Daejeon was a product of colonial modernization, becoming so important that it later replaced Gongju as the seat of power in the region. While cities like Seoul and Busan were already relatively important at the turn of the 20th century, Daejeon barely existed prior to 1900. The lack of convenient transportation, and even more importantly, coastlines, kept what was then known as Hanbat a small village. Japanese colonization was hugely dependent on railroad networks, and while coastal cities had the luxury of sea transportation, land-locked localities like Daejeon would arguably not have developed to such a degree had there been no trains.
Railways in Korea
Though railways in Korea were first influenced by Americans and French a mere twenty years after the nation’s opening to foreign trade, it was the Japanese who rushed the completion of the Gyeongbu Line connecting Busan to Seoul. Medical missionary and diplomat Horace Newton Allen recounts in his 1908 publication, Korean Things, that from “Fusan one makes the journey to Seoul in a day over standard gauge railway with cars either of American build or patterned after the American cars.”1 When this line was finished in 1905, about a year after the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War, Daejeon’s population started to grow. Leading up to this point, the 1890s saw Russia eagerly pursuing a cross-continent rail system in the wake of the First Sino-Japanese War while Japan wanted to finish a railway connecting Korea to Manchuria. This railway race was also indicative of each nation’s desire to control and exert power on the border regions of their empires. To be sure, the war between Russia and Japan was, “in a way, a war over railways.”2
Only a couple of weeks after the war’s outbreak, a new agreement was signed between the Japanese and Korean governments allowing Japanese forces to commandeer and appropriate land when needed. The military’s ability to seize land at any time allowed for rapid construction of Korea’s rail lines. By 1910, construction of the Honam Line began. Initially proposed by a French company in 1896, the original idea was that it would be a separate line from Seoul to Mokpo. The Japanese iteration of this line went from Mokpo and terminated in Daejeon. The Honam Line was completed in 1914 – taking just four years to complete a roughly 247 kilometer track. These railways were then not only the lifelines of the Japanese military, but the catalysts for colonial city development. Daejeon, stuck in the middle of these rail systems, became the transportation hub in the center of the peninsula. Even today, all rail lines connect to Daejeon.
Allen’s previously mentioned book from 1908 contains a number of interesting stories, including this anecdote about one local Korean man’s first railway experience:
At Fusan he saw men building the grade of the Seoul-Fusan railway and being told what it was he laughed knowingly and remarked that their hair would be whiter than his before ever they reached Seoul with that dyke, for he had built dykes around rice-fields all his life and he knew what the work meant.
His comfortable trip up the coast was a revelation. Plenty to eat, much to see, and just enough gentle motion to induce a continual sleep. From Chemulpo, on the railway train, he was almost too astonished to smoke as he saw the people in the fields rush past him. Finally, taking courage from his fellow passengers, he sedately lit his pipe and had only ” spit out of the window twice,” when they arrived at the then terminus, where other work- men were constructing the Seoul end of the Seoul-Fusan railway. On being told what this was, the old man supposed these were the same men he had seen at work three hundred miles away and that they had completed their task.
All he could do was to squat weakly on his haunches and exclaim “aigoo,” as he called upon the spirit of his maternal ancestor, as though demanding of her if she had ever heard of any such dyke building in her experience.3
Right outside Daejeon Station sits a couple of old rail buildings. Though there used to be at least two more, only one of the wood-sided warehouses remains – stuck in the middle of a parking lot. Built in 1956 using a wooden truss for the roof, it served as the regional office supply warehouse.4
Very near to this lone structure sits two more buildings within the walls of a Korail center of some sort.
Also just outside of Daejeon Station is Soje-dong – the location of a number of minor colonial and post-liberation structures. This area may give some idea as to what the town around the railroad station looked like in the past. The architecture consists of some longhouses, possibly for manufacturing or storage, and a number of homes that either have hanok or Western inspired roofs.
On the west side of the tracks, lies a block of colonial buildings squared off by Yeokjeon 1-gil, Seonhwa-ro, Yeokjeon 3-gil, and Daejeon-ro. A few of them are distinctly Japanese, though most of them are in bad shape. The first storefront pictured below still retains its exterior molding.
Near this neighborhood lies the old Samseong Elementary School. A typical red brick school building, it has circular windows at both the front and rear entrances. It was built in August of 1911 to (mostly) facilitate the needs of Japanese students.
