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History of Union Station

Currently available:

Click on the chapter title to download a copy.

Below are short descriptions of each chapter of this history of Union Station.

Drafts of chapters 1, 2, and 3 are now available for downloading. Since these chapters are drafts, they are occasionally missing statistics or other details; they also contain errors and typos. To report mistakes or to offer other suggestions, email comments@washingtonunionstation.com

Other chapters will be added in the coming months.

Also available is a map of central Washington at the turn of the 20th century, which may be helpful in following the story in the early chapters.

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Chapter 1 -- Railroading Washington
The place of railroads in the 19th century capital.

Chapter 2 -- A Change of Plans
Legislative and architectural development of the station.

Chapter 3 -- Assembly Required
The troubled yet remarkable construction of the "Washington improvement."

Chapter 4 -- On Line
Opening the station, culminating with the snow-covered 1909 inauguration.

Chapter 5 -- Neighborhood Business
How the station changed its surroundings, both during and after construction.

Chapter 6 -- Welcome to Washington
The station's role as the capital's gateway for both visitors and residents.

Chapter 7 -- Operating Daily
How thousands of workers kept the trains running (mostly) on time.

Chapter 8 -- Life During Wartime
During both World Wars, the station documented life in the city and country.

Chapter 9 -- White City to White Elephant
The 1950s at the terminal, as passenger travel deteriorted

Chapter 10 -- Tourist Trap
The search, during the '60s and '70s, for a new use for the building.

Chapter 11 -- Gateway, Again
Conversion of the terminal into a transportation center and festival mall.

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Chapter 1--Railroading Washington (download a copy)

Like most 19th century American cities, Washington saw the railroad as crucial to its success. After the Civil War, however, residents of the capital fought their two main carriers, the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) and the Pennsylvania (PRR), as often as they encouraged them. Three issues ran through the period: grade crossings, the street-level intersections between roads and tracks where two or three people died during an average year; the two existing terminals, generally considered "inadequate and discreditable;" and the location of the PRR's facilities, which occupied 14 acres of the Mall. Local leaders tried for a generation to resolve these conflicts, and their continued failure to do so revealed how the United States, happy to claim it was the world's greatest democracy, allowed the citizens of its own capital little control over their city.

Download Chapter 1 (.pdf, 750 kb)


Chapter 2--A Change of Plans (download a copy)

In early 1901, the B&O and the PRR each won from Congress the right to build themselves a new, larger terminal. Both had to eliminate grade crossings in return, but the Pennsylvania also gained the right to deface twice as much of the Mall. By Halloween, however, the PRR revealed that residents would soon have all their long-sought goals. For the good of the country and beauty of the capital, the company announced, it would leave the city's central park and join the B&O in building a "union" station on the north side of Capitol Hill. This decision was crucial to the landscape of modern Washington , allowing creation of the vista that now sweeps from the Capitol to the Potomac . The move also meant that the city would finally welcome all visitors in the same place, through a building that would provide an appropriately impressive display of American wealth and power. Yet the PRR's decision was not actually a rare triumph of art over commerce, of exceptional corporate citizenship. It was instead an example of the Pennsylvania 's power and therefore another lesson in how things really worked in the capital.

Download Chapter 2 (.pdf, 430 kb)


Chapter 3--Assembly Required (download a copy)

Planning the capital's grand new gateway excited both the terminal's builders and its future users. But enthusiasm for "the Washington improvement," as railroad engineers dryly called the station and related projects, began to disappear soon after work began in 1903. Construction ran 80% over budget and two years behind schedule, causing the contractors, the railroads, and the architects to spend four years solving problems and shifting blame. Neighbors were equally unhappy, as the rebuilding of adjacent streets created flooding, caused accidents, and undermined property values. Yet such wide-ranging problems could not obscure what an incredible achievement the Washington improvement was. Easily the largest construction project the capital had ever seen, it touched all four of the city's quadrants, employed more than 5,000 men, drew resources from across the country, and cost, in modern dollars, more than $1.2 billion.

Download Chapter 3 (.pdf, 475 kb)


Chapter 4--On Line (download a copy)

Putting the largest terminal in the world into service proved almost as complicated as building it. The previous arrangement of Washington 's railroads meant Union Station had to open before it was finished, and inconvenience and confusion characterized the building's first eight months. The beginning of full operations in May 1908 inspired praise from the public and from professionals: for a clever layout, for fine materials like granite and marble, and for a massive yet elegant neoclassical design. The railroads also appreciated their new home, but they quickly focused on creating routines that would move trains and passengers efficiently. Though the carriers measured their progress each day, their first big test came with the inauguration of 1909. It was exactly the kind of major event for which the building had been designed, creating a substantial challenge without a blizzard arriving the night before President Taft was take the oath of office.

