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Donations, grants fuel restoration of Keokuk Union Depot

The depot was built in 1911 and last served passenger rail in the late 1960s. The historic building was acquired by the city of Keokuk in 2011.
Courtesy photo
Keokuk Union Depot Foundation
The depot was built in 1891 and last served passenger rail in the late 1960s. The historic building was acquired by the city of Keokuk in 2011.

The restoration of Keokuk’s historic Union Depot is now in its second major phase.

A $50,000 preservation grant from the State Historical Society of Iowa is pushing the project closer to its goal and will go toward restoring the exterior masonry of the depot’s waiting room.

With these funds, terra cotta lintels will be restored and cleaned, brick walls will be repointed or reconstructed, and all sandstone window sills and water table capstones will be restored or replaced, according to Janet Smith, President of the Keokuk Union Depot Foundation.

This project is one component of a challenge grant capital campaign from the Jeffris Family Foundation, which is dedicated to historic preservation projects in small Midwestern towns and cities.

Smith said when complete, that campaign will restore the depot’s trackside canopy, reconstruct its original marble and tile waiting room, restore interior masonry, install period lighting, and update the restrooms.

“We have been wonderfully blessed by having the support of the Jeffris Family Foundation. It never would have happened to begin with without them. And they have a wonderful way of encouraging restoration projects. They want community involvement,” Smith said.

The city of Keokuk acquired the depot in 2011, and the Keokuk Union Depot Foundation has been raising funds to restore the building to its original – and magnificent –1891 architectural design.

The roof of the depot was restored in 2014, also with a Jeffris challenge grant.

At the time, the roof was green asphalt and its central tower had been removed.

“We raised $1,275,000 to restore the roof to its elegant, graceful, flowing lines style, including raising the roof back up to its original height,” Smith said.

            In addition to removing 130 years of grime and wear and tear, restoration efforts pay special attention to the original architects’ design, color scheme, and aesthetics.       

So the depot’s roof was restored to the original “summer rose” tile color.

For the current round of renovations, around 200 donors have contributed $330,000 toward the $550,000 matching funds goal.

The new state grant counts toward that goal, but $220,000 still needs to be raised to get a $275,000 match from the Jeffris Family Foundation.

Smith said 85% of the donations so far have come from what she calls the “Keokuk diaspora.”

“People in Keokuk, people in the Keokuk area, people who grew up in Keokuk and have moved away, local foundations, local banks and businesses, have all helped to contribute to this,” she said.

Many of those donors remember riding trains to and from the Keokuk depot, or have family members who remember, she said.

When the depot was built, five railroads offered passenger service to and from Keokuk.

The Zephyr Rocket was the last passenger train to service the city, ending its run in 1967.

Because the interior of the depot was beautifully restored in the 1990s -- with quarter-sawn oak paneling and a soaring cathedral ceiling – the depot’s waiting room is used for community events.

“It’s a wonderful venue for weddings and bridal showers and birthday parties and reunions and such,” Smith said.

A National Parks Service grant awarded to the city of Keokuk for masonry restoration of the central tower will be completed in parallel with the exterior waiting room project.

When both of those are done, two-thirds of the depot’s exterior will be restored.

“When we’re done, it will just gleam, beautifully,” Smith said.

Donations for the current challenge grant can be made through July of 2023 to KUDF, P.O. Box 463, Keokuk, IA 52632.

More information is online at

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Jane Carlson is TSPR's regional reporter.