Written By Laurie
In 1987 when Rich DeGarmo stepped off a train in Olympia for the first time, he was more than a little taken aback. At the time, Olympia’s only railroad “station” was located in what DeGarmo refers to as a shack out in east Olympia. “I thought I’d be coming into downtown Olympia, coming in right by the Capitol.
“We got out, and there was nothing. There was a grocery store over there off of Rich Road. There was a big barrel full of bees buzzing around, and there was one taxi cab, and it looked the guy was half asleep. I thought ‘Where in the h*** are we?’” After the conductor announced that they were, indeed, at the Olympia station, DeGarmo recalls thinking, “What do you mean this is Olympia? There’s nothing here.”
Not long after that, DeGarmo, who had moved to town to open up his compounding pharmacy on the west side, became involved in the Amtrak Depot Committee, a citizen’s group organized with the express purpose of building what he calls “a fitting station for the capital of the state of Washington.”
Lacey’s Centennial Station, the result of the work of the Amtrak Depot Committee, opened in 1993 and stands as a testament to what a committed group of citizens can accomplish. The state of Washington provided initial funding to pave the access road and parking lot and build the platform, but otherwise the station was completed without the use of public money. Bob Bregent, who served as the project manager during construction of the station recalls asking a representative of the State Department of Transportation for assistance. “He literally laughed in my face and said ‘Nobody rides the train anymore. We’re not giving you one red penny.'” Bregent pauses and continues, “I think of anything the State of Washington could have told our group to galvanize us more it was that statement.”
Bregent and DeGarmo are both quick to point out that the D.O.T. agent was wrong. Over 70,000 riders a year step on or off a train at Centennial Station. “The fact that he said to a citizens group that you can’t do it and there’s no need for it, that just kind of lit a fire under everybody,” says Bregent. In addition to getting the land donated, the committee was able to secure enough private and corporate donations in the form of cash, materials, and labor to cover the entire $400,000 building costs. The state kicked in an additional $60,000 once the building was complete to install utilities.
Those who contributed to the building fund are recognized in various ways around the station. Commemorative bricks, benches, and decorative corbels are inscribed with the names of individuals and businesses who helped make the facility possible.
Staffed Entirely by Volunteers
Another idea that was met with initial skepticism was DeGarmo’s brainstorm to staff the station with volunteers. “Rich thought of the idea of volunteers to run the station,” says Bregent. “Initially I pooh poohed it. I didn’t think it would work. I was thankfully proven wrong.”
The original intent was to have the station run by Amtrak and Amtrak agents, but that vision was never realized. “Amtrak doesn’t have the money to put an agent in here,” says DeGarmo. Instead, the station is staffed 365 days a year by volunteers. DeGarmo claims the estimated savings to the government owned railroad company is approximately $175,000 annually.
According to DeGarmo, in the nearly twenty years the station has been open, they’ve never had a problem staffing it. Over 60 volunteers, aged 18 to well into their 80s, staff three shifts a day, and the station will always be open to travelers, even when trains arrive in the middle of the night due to delays. Among the volunteers there is a common thread, says DeGarmo: “A love of trains and a love of serving the public.”
As part of his volunteer duties, DeGarmo makes sure contracted services are handled properly. When there is a problem it’s his job to contact Intercity Transit which is responsible for landscaping and janitorial services. Initially, The Amtrak Depot Committee owned the station, “But since we were all a bunch of people who worked for a living we couldn’t maintain it,” explains DeGarmo. “We thought Intercity Transit would be the best, so we sold the station to (them) for $1 and they now own (the building).”
The dedication of the volunteers was recognized by Amtrak when they were honored with a “Champion of the Rails” award. Usually reserved for an individual employee, the 2000 national level commendation was the first time a group of volunteers was recognized.
Centennial Station’s volunteer program is so successful that is serves as model for other stations around the country who are thinking of implementing similar programs.
If you’re in a hurry, DeGarmo recommends traveling by plane, but as far as he’s concerned, nothing can beat a train ride. He and his wife, Sue, are avid passengers. They have travelled all over the country riding the rails. “It’s romantic. It’s relaxing. You can’t hurry it. You get to sleep. You get to (de-stress) from your day’s activities, and you’re not boxed in like a little sardine on an airplane.” A coast to coast trip takes an average of two and a half days, and “You get to see scenery you’ll never see in a car or a plane.”
Most travelers who originate in Olympia are taking day trips. Riding down to Portland or up to Seattle to catch a ball game is almost a rite of passage. Ten local Amtrak commuter trains travel from Vancouver, BC to Eugene daily and make stops in Olympia, as does the daily Coast Starline, traveling from Seattle to Los Angeles.
As any railroad buff will tell you, part of any vacation should be the journey, and taking the train can be a destination unto itself.
Links of Interest
Anyone interested in serving as a volunteer at Centennial Station is invited to visit the station between 8:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. to talk to one of the volunteers on duty. All volunteers are subject to background checks.