On the main drag west of Daejeon Station sits the somewhat regal looking Daejeon Branch of the Korea Development Bank. Built in 1937, it originally served the Joseon Industrial Bank. While simple in overall design, it has some nice Renaissance details on the facade and along the roof. Using materials imported from Manchuria and Germany, the bank was built on a granite foundation with terracotta worked in above the columns.
This Shinhan Bank is not only an example of early Korean modernist architecture, but it is also representative of some of the other functional post-liberation structures in Daejeon. Built in 1951 as Chohung Bank, this unassuming concrete and granite building more or less blends in with its newer neighbors.
This area also used to be the home of the old Jungang Theatre. Built of brick and concrete in 1935, it was demolished relatively recently.5
On Daejeon-ro is the former Daejeon Branch of the Oriental Development Company. While it isn’t in the best of shape, it has some intricately carved details along the roof and around the windows. A rather ornate structure, this branch was constructed in 1922 and is one of three remaining Oriental Development Company buildings in Korea, the other two being in Mokpo and Busan. This one was used by the postal service and the Daejeon Telegraph and Telephone Office after liberation.
The stream in this neighborhood has seen the construction of a few old buildings along its shores, but the most impressive structure here lies down Byeonjeonso-gil. Surrounded by high walls with a single watch tower, this massive red brick building began life as a power station for Daejeon Electric Power Inc. Built in 1930, it later served as a warehouse for the Daejeon branch of Korea Electric Power Corps. Also within the walls is a smaller brick building and another structure with a dramatic, pointy roof that, while also from the colonial period, may or may not have originally been part of the power station’s facilities. Interest in electrifying Korean cities was shown as early as 1883 when a diplomatic mission was sent from Joseon to the United States. Just one year later, an American minister to Korea named Frazer relayed this message to the Korean government via telegraph: “Edison requests exclusive concession Electric Light Telephone Corea.” The Korean government ordered lighting for Gyeongbok Palace, and by 1887, Korean royalty had electricity before its Chinese and Japanese counterparts.6 Eleven years later, in the interest of contributing electric street lights and trams to the city’s infrastructure, Emperor Gojong and the Americans funded the Seoul Electric Company (Hanseong Jeongi Hoesa), a company which KEPCO now supposedly traces its roots to. The old power station is currently being used as a research facility by the Korea Electric Power Research Institute.
In Ojeong-dong, roughly two kilometers north of Daejeon Station, is Hannam University. Established in 1956, a handful of old homes in the ojeong-dong seongyosachon (오정동 선교사촌), or envangelists’ village, can still be found on campus. One of these homes is the Linton House. Constructed sometime between 1955 and 1958, it was the abode of one William Alderman Linton, an American Southern Presbyterian minister who was also the founder of Daejeon College, a school which would later become Hannam University. Linton’s descendants are, at present, still very active within Korea, but Linton himself was known for (among other things) defending his students by refusing to participate in Shinto worship. This was during the colonial period while working as the principal of Jeonju Shinheung High School. Built in the shape of a horseshoe, each house is a surprisingly seamless blend of American mid-century modernism and traditional Korean hanok architecture. The bottom half of the homes were constructed of red brick, but the roofs were done with giwa tiles built over hanok-styled wooden beams. It is a striking juxtaposition.
To see the entire Flickr gallery, click here.
1Horace Newton Allen, Things Korean, (Fleming H. Revell Company, 1908), 48.
2Nakano Akira, “Korea’s Railway Network the Key to Imperial Japan’s Control,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus (2008).
3Horace Newton Allen, Things Korean, (Fleming H. Revell Company, 1908), 87.
5Benedict Byunguh Yu, “Modern, Contemporary/Donggu,” Architecture in Daejeon-00.
6Nam Moon-hyon, “Early History of Electrical Engineering in Korea: Edison and First Electric Lighting in the Kingdom of Corea,” Singapore 2000: Promoting the History of EE (2000).
Regional Office Supply Warehouse location:
The two other old buildings by the Korail office were somewhere around here, next to the previously mentioned Regional Office Supply Warehouse:
Colonial homes and post-liberation shanties in Soje-dong:
Center of the square formed by Yeokjeon 1-gil, Seonhwa-ro, Yeokjeon 3-gil, and Daejeon-ro:
Samseong Elementary School location:
Former Daejeon Branch of the Korea Development Bank location:
Shinhan Bank location:
Former Daejeon Branch of the Oriental Development Company location:
Former Daejeon Electric Power Inc. Power Station location:
Linton House and missionary homes at Hannam University: