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A Depot for Magnolia Park

The original Frontierland train depot in 1955. (Photo by 'Gene Compere via Bob Compere.)
Walt Disney snapped up the movie rights to Sterling North's story Midnight and Jeremiah (1943) and began imagining a live action and animated film describing young Jeremiah's adventures with his pet black sheep, Midnight. Set in Pike County, Indiana (between St. Louis and Louisville) in 1903, an early scene in the nostalgic film shows the excitement of seeing a famous horse, passing through town on the train.

This scene, not in the original book, required adding a train and depot to the set, built near Visalia, California. Director Harold Schuster recalled that "the railroad station was already there as were the railroad tracks," but perhaps the station seemed too "California." Architect and set designer John V. Cowles, Jr. designed a cozy, authentic little depot for the film. Most of the production was filmed in the latter half of 1946, and when the set was struck, Walt made a gift of the depot set to animator Ward Kimball.

Why would an animator want a film set? Because Kimball had his own railroad, built around an actual restored steam locomotive. The depot set found a new home on the Grizzly Flats, in the Kimball family's back yard.

The set piece depot in Ward and Betty Kimball's backyard in San Gabriel, California.
So Dear To My Heart was finally released in January 1949 and a year later Walt had his own backyard railroad and his own John Cowles set from So Dear—a red barn. Walt's train was one-eighth full-size and the barn was built new from Cowles' drawings.

We're all familiar with the Disneyland Railroad circling the park with stops at various lands, but that is not how it was conceived. Originally, the passenger train left the Main Street Station on a non-stop tour. Like Casey Jr. or most other rides, one disembarked where they had stepped aboard. Cleverly, Walt decided that they could reuse the railroad's tracks for a second train ride. The Freight Train would start and stop in Frontierland, with the passenger and freight train rides sharing the right-of-way.

Carpentry was the critical path for Disneyland's construction schedule—the Mill had no extra capacity for building even a small wooden depot. So, Walt asked Ward Kimball to re-gift the Grizzly Flats depot to Disneyland. Kimball, iconoclast, genius, and talented artist and storyteller, had a complex relationship with his boss. Ward was one of Walt's top nine animators and he was pushing the envelope in terms of graphic style, but he would have nowhere to go if Walt showed him the door. So, it was complicated, but—long story short—Ward said, "Nope."

Cowles' set drawings were dusted off and carpenters re-built the depot in a lonely, neglected corner of Frontierland. Walt wanted a New Orleans feeling at the river bend—the Chicken Plantation restaurant and Aunt Jemima's Pancake House were themed to the Old South—so the area across the big wooden bridge was called Magnolia Park.

Landscape Architect Ruth Shellhorn confers with Walt in the final weeks of Disneyland construction.
The area suffered an identity crisis from the beginning. An Indian Village was built in Magnolia Park, which was not a problem because there were no magnolia trees and nothing that suggested the Old South. The side of Aunt Jemima's that faced the path connecting Adventureland and Frontierland was simply given a thatched roof—end of theming problem. In similar fashion, but nowhere near as successfully, the side of the Chicken Plantation that faced Magnolia Park was themed as a Santa Fe pueblo.

Marvin Davis, Disneyland's master planner, told E-Ticket that he felt Walt was most disappointed with Tomorrowland, but Magnolia Park must have been a close second—it was one of the first areas to be completely remodeled.

The depot set built near Visalia, California for the film So Dear To My Heart.
John Cowles' depot was a jewel, however. It was designed for a midwest winter, with wide eaves and a high-pitched roof to shed snow. Some gable ends were clipped—the style known as jerkinhead. The central pot-bellied stove kept the station warm and a three-sided window popout allowed the stationmaster to look up and down the tracks from inside. Bruce Bushman used a caricature of Cowles' design for the Casey, Jr. depot.

Cowles never claimed that his design was original. Many depots built in the nineteenth century used pattern books, and there were once many examples of each along the lines. In 1955, there were examples everywhere. It would be like designing an historically-accurate 1960s roadside fast food stand today—finding exemplars would not be difficult.

Bruce Bushman created a caricature of the Frontierland depot for Casey, Jr. in Fantasyland. (From Imagineering Disney blog. © The Walt Disney Company)
The problem with the authentic, one-room depot was that it offered no shelter for the crowds waiting to board. Would-be passengers waiting for the uncomfortable freight train ride to nowhere had to stand in the baking summer sun in 1955. Over the park's first winter, porches were built on either side to provide shade, at least.

When the area was remodeled in the early 1960s, the original depot building was lifted, spun around, and set down on the far side of the railroad tracks and is now part of the realistic background of the train "station" which is actually all porch and no depot.
The original Frontierland depot with its side porches is now on the far side of the tracks. If you listen closely, you can still hear the old telegrapher's message even today...



Comments

  1. The So Dear to My Heart set that became the Grizzly Flats depot had the pop-out bay window on only one side, according to Dave Meek, commenting on the Disney History Institute Facebook page. The depot in Frontierland had pop-outs on both sides, so it was no problem to rotate the building as described in the article.

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