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New Heber Creeper depot may be ready by end of May

Post-and-beam construction gets under way

HEBER CITY — Watching workers sliding massive beams together easier than Tinkertoys, you get the idea this building might be something special.

Two ends notch snugly with a satisfying thunk.

"If it ain't tight, it ain't right," construction framer Shawn Crosland said.

Craig Lacey, executive director of the Heber Valley Historic Railroad, wanted the century-old Heber Creeper to have a brand-new depot that was both right and tight.

It's the centerpiece of a $770,000 face-lift for the Creeper as it spruces up for its role ferrying Olympic patrons to Soldier Hollow, site of the 2002 biathlon/cross-country competition.

That is why the decision was made to go with the old-world craftsmanship of post-and-beam construction. Evolving from ancient shipbuilders and adopted by pioneers, the process involves a few well-placed steel spikes but mostly depends upon the nailless system of finely fitted notches and pegs.

"It's part of a look we hoped to create, in keeping with the Old West," Lacey said.

The post-and-beam pieces are milled on sophisticated, computer-driven saws by Euclid Timber Frames LC, Charleston, S.C.

"It's quite a process, watching these sophisticated saws turn these big beams, spin them all around and spit them out to perfect specifications," said Ken McConnell, Creeper marketing director.

"The tolerances are down to 1 millimeter," Lacey said.

"The beams are warm-fit at our factory, then brought out here to refit together," Euclid worker Greg Gerow said.

With the post-and-beam construction getting under way Friday, the shoot-for completion date on the $550,000, 5,400-square-foot depot is June 11. But things are going well enough that Lacey is hoping for a big-splash debut May 28, capping Memorial Day weekend.

The two 2,700-square-foot levels of the depot will house a gift shop, ticket office, administrative offices, food and supplies storage, restrooms, mini-museum and large lobby for patrons to wait on trains.

"That's the big emphasis, providing comfort and convenience for our customers," Lacey said.

That is why the tonier post-and-beam construction, encompassing two-thirds of the depot, covers the main customer waiting areas. The remainder of the building is conventional frame construction.

"We've needed something like this for so long. We had people call our customer areas 'Camp 6,' along the lines of Stalag 17," Lacey said.

A decrepit caboose and military-style building housed supplies. Bathrooms were in a rented trailer. The ticket office was minuscule, as was a lean-to gift shed. A three-sided metal structure protected a few benches.

"But basically, on cold winter nights, folks would wait in their cars with the heaters on, then rush to the train when the whistle blew," Lacey said.

It was no way to run a railroad, amenitywise. Still, the Creeper has grown in popularity as customers were willing to brave the elements for the charm. Ridership has exploded on wintertime Polar Express rides, beginning with two trips and climbing to 30 last Christmas season, with the public clamoring for more.

"Now we'll be able to offer them a warm, spacious place to wait, with snacks, beverages and nice restrooms," Lacey said, adding the depot is air-conditioned for summer riders.

Quaintness remains as much a part of the new mix as function.

"We wanted something along the lines of a 1905 building. Our two steam engines were built in 1907 and our snack car in 1907," Lacey said.

The external construction is a wood composite, made to look instantly old.

"It's less expensive than wood, but it looks more like wood than wood and lasts longer," said Craig Heath, president and general manager of HECCO Inc., the Salt Lake general contractor for the depot.

The Creeper also was fortunate post-and-beam wound up fitting into its budget — largely because Euclid donated much of the work.

Financing for the depot included $260,000 from the Utah Legislature, as part of an economic package that also helped build the new day lodge at Soldier Hollow. Wasatch County matched the $260,000. Another $250,000 came from the Economic Development Administration of the Department of Commerce. Heber City kicked in street resurfacing and curb-and-gutter work.

The money over and above depot construction includes refurbishments of a new 10-car "Movie Train," including the No. 75 steam engine, the Creeper purchased in 1999 from the estate of the late producer Everett Rohrer in Hudson, Colo.

Other money goes for Creeper property improvements, including a new parking area.

"No more trudging through the mud," Lacey said.

The Creeper is becoming an increasingly popular spot for train enthusiasts to contract for calendar-art and photo-essay shoots. Filmmaking is another rising revenue stream. Cintel Films is scheduled to start shooting "Yukon Express" in March, downtrack from the depot, and several other films are in negotiation.

"We're excited about all these prospects for the Creeper. We feel like the railroad will continue to grow as an attraction all of us along the Wasatch, and all of Utah, can be proud of," Lacey said.

But there's another fundamental joy seeing the new station structure go up.

"What the new depot does is give us a home," Lacey said.