The Amtrak stop in Poplar Bluff is at the brick Union Pacific (UP) depot, built in 1910 by the St. Louis Iron Mountain and Southern Railway, the first railroad to come through Poplar Bluff. The St. Louis Iron Mountain and Southern was succeeded by the Missouri Pacific in 1917, and then by the UP in 1982. The first depot on the site was constructed in 1873, and replaced in 1890 with a structure that burned shortly after completion. The railroads then repurposed boxcars for baggage and express facilities and operated a ticket office in the Crown Hotel until construction of the 1910 depot, a large building that served as both a passenger station and regional offices for the railroad.
The exterior of this Colonial Revival-influenced station remains largely as it was and the station was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998. Adding the station to the National Register was only the first step in the local community’s ongoing work to preserve the station and the tall, classical outdoor staircase that connects this below-street-level depot with Poplar Bluff’s Main Street in the old downtown. Between 2001 and 2003, a citizens committee worked with UP to take over the ownership of the building. In June, 2003, UP donated the depot to the Committee to Save and Restore the Historic Train Depot, which had organized as the Poplar Bluff Historic Train Depot Corporation. At that time, the depot restoration organization was working with the Poplar Bluff Garden Club in efforts to restore the steps. The Garden Club has continued their fundraising efforts for the staircase renovation.
By May of 2007, the depot was listed by the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation on its list of ten most endangered historic properties. Fortunately, funding has now been secured from three sources for the Phase 1 project: a new roof, drainage improvements, and ADA-compliant restrooms in the depot.
The Poplar Bluff Historic Train Depot Corporation has secured a $114,000 Transportation Enhancement grant through the Missouri Department of Transportation with help from the Ozark Foothills Regional Planning Commission. Ronald C. Yersak Enterprises of Dexter prepared the paperwork for a $300,000 Community Development Block grant that Butler County received through the Missouri Department of Economic Development. In July 2007, Missouri Senator Kit Bond secured $183,750 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for station redevelopment. With in-kind services from the Butler County Highway Department, which are expected to total around $11,000, the Phase 1 project will have nearly $609,000. The depot restoration organization anticipates beginning this work in fall of 2009.
Amtrak also plans to fund $65,000 in Mobility First improvements as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. These will include a new wheelchair lift and enclosure, a new pad for the lift, a new sidewalk and curb cut from parking to platform, and new accessible parking stalls.
Future work will be delayed until funds become available to restore the interior, complete the exterior and restore the historic concrete steps. The city would also like to create a Depot District to connect the Missouri Pacific Depot with the 1928 Frisco Depot, which houses the MoArk Regional Railroad Museum.
Poplar Bluff was conceived as a county seat when the early settlers in Butler County chose 150 acres on the uninhabited bluff above the Black River on which to place the town in 1849. The location is central, close to the forests that fed the timber industry of the day as well as being sheltered by foothills of the Ozarks. This site was easily accessibly by water to the Missouri River, as water was the means by which most commerce moved in the early 19th century. The town was named for the dense stand of tall, handsome poplar trees that originally stood on that prominence. Other early settlements in the county had run along the Natchitoches Trail west of the bluff, on Ten Mile and Cane Creeks. It was not until 1870, after the area had passed through Spanish and French hands to American, that the city was incorporated.
Harvesting the extensive stands of timber in the foothills along the Little Black River was not only necessary for early settlers to open up croplands, but with the coming of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern lines in 1872, it became profitable. By 1907, Poplar Bluff had 57 manufacturing plants, most wood-related, and Poplar Bluff became a logging and railroad center as well as the county seat. Several companies built their own rail lines to bring logs to the mills. The Brooklyn Cooperage Company operated in the city from 1900 to 1927, and was the largest producer of barrel staves in America at the time, barrels being a critical component of the profitable sugar trade. Brooklyn Cooperage built their own rail line which was at first used to haul timber and later freight and passengers. When the company closed in 1927, as the days of the logging industry in the city were done, the line was sold to the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway. This line, also called the Frisco, served passengers from the Spanish-style depot on 303 Moran Street until 1965.
Today, the UP still uses the yard associated with the Missouri Pacific station.
With new highways opening through the area and an Amtrak station set for improvement, the city today is known as the “Gateway to the Ozarks,” as it is only ten miles from the Mark Twain National Forest, and close to Lake Wappapello and the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.