Lowertown's beloved Kelly's Depot Bar heads for history's dustbin

Facebook: Kelly's Depot Bar

Facebook: Kelly's Depot Bar

The other shoe finally dropped. The rumors came true.

Anyway, downtown St. Paul doesn't have a lot of dive bar credibility in the the first place. Most of the old haunts and blue-collar joints have been skyscraper'd, paved, or gentrified, a trend that's been going on well over 70 years. (Of course, downtown Minneapolis is worse; Google "Gateway District" if you don't believe me.)

In St. Paul, class-based commercial demolition has been a bit more subtle, but eventually economic growth catches up with even the most sluggish member of the metropolitan family, and this month the wheels of progress will claim one of downtown St. Paul's truly great holes in the wall: Kelly's Depot Bar, a small joint on the corner of Wabasha and Wacouta, in the shadow of the entrance to the remodeled Union Depot.

"On April 30th, we will be shouting last call one final time,” a Wednesday post on the restaurant’s Facebook read. “Thank you for being a part of the best little bar around town!”

The closure follows the usual script. For at least the last six months, there have been rumors flying downtown about a developer buying the large quarter-block lot on which Kelly's Bar and (more importantly) its extravagant surface parking lot sit. They want to turn it into a large and well-needed apartment building. (It's the St. Paul equivalent of the downtown Grumpy's Bar location on Minneapolis' Washington Avenue, a long-time staple that recently shuttered because its one-story building and adjacent lot proved to be awfully valuable.)

Bill Lindeke

Bill Lindeke

Replacing surface lots and one-story buildings with dozens or hundreds of new apartments can be a sign of progress, but Kelly's is a true historical landmark, and has been one of the most stable hangouts for a diverse cross section of working-class folk in downtown St. Paul for a few generations running. In the 21st century, even in the saintly city, it's been hard to find a hamburger that retails for under $10 or a beer for less than $5. When another one of these rare gems bites the bullet of progress, it's the least we can do to pour one out in commemoration.

Kelly's has been an amazing place to hang out, especially if you were one of the people who wanted downtown St. Paul to feel like a small town. They had decent food at a great price, and a trusty staff that would reliably provide good service without ever kissing your ass. There's Ricky, the surly hockey-loving bartender, Renée, the battle-axe of a server who lives a few blocks away, and a handful more folks who have been working there for years. Each could tell stories and sly jokes like the best old-school comics, and if you stopped in at Kelly's for a taco, burger, coney, or beer, you'd be assured a quality meal and a dose of camaraderie at a low price.

In my experience, Kelly's was no fly-by-night bar. The building was originally a "depot bar," old enough to have been built and thrived in an era when people actually took the passenger trains to get around the country. In the railroad days, it was in a prime spot. Circa 1950, directly across the street from the massive central train station, hundreds of people trained and detrained, embarked and arrived, every day, coming and going from small towns and big cities all across the Midwest.

Minnesota Historical Society

Minnesota Historical Society

Kelly's opened in the space in 1989, and though the train doesn't amount to much these days, there are still times when I can remember it serving as a waystation. One night, I stopped in to kill time with a Summit, and after a bit of small talk found myself chatting with two guys with southern accents.

"Say, how do you live in a place with such cold winters?" asked a mustachioed and unshaven middle-aged dude, his younger friend looking on over his shoulder. "I hear it gets cold!"

"Um, well, you get used to it I guess," replied, offering my classically Minnesotan facade. "To be honest, I actually like winter."

"I could never do it," he smiled. "I'm from central Kentucky, it's not for me."

Well, then I asked them where they were from, and it turned out that the two guys were both barge workers on break: a pilot and a deckhand killing time between long-distance runs from New Orleans to St. Paul and back again. For over a week, they'd stay on the boat, navigating the river for day after day, only getting off for about 14 hours here and again in the Big Easy.

When you dock a boat in St. Paul, Kelly's Depot Bar is the closest place with booze that you can walk to or stumble home from, and I asked them all kinds of questions about what it was like to pilot a barge up and down the Mississippi (for example, if anyone had ever crashed into a bridge). They told me many tales as we drank beer at the bar, and it struck me as a time-honored tradition. I imagined that generations of Kelly's customers had similar encounters with strangers, vagabonds, and passers-by back in the railroad days.

After Amtrak took over in the 1970s and the train depot moved over to the industrial no-man's land between the downtowns, I'd guess that Kelly's reached a bit of a nadir, though it can't have been that bad. After all, the Ramones (!) did play a show at the place back in 1977, at least if the grainy youtube videos are to be believed.

Kelly's offered unpretentious quality, the kind of bargain that is increasingly precious in today's rarified city. I'll sorely miss the place, and I can't imagine that anything could ever replace it. At least not until St. Paul has dozens of trains arriving and departing from the downtown station again...