The Sweet Briar Train Station

Sweet Briar Train Station
Sweet Briar Train Station

When Indiana Fletcher Williams was born in 1828, the golden age of steam locomotion hadn’t yet begun. Indiana was about a year old when the first steam engine was built in the United States, and, of course, it would be several years before trains really became the way to travel. Indiana and Daisy Williams regularly traveled by train to and from New York City via the train station in Lynchburg.

Indiana would never see the Sweet Briar train station, which was built in 1906, and in many ways its story mirrors the story of the College itself.

President Mary K. Benedict, 1906
President Mary K. Benedict, 1906

When Sweet Briar’s first president, Mary K. Benedict, arrived by train in early June 1906, there was no station, just a sign that read “Sweet Briar.” According to Margaret Banister (1916) in an article she wrote for the 75th anniversary issue of the Alumnae Magazine, Miss Benedict was met at the tracks by a horse and buggy and was taken to what we now call No. 1 Faculty Row, where she expected to live until the presidential home was ready—a home she thought would be Mount Saint Angelo, across Rt. 29.

On that June day in 1906, the College was a bare three months from opening and a train station wasn’t the only thing it didn’t have.

None of the buildings—the Refectory (now Pannell), Academic (now named after Miss Benedict, herself ), and the dormitories of Gray and Carson—were complete. There was no heat and no electricity, no kitchen equipment, no furniture and hardly any people—just one student was enrolled and only two faculty members had been hired. “If Miss Benedict was daunted, she did not show it,” Margaret wrote. When the College opened in September, however, a total of 36 students from 12 states had been enrolled and nine additional faculty had been hired. Miss Benedict and the board had worked hard over those three months.

Even so, when the students arrived, just like Miss Benedict, they didn’t see a train station. In their book on Sweet Briar College, Lynn Rainville and Lisa N. Johnston said that the division superintendent of the Southern Railway didn’t give permission to build the station until the day before students arrived. As a result, Miss Benedict had to hire an omnibus to protect the students from the elements when the train stopped to let them off by the sign that read Sweet Briar.

By 1907, the train station had been constructed and for many years, it was the first stop on a journey to adulthood for the young women who came to Sweet Briar College. From the station, the campus wasn’t visible, of course. In those early years, a student’s first glimpse of campus would come after a ride on the Williams’ family coach, which had been repurposed to shuttle students from the train station across the road through deep woods to campus. Edith Durrell Marshall (1921) remembered being one of those “green, unsophisticated freshmen who stepped off the train in the fall of 1917 at the tiny Sweet Briar station with a crowd of other girls from as far away places like Denver or Rockport or Oconomowoc or as near as Richmond.”

In those days, the train station was the College’s link to the outside world. Margaret recalls going into Lynchburg on Saturday afternoons and enjoying the drugstore with its soda fountain. “We always came back laden with delicacies which the Refectory did not provide,” she wrote. “Especially Gruyere cheese, Guava jelly, crackers, and mince pies to be warmed up on the tops of radiators.”

During World War I, Florence Ives ’21 remembered, “We used to go down to that lone edifice, the Sweet Briar station, and watch the troop trains for Camp Petersburg come slowly up the grade with boys in uniform hanging out of the windows and giving us giggling girls the wolf call. We could almost touch their outstretched hands as the engine lost steam going up the grade. They were so young and so full of laughter, but on our trek back to campus we wondered, ‘Would they come back home and would they be whole?’” Edith also recalled that Princeton, West Point and Annapolis were only a day’s ride away, providing some social life and male company for the young women of Sweet Briar. A generation later, Joan DeVore Roth ’41 remembered trips to New York or Washington. “In our innocence we had a grand time,” she wrote. “An expensive hotel room then was six dollars, and with four to six girls in a room, a weekend was downright cheap.”

