Dennison, Ohio – Dreamsville

Dennison, Ohio is Dreamsville
Excerpt from a past edition of OhioTraveler By Robert Carpenter

As a child I never liked Dennison.  It seemed a dull, grimy uninviting place.  It reminded me of an unwanted cast-off relic left out in the weather to deteriorate of its own accord.  My puerile perception that placed a shroud of gloom over the town was distorted by childish idealism, but not totally imagined.

My home community, only a few miles away was bright, cheery and full of life, but Dennison, by contrast seemed to linger somewhere in the past—unkempt and futureless.  There was a lamination of coal dust and soot on the houses, the streets—even the trees and grass appeared tarnished by the ever-present veil.

Dennison was a railroad town, and not by chance.  It stood at the maximum traveling distance for a steam locomotive, and centered on a major route between Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Columbus, Ohio.  After one hundred miles it was necessary to refuel a steam engine with coal and water—both of which Dennison had in abundance.

At its peak in the early part of the 20th century, Dennison boasted a roundhouse and related railroad shops covering forty acres. Originally the Steubenville and Indiana Railroad, it became the Pennsylvania Railroad with Dennison as the terminal and headquarters for their Panhandle Division. There were three thousand men employed to handle more than forty freight and passenger trains, spewing smoke, cinders and spent steam, each day—swapping adulterated habitat for a better future.

However, by the end of the Depression, railroads were in serious decline. The Dennison yards presented a dismal landscape of rusted track appearing randomly laid this way and that with weeds flourishing between the rails. Dennison, no longer a boomtown, was on the edge of economic bust.

It was paradoxical then, that Dennison became one of the truly bright spots in the memories of countless servicemen.  With the beginning of WWII the fading yards were resurrected, providing a crucial link in the Strategic Corridor for National Defense. Troop trains carried men west for training and back east for deployment overseas. The Dennison Depot was a stop on every run.  Beginning in March of 1942 it housed the Salvation Army Servicemen’s Canteen that operated twenty-four hours, every day of the week, for more than four years.

Women from the surrounding eight counties in eastern Ohio volunteered their time, and often provisions as well.  I was seven years old when I accompanied my mother and a group of neighborhood women preparing for their contribution.

Afterwards they talked passionately of the appreciation shown by the uniformed men.  “Soldier boys,” they called them.  Some of the women were motherly while others were reminiscent of girls left behind. They spoke of how the boy’s faces lit up with just a touch, a smile, or a kind word.

I observed soldiers debarking from the first train of the morning.  In my eyes they were men, but in fact they were only boys. I didn’t have the words to describe what I saw in their faces, but doubtless many were homesick, confused, and frightened of what lay ahead.

My mother only gave of her time twice. She had gone when needed, but there were so many volunteers that it was unnecessary for anyone to often repeat.  They didn’t consider serving the boys a duty or an obligation. It was a privilege—one held by nearly four thousand women who converged on the Dennison Depot over the war years.

During that time a million and a half servicemen passed through those yards. Sometimes the stops were so brief that it was necessary for the women to board the trains and hand off the provisions for the boys to distribute, but they saw to it that every last one was served at least coffee and a sandwich.

It is not surprising that some anonymous conscript on his way to the unknown, and uncertain of return, named Dennison “Dreamsville.”  It provided a memorable vision of comfort and optimism, with a futuristic picture of glorious homecomings. For many it was the last pleasant experience to cling to before activation.

Today Dennison is a different place. Steam locomotives and coal furnaces are things of the past.  The smudges of an earlier period have long since been washed away and painted over.  The town never returned to the glory days, but the people of Dennison have gone to great effort to preserve its historical significance.  Tourist trains still operate, and the Depot, now in the National Register of Historic Places, houses a museum, restaurant and gift shop.

Some see it a symbol of a bygone commercial era, but in the eyes of many remaining WWII veterans it speaks of much more. This small town depot and its volunteers provided more than sustenance for the physical being.  They stood as a beacon of hope: A place where people felt pride and offered encouragement at a time when it was direly needed. Some GIs can no longer remember the town’s official name, but the image is still clear.  They recall it only as Dreamsville. A well-deserved and appropriate epithet: Dreamsville, Ohio.

Visit http://dennisondepot.org/.