By Wesley Harris
Within the past month, several community events have occurred in Ruston’s Railroad Park. The recent Peach Festival and Juneteenth celebration continued a long history of using Ruston’s most well-known park for activities from political speeches and pet shows to concerts and peach-eating contests.
What became Railroad Park was first called the “depot grounds.” Much larger than the current park, the four-acre undeveloped area was owned by the railroad. The string of buildings facing the lot was referred to as “Brick Row” because it was the only block in early Ruston constructed entirely of brick. When the first lots were sold to businesses moving to new Ruston in 1883, buyers were informed their structures had to be of brick to create a positive impression on those passing through on the train. The open expanse allowed an unobstructed view of Brick Row from the train windows. Traveling carnivals and the occasional town event made use of the barren, dusty plot.
In those early days, the street in front of Brick Row was called Railroad Avenue. No street existed as we know it today for the entire area between Brick Row and the current courthouse annex was open to foot and horse traffic.
The grounds became a park in the 1890s with more defined streets surrounding it, which reduced its size. Thomas L. Nelson and his son planted the park’s first three oak trees in 1896. Nelson had contracted with Ruston merchants to plant fifty trees along Trenton and Vienna Streets at 50 cents each. With three trees left over, he planted them in the park. One tree died in the 1970s and required removal. The others remained well into the 1980s. Those originals were replaced by new trees and during a more recent renovation, they too were removed for smaller varieties.
The focal point of the park, a three-tiered fountain was installed before 1906 when it first appears in photographs. Originally an underground stream provided the water. In 1934, the T. L. James Company renovated the park and fountain. During World War II when communities were gathering scrap metal to remake into tanks, bombers, and ships, someone suggested adding the fountain to the effort. A firestorm of protest nixed that idea quickly.
Again, in 1952, T. L. James restored the fountain and built a bandstand and new sidewalks. The Ruston Garden Club added new landscaping. At some point, goldfish were added to the fountain pool. The well-fed fish grew to huge proportions and many a kid tried to ensnare one with his hands while old men smoked their pipes in the shade of the big oaks.
Ruston almost lost the park in 1970 when the Illinois Central Railroad decided to sell it for future business locations. The land was originally provided to the Vicksburg, Shreveport & Pacific Railroad by Ruston founder Robert Russ. Through a series of bankruptcies and reorganizations, it passed to the Illinois Central in the 1920s. The railroad offered to sell the park to the City of Ruston for $60,000 and it became public property for the first time.
In 2002, the Ruston Kiwanis Club paid $5,000 for a new fountain after the original one was determined to be beyond repair. Once determined too deteriorated to fix, the beloved original fountain was restored and returned to the park in 2015 during yet another renovation of the space.
Railroad Avenue on the north side of the park eventually became Park Avenue while the thoroughfare at what was the south end of the depot grounds remains Railroad Avenue. The stretch of Park Avenue between Trenton and Vienna Streets remains the business center of downtown Ruston. Adding recognition to that block with “Brick Row” signage would be a nice remembrance of the location’s history.
The many events hosted by Railroad Park over the past 125 years include a hot air balloon ascension, concerts, craft shows, candlelight vigils, movies, 4-H pet shows, diaper derbies, art exhibits, pep rallies, picnics, and street dances. Political candidates for mayor, sheriff, and governor have spoken from the bandstand. Speeches and concerts ran the risk of interruption from the whistles and horns of trains passing just yards away. Despite the whims of the weather and whistling locomotives, Railroad Park will remain the epicenter of community activity.
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