The Holly train depot opened in 1912, at the height of the eastern plains agricultural boom after the early twentieth-century introduction of sugar beets. For decades the depot linked farmers and consumers to the rest of the country by rail, allowing them to sell agricultural produce to distant markets and purchase new goods by mail. After passenger and freight service ended in the 1970s and 1980s, the building sat vacant until 1999, when it was converted into the Holly Town Hall and library.
In 1881 a “Holleys” station in eastern Colorado first appeared in the timetables of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. The Santa Fe, as the railroad is commonly known, built its main line from Dodge City, Kansas, to El Paso, Texas, between 1873 and 1881. The Holleys stop lay along that main line, not far across the Colorado border from Kansas. There was no depot building at Holleys in the early years, just a designated place for the train to stop.
The Holleys station sat near the ranch headquarters of Hiram S. Holly (sometimes spelled “Holley”), who had settled there in the early 1870s. The headquarters served as the center of operations for Holly’s vast ranch, which stretched for about thirty miles along the Arkansas River and was at one point said to include 35,000 cattle and 2.5 million acres of pastureland. By 1881, when the Holleys station first appeared in railroad timetables, Holly’s ranch headquarters had developed into a small community with stores and services for employees and local residents. Holly’s ranch survived the blizzards of 1885–86 and 1886–87, which destroyed other ranches and their herds.
By the early 1890s Holly’s ranch headquarters were evolving into a real town. As a sign of the change, the Santa Fe timetables gave up the old “Holleys” name in 1894 and switched to “Holly,” as the town came to be known.
In the late nineteenth century, Holly grew in importance along the Santa Fe line primarily because three cattle trails, including the National Cattle Trail, came through Prowers County. The cattle trails led to the railroad, where the cattle could be loaded onto rail cars and shipped to markets in the East. As a result, the Santa Fe Railroad began to invest in infrastructure at Holleys station. In 1897 Holly received its first railroad depot, a standard wood-frame building and extension. The Santa Fe Railroad also built loading chutes and pens for livestock in 1901.
Southeastern Colorado began to shift in the early 1900s from ranching to farming. In 1902 a mill, an elevator, and a warehouse were built in Holly. Soon rail cars were being loaded with wheat, oats, and cantaloupes instead of cattle. The area really began to boom in agriculture after 1905, with the rise of the sugar beet industry and the establishment of the Holly Sugar Company.
Holly’s booming agricultural industry probably played a role in the Santa Fe Railroad’s decision to retire the old wood-frame depot in 1912 and build a brand-new brick depot at Holly. The new building was a “county seat” depot, a particular style that the Santa Fe Railroad built starting in the 1890s at county seats and other important stops as the budget allowed. “County seat” depots were not strictly standardized, allowing for local variations in trim, exterior finish, and other details. The Holly depot was designed in the Mission style, modeled loosely on Spanish colonial missions, with a red tile roof, projecting eaves, and arched windows. Located off Main Street just north of the railroad tracks, the brick depot cost $31,000 and was dedicated in August 1912. The town celebrated the new depot with a cowboy dinner, relay races, bronco busting, and an evening reception at the building.
The Holly depot was where the town and surrounding region connected to the rest of the country via the railroad. The depot linked local farmers to the railroad, allowing them to ship produce to processing plants and markets. It also linked consumers in town to distant markets, allowing them to purchase cars, farm machinery, lumber, and other goods that arrived by rail.
In addition to being a stop on the main line of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, Holly was also on a branch line called the Arkansas Valley Branch. This side branch, built after 1908, took off from the main trunk at Holly and ran up the Arkansas Valley to Swink, Colorado, where it connected to another line headed to Pueblo. Because of Holly’s position as the node where these different lines connected, it received a fair amount of rail traffic for a town its size. By 1919 eight daily mainline trains stopped at the Holly depot, plus one daily train to Swink via the Arkansas Valley Branch.
Holly Town Hall
Rail traffic began to decline in the 1950s as travelers and freight shifted increasingly to cars and trucks. Few trains passed through Holly, and even fewer stopped. Passenger service to Holly ended in the early 1970s, freight service in the early 1980s.
The depot sat empty and boarded up for more than a decade. In 1993 Holly leased the depot to an amateur paleontologist who wanted to turn the building into a museum. He made a few changes to the interior, primarily removing bricks to add doorways, but eventually abandoned the project.
In 1999 the depot building was restored and converted for use as the Holly Town Hall and library. It is now one of the oldest structurally sound buildings in Holly and one of only four remaining “county seat” depots built by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in Colorado.