Photo by Bill Roseberry
Alton Amtrak station manager Mark Hatch sits on a bench in front of one of the begonia-filled flower boxes next to the tracks at the train station.
First impressions mean a lot.
That’s why Dale and Carol Neudecker looked at the Amtrak Station in Alton a quarter of a century ago and thought it was crucial to give it a beautification boost. The idea was to spruce up the old building — erected in the late 1920s — with a remodel. That wasn’t quite enough though, so the Neudeckers built flower boxes and showcased them around the station.
“The story started 25 years ago,” Dale Neudecker said. “I was the president of the FL Business Association and the train station looked terrible. It had weeds growing out of the side of the building and we contacted the train company and kept badgering them until they finally did something. They remodeled it, put a new roof on it and redid the parking lot because there were potholes that you could lose a car in.
“After they got all that done, my wife and I thought, ‘We should really put some flower boxes there for the people who are sitting on the train going through Alton. It would give them a nice impression and make the station look nice.’”
But the problem at the time was the station managers didn’t do their part watering the flowers and keeping them blooming. That changed when current station manager Mark Hatch arrived in 1990.
Since then Hatch has taken pride in the upkeep of the station — especially the flowers.
“(The flowers) are a good plus of the visual affect of the station,” Hatch said. “People have memories here and even people on the train going by, they see Alton has a flower box and they think, ‘That looks like a nice station, it must be a nice town.’”
Dale Neudecker added, “Mark deserves a pat on the back for all those years taking care of the flowers.”
The flowers at the station sparked a movement in Alton where flowers have been hung throughout the community. The Neudeckers also maintain hanging flowers on light posts in Upper Alton. The light post initiative has been in effect for seven or eight years. There are also individuals who provide flowers for other parts of Alton.
“There are petunias in the hanging baskets, but begonias out at the train station because they really mound up out of the flower boxes instead of just hanging over them,” Neudecker said.
Hatch said the flowers help give travelers a homey feel and sense of security when at the Alton station. Many people come from the St. Louis area to use the Alton Amtrak station because of free parking and its location. It may be their only experience with Alton.
“Whether they were getting off, getting on, or just sitting on the train and looking out, I thought it would give (travelers) a good positive look about Alton by having beautiful flower boxes at the train station,” Neudecker said.
Now a new station is scheduled to be built in about two years. The new location will be on the site of the former Robert Wadlow Municipal Golf Course. The future for the old station at 3400 College Ave. is uncertain. Hatch said the property is for sale, but if not sold it could be demolished.
“It belongs to Union Pacific and they have people out here seeing if it can be moved,” Hatch said. “It’s going to be part of Alton’s history and I feel fortunate to be able to be part of the station. I started late at this station; it’s been here a long time, but it’s really a good opportunity.”
Hatch is also on his way out. He has one year left before retirement and has loved his time as a station manager. He works alone most days, bustling travelers in and out of his station and keeping his aging surroundings looking as beautiful as possible.
“It’s just been nice dealing with the public and seeing how the trains are running on time and being at this quaint little station and seeing how it’s aging,” Hatch said. “It’s a challenge sometimes dealing with the public. It’s not crazy, but you keep it from becoming crazy.”
With gas prices soaring and airport security causing for long days, coupled with high ticket prices, riding the train becomes an economical choice for travel. Trips from Alton to Chicago can be purchased at times for less than $100 and it’s roughly a 4 1/2-hour ride.
Neudecker said he thinks the new station will make riding the train even more popular, and he and his wife will do their best to continue providing the beauty to visitors at the new location.
“I hope the project moves forward and we get a beautiful new station where the Wadlow Golf Course was and that will be a whole new ballgame,” Neudecker said. “They talk about shopping centers and so forth having a magnet; I think that will be magnet for Alton having that multi-modal center there and I think there are still a lot of people that come from St. Louis to board the train in Alton because it’s better than where they get on over there. I think that will even be more so when the new station comes in because there will be a lot more parking, a lot more stuff going.
“I think (the flowers) add a lot to the station (now) and we hope we can add a lot to the new train station when it’s built.”