak, and track owner, BNSF, and is in the process of seeking state and federal funding for its half-billion-dollar price tag.
“Who would have thought we'd have talk of passenger trains coming back to Duluth in 2019?” Tennis said.
The Depot is vast and for every square foot of floor space is a roof above it, several roofs, in fact, including "the big beautiful château-esque roof over the main part of the building," Tennis said. "And that's one of the things we really want to address."
The Depot is seeking $8 million in state bonding funds to repair leaks in the roofs and perform other necessary maintenance projects, including tuckpointing exterior bricks, rebuilding the portico overhanging the sidewalk patio outside the Great Hall, and redoing the heating, air conditioning, electrical and plumbing systems.