Download Chapter 4 (.pdf, 560 kb)


Chapter 5--Neighborhood Business

Union Station was a redevelopment project long before that phrase came into use. It radically changed land use throughout the neighborhood of Swampoodle, a section of town that was not, despite the claims of the building's current managers, a "notorious Irish shantytown." The terminal's most immediate effect was to dislocate the 1700 people who lived within its property lines, but it continued to shape adjacent areas for the next thirty years. Most changes to the north, east and west were commercial, as businesses moved in to take advantage of the traffic at the station and the new freight yards nearby, but residents, including many who worked at the station, also rearranged themselves. The federal government gradually took responsibility for the land to the south, towards the Capitol, hoping to make the nation's "front yard" as impressive as its gateway.

Chapter 6-Welcome to Washington
As early as the 1840s, commentators had begun to compare railroad stations to the gates of ancient and medieval cities: not only were they the point of entry, but they were also the places where visitors received their initial impression of the community. Yet Union Station's role in the capital went far beyond welcoming newcomers, both temporary and permanent, to Washington . Like most gates, the terminal swung in both directions, meaning it was also a landmark for residents as they left and returned to their hometown. Most important, what happened in the building revealed many of the key features of life in the capital: from the operation of government to social patterns such as the roles of women and African Americans.

Chapter 7--Operating Daily

Most travelers thought little about how their trains came and went, but handling Union Station's more than daily 200 arrivals and departures demanded enormous skill and coordination. Detailing how the workers safely maintained this schedule reveals the scale of the terminal-it was one of the city's biggest private employers, with a force that had grown to nearly 3,000 by the 1920s-and highlights the range of talents the operation needed to move and to track trains and passengers. The lives of the workers provide another illustration of how the station documented life in the city, from the places they lived through their struggles to earn a solid living.

Chapter 8-Life During Wartime

The station was an even more important and revealing place during the two world wars. Not only did traffic increase dramatically with the U.S.'s entry into WWI, but its takeover by the US Railroad Administration illustrated how federal government injected itself into the economy; in addition, its workforce, like many others', changed radically as permanent employees went off to war. Twenty years later, the terminal again reflected the wartime labor force's increasingly female form, and the variety of people it handled summarized the mixing that was occurring across the country. Even Parade magazine grasped what was happening: "Under its vaulted roof," it explained in a 1942 story about Union Station, "is staged the whole drama of a nation at war."

Chapter 9-- White City to White Elephant

Conditions changed rapidly in the post-war years. By the 1950s, its physical and financial condition had deteriorated as rapidly as passenger train travel had declined. The terminal then became a symbol, though exactly what kind varied according to the source. For some it represented a time gone by, part of a nearly-extinct system that would, according to one federal report, soon "take its place in the transportation museum along with the stagecoach, the side-wheeler, and steam locomotive ." Others believed it illustrated how government transportation overwhelmingly favored competitors such as airplanes and automobiles. The general view of these positions was clear in a 1958 Senate hearing on the problems of the industry: when the Pennsylvania 's president offered to give the station to the government, so it would operate just like an airline terminal, the audience broke into laughter.

Chapter 10--Tourist Trap

The PRR and the B&O continued to offer their building around, considering proposals to replace it with an office block or to turn it into a museum or a shopping mall. This search soon overlapped another, one to find ways to stimulate the city's economy. Tourism had by this time become the capital's second largest industry, and businessmen argued that better visitor services would increase stays and therefore spending and tax revenues. The interests of the railroads and of these boosters came together in the National Visitor Center (NVC), a project intended to convert the terminal into a National Park Service unit that would give travelers information, parking, and an introduction to the capital. But the NVC instead became an expensive, incomplete failure. In 1980 the Washington Post would call it "a dissolute symbol of big government gone mad," and those who remember it today still laugh at the idea. Yet treating the project as a joke precludes using it to look at one of this period's key developments: the changing operations of and attitudes towards the federal government.

Chapter 11-Gateway Again

Two days of hard rain in early 1981 broke through Union Station's perennially leaky roof, sending basketball-sized pieces of plaster tumbling to the waiting room floor. Though the resulting closure of the main building (a temporary station operated in back) inconvenienced travelers, it also offered hope because the District and federal governments could no longer ignore what had become a decaying hulk. Planners and politicians argued over its best use, hoping to control costs, to make the terminal a key part of the city once again, and to serve the surprising rebirth of passenger rail. The festival marketplace/transportation center that opened in 1988 was a great success, making Union Station a model for other cities and again setting off a wave of neighborhood redevelopment. It therefore seemed the antithesis of the National Visitor Center , but in fact the two projects many of the same issues-urban policy, economic change, and historic preservation.