The Fort Payne Depot Museum is one of the few surviving nineteenth-century railway terminals in Alabama. Located on the main thoroughfare in Fort Payne, DeKalb County, it features a large collection of Native American artifacts as well as holdings that illustrate the history of the region and the railroad era.
The Fort Payne Depot was constructed in 1891 by the Alabama Great Southern Railroad. Fort Payne was a main stop on the line, with two express mail trains and as many as six passenger trains daily. The depot was a passenger station for 79 years. Among the most notable people to use or pass through the station were Milford Howard, one of the nation's leading populists; Justice Hugo Black, who gave an address in Fort Payne before his appointment to the Supreme Court; and President Franklin Roosevelt, who passed through the depot (without stopping) on September 17, 1940, on the way to the funeral of the speaker of the house, William B. Bankhead. During segregation, the largest portion of the depot, the baggage area, was separated by a partition into separate areas for white and black patrons. Four small restrooms were available, and three pot-bellied coal stoves heated the depot.
The depot served passengers until 1970, when passenger service was dropped. After that, it served trains hauling freight only and housed an agent. The following year, the Alabama Historical Commission, Landmarks of DeKalb County, and the City of Fort Payne worked together to have the landmark placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1973, a local group called Landmarks of DeKalb expressed interest in obtaining and preserving the depot. Railroad officials agreed to trade the depot to the organization in exchange for a building in another location.
In July 1983, freight service was halted by approval of the Public Service Commission, and the depot remained empty for a year. In 1986, the nonprofit Landmarks of DeKalb Inc., and its board of directors was created to save the depot building after it was threatened with being torn down. The group decided to put a museum into the building. To fund the building's renovation, Landmarks of DeKalb Inc. and the City of Fort Payne were able to secure funding through grants. The exterior of the structure was renovated that same year; it is constructed from pink sandstone with a copper roof, and the interior is finished in native pine and plaster. On October 12, 1986, the depot was dedicated as a museum. Five years later, on October 13, 1991, the depot celebrated its 100th anniversary.
The depot consists of three rooms. The entry room houses antiques and other items from the nineteenth century, including old currency, leaflets from the Civil War period, and pottery. Rotating exhibits are displayed in the second room, which served as a large waiting room; displays have included coins, china, glass, and other collections. The museum's most popular objects, more than 600 Native American artifacts donated by Gussie Killian, are housed in the third room of the depot. Outside the depot is a Norfolk-Southern caboose that was donated in August 1987 through the efforts of A. G. Labrot of Savannah, Georgia. The caboose houses a miniature railroad village, complete with operating trains.
Also on the grounds is a 30-foot trailer that contains a collection of 94 dioramas, small, intricate scenes created by Italian artist Steve Fiora between 1915 and 1934 out of plaster of Paris and wire mesh. The dioramas, donated by L. A. Shankles, feature characters and settings from fairy tales, historical scenes, and scenic representations.
The museum is run by a 12-member board of directors and is funded through grants, donations, and the City of Fort Payne. The museum has a curator and one staff member, as well as several volunteers.