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Ask the Truth: What happened to the railroad hotel across from the train depot in Elkhart?

For railroad crews in the early 1900s, the Railroad YMCA in Elkhart was a home away from home.

Posted on July 12, 2014 at 6:41 a.m.

For train travelers in the early 1900s, Elkhart was a stop between Chicago and New York. 

For weary railroad workers changing shifts, it was a place to rest.

“The train came in, stopped shortly, changed crews and took off,” said Paul Thomas, the official historian for the City of Elkhart and owner of the Time Was Museum on Main Street in Elkhart.

ASK THE TRUTH

In this week’s edition of Ask the Truth, the community voted for our reporters to answer the reader-submitted question, “"There used to be a railroad hotel across from the train depot in Elkhart. When was it built, what happened to it, who did it serve and are there any pictures of the inside of it?"”

If you’d like to send your own question to Ask the Truth, write it down in the blue box at the bottom of the story labeled, “Ask the Truth: What have you always wanted to know about our community?”

He dug through his archives, photos and memories to help unearth the answer to this week’s question.

On Tyler Avenue

From the late 1890s to 1929, railroad workers fresh off their shifts would head from the Elkhart train station to the Railroad YMCA on Tyler Avenue.

Want to learn more about Elkhart’s railroad history? Read all about it in our May 30 edition of “Ask the Truth”

“There was a lobby and there was someone at the desk and they gave you keys,” Thomas said, comparing it to hotels one might see in old Western films.

The building was erected in 1885 in a joint effort between the YMCA of Elkhart County and the railroad, according to the Elkhart Youth and Community Center website.

The Railroad YMCA had a membership of at least 300, “drawn exclusively from the ranks of the railway employees,” according to volume one of “A Standard History of Elkhart County, Indiana.” 

The big brick building offered rail workers a library, a reading room and “homelike and sanitary living accommodations,” the book says.

“Passengers stayed at other hotels,” Thomas said.

Home away from home

In 1929, the Railroad YMCA was moved just a few blocks over to Franklin and Third streets.

That’s when professional staff was hired and programs began, according to the Elkhart Youth and Community Center.

The new location had a swimming pool, billiards, a cafeteria and temporary living quarters.

"There were other people, men, that stayed up in there, but it was predominantly railroad people," Thomas said.

No women were allowed, except in the cafeteria.

A tragic death in the 1940s nearly closed the place down, Thomas said.

In 1944, Cleo Fred Davis, a building engineer at the YMCA, admitted to drowning Harland V. Elliot, 15, in the facility pool, according to a news article in the Vidette-Messenger published March 23, 1944.

Davis was given a life sentence for murdering another young boy, according to a 1974 news article in the Toledo Blade.

The YMCA didn’t close, though. Not for another three decades.

“It was torn down in the ’70s by Mayor [Dan] Hayes, and they had a terrible time,” Thomas said. “The crane tipped, the ball broke – it was a building that stubbornly did not want to be torn down.”

But come down it did. Today, a parking lot sits in the spot that hundreds — maybe thousands — of men called their home away from home.

As for the original Railroad YMCA on Tyler Avenue?

It was razed in the mid-1960s along with some of other nearby buildings to make way for the post office that’s there today, Thomas said.

The Elkhart Truth was unable to locate photos of the interior of either facility. Do you have any you’d like to share with us? Contact Sarah Duis, reporter, at sduis@elkharttruth.com or 574-296-5926.


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