They didn’t know it in 1941, but the era of the train would soon fade, the victim of innovation and more modern technologies. Production of automobiles ramped up in the years following World War II and soon enough, cars would come to Sweet Briar. Ann Marshall Whitley ’47 recalled an item in a 1948 issue of the Sweet Briar newspaper indicating that seniors who wanted to have their own car on campus had to register the vehicle with Miss Jester in the dean’s office. In 1952, seniors could have their cars on campus after spring break.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, the largest public works project in American history to that time, which fundamentally changed life in the United States. In addition to interstate highways came commercial air traffic. A 2015 article in The Atlantic noted that after Boeing introduced its 707 aircraft in 1957, “travel by air exceeded travel by rail and sea for the first time.”

Moving the caboose, 1989
Moving the caboose, 1989
Student on the caboose, circa 1989
Students on the caboose after it arrived on campus, circa 1989

Eventually, Southern Railway closed the Sweet Briar station because of insufficient use and gave it to the College.

In December 1973, the station was moved from its original location on the other side of Rt. 29 to its current location on campus near Guion Science Center. A newspaper account of the move noted that “At the request of the student body, the old station will be converted into a coffee house.”

In the years between 1973 and the late 1990s, the train station was a coffee house and home to the art department’s sculpture studio. In 2002, an article in the alumnae magazine noted, “For years, Professor [ Joe] Monk taught his ceramics, sculpture, and 3-D design classes in the Sweet Briar train station, using the nearby caboose as his office.” As any art student of the period will tell you, the small space was cramped.

The train station became home to the College’s environmental studies program around the year 2000, and it now serves as the home of Sweet Briar’s Center for Human and Environmental Sustainability. When Lisa Powell arrived on campus in January 2020 as the center’s director and associate professor of environmental studies, she embraced the station as central to the College’s focus on sustainability.

In fact, from her first visit to campus, she was fascinated by the train station and caboose. “The possibilities just started exploding in my head,” she told us. “Between when I first visited and when I permanently moved to campus, the train station and caboose were constantly on my mind—and they still are! To me, the space is a physical representation of the bridge between the campus academic classrooms and the agricultural operations—on one side are Guion and Babcock and on the other are the vineyard, wildflower meadow, apiary and historic hay barn. The new greenhouse is also just a short walk away.” In short, it’s the perfect home for the center.

Professor Lisa Powell teaches class inside the train station
Professor Lisa Powell teaches class inside the train station

While necessary COVID precautions have delayed or limited some of the programming Lisa had envisioned for the train station, the space has already become a launchpad for sustainability activities on campus. Lisa meets (distancing and masks in place) with student sustainability leaders in the station, including the center’s interns, officers in the Sustainability Club (one of the largest student organizations), and individual students with ideas for projects to support a “greener” campus. She has also hosted meetings with representatives from organizations that are key partners in Sweet Briar’s sustainability efforts, such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Virginia Department of Forestry, and she teaches some smaller, upper-division courses—such as ENVR 356: Natural Resources Management and ENVR 382: Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems—in the space. During COVID, Lisa has been broadcasting her Earth Week, Alumnae College, and Sweet Briar Days presentations, along other sustainability Zoom events, from either the train station or the caboose. When COVID passes, the train station complex will host even more sustainability-focused events, meetings and projects.

In January 2021, the train station became home to a germination station for seeds for the hydroponics system located in the new greenhouse. Student greenhouse assistants place the seeds in “horticubes” to germinate and grow into seedlings under temperature and light conditions which support their development. In February, the greenhouse team moved the first of thousands of arugula and lettuce seedlings in their horticubes from the train station to the new green- house and placed them in the hydroponics channels. After they finish growing, the greenhouse team will harvest the greens for Prothro, the on-campus weekly produce market and other destinations.

In addition to bridging academics and agricultural operations, the station and the caboose nearby are physical manifestations of Sweet Briar’s commitment to the future—a commitment made all the more sweet by its references to the College’s past. The station’s own journey—from newly built in 1906, to reinvigoration in 1973, to a place where the College’s focus on sustainability will take it into the future—is reminiscent of the journey generations of students have taken into adulthood and education on Sweet Briar’s magnificent campus.

The train station and caboose are home base for the environmental science program

This article was originally published in the spring 2021 issue of Sweet Briar Magazine.