Why do so many cities have a “Union Station”?

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Dear Cecil: Why are so many railroad stations called “Union Station”? Love your column. M. Smith, Chicago

Cecil replies:

Always a pleasure to deal with a person of taste. As you’ve already noticed, lots of towns have a Union Station. In addition to Chicago, you’ll find one in Chattanooga, Cincinnati, Denver, El Paso, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Nashville, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and probably many other places. “Union” depots don’t commemorate the labor movement, though. Rather, they were an attempt to consolidate rail traffic into a single terminal instead of having each railroad build a separate station and approach-track system, using piles of cash and hundreds of acres of valuable downtown real estate in the process.

Chicago, the principal rail center in the U.S., provides a good example of the sort of problem union stations were supposed to solve. With 6,000 miles of track and seven downtown depots, not to mention numerous yards and freight terminals, the city had the most complex and in many ways the most chaotic metropolitan rail system in the world. Nowhere was this more evident than in the circuitous routes some passenger trains had to negotiate to get out of the city. Baltimore & Ohio trains, for example, wanted to head east, since that’s where Baltimore and Ohio were. But first they had to head five miles west to escape the congestion. Grand Trunk Western trains, which were ultimately headed north to Canada by way of Michigan, first had to chug south, then west, south again, southeast, and finally (having reached Griffith, Indiana, 13 miles south of Lake Michigan) northeast.

Numerous schemes (19 of them before 1913) were proposed to eliminate this mess, the most famous being the 1909 Plan of Chicago by the architect Daniel Burnham. Burnham wanted to boil the seven existing stations down to three. For various reasons, the chief ones being the enormous size of the project and the predictable corporate inertia, none of these plans came to pass.

A Chicago Union Station of sorts did open in 1925, although only five of the city’s 24 passenger railroads and 390 of its 1,500- 1,600 weekday trains used it. Eventually, with the decline of intercity passenger rail traffic, the problem became less pressing, but even today Chicago has four downtown rail terminals, which mostly handle commuter trains.

In many cities the main impetus behind station consolidation wasn’t so much congestion as simple economics. A railroad operating only a handful of trains per day through a town couldn’t afford to build a fancy station, but several railroads sharing one facility could. Many Union Stations were impressive works of architecture that were preserved long after the trains that used them had disappeared. Sure, a lot of them today are basically glorified shopping centers, but they’re still a vivid reminder of days gone by.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.