St. Paul Union Depot: a big-city station done right

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Monday, May 8, 2017

The concourse at St. Paul Union Depot bustles with activity during the second annual Union Depot Train Day on May 6. Kevin P. Keefe photo
It’s an understatement to say that big American cities have a mixed record when it comes to finding new uses for their grand train stations. If anything good happens, the emphasis usually is on mere preservation and not transportation.

Some of our best historic terminals have found new life as commercial or cultural institutions. Three of the best examples are Kansas City, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati, all of which have found new missions as commercial properties and museums, even as they still welcome Amtrak passengers — so long as they slip out the back door.

Denver’s lavishly expanded Union Station might be the most exciting revival. It remains a true rail terminal, playing host not only to Amtrak’s daily California Zephyr, but also the city’s burgeoning light-rail and commuter systems, as well as seasonal ski trains to Winter Park. 

Save some applause for another gem: St. Paul Union Depot, known locally as SPUD. This past weekend I found myself marveling at the transformation of this grand old dowager as I mingled with throngs of families and railfans at the fifth annual Union Depot Train Day.

The event, managed by Classic Trains contributor Steve Glischinski, was a nice showcase for Amtrak, other local railroads, model-railroad clubs, railroadiana sellers, and transit public-interest groups. Downstairs at track level, the festival featured contemporary and vintage diesel locomotives and railroad cars from several sources. In a nod to SPUD’s bus service, visitors also could tour a vintage Greyhound Scenicruiser.

Amid all the excitement, I hope the locals took time to admire the wonderful building they are blessed to call their own. The place has a glorious history.

The new Union Depot was opened in 1923. The St. Paul Union Depot Company, which included surrounding terminal trackage, was owned by nine railroads: Great Northern; Northern Pacific; Milwaukee Road; Soo Line; Chicago & North Western; Chicago Great Western; Rock Island; Minneapolis & St. Louis; and the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha. Both M&StL and the Omaha Road would later be absorbed by C&NW. 

The stately colonnade of SPUD's front entrance contrasts with autos in the parking lot across the street in October 1969. Today, light-rail trains can be seen here. Philip R. Hastings photo
The owners gave the new depot a fine design pedigree, hiring Charles Sumner Frost, one of Chicago’s leading early 20th-century architects. Over his career Frost compiled a long list of significant buildings, including 127 structures for the Chicago & North Western alone, among them the Windy City’s late lamented North Western Terminal at Canal and Madison streets.

For St. Paul, Frost and his clients chose a sturdy, neoclassical design, highlighted by an imposing Doric colonnade along the north side of the headhouse. It became one of the city’s architectural icons.

The depot’s function matched its form, at least in the early decades. During the peak of passenger service in the 1920s, the station’s 21 tracks and 9 platforms were serving nearly 300 trains a day. Many photographers of the classic era depicted trains rolling into the depot along the graceful curves that trace the adjacent Mississippi.

By the late 1930s, SPUD was ground zero for one of railroading’s great rivalries, the battle for the Chicago market waged by the Milwaukee’s Hiawathas, C&NW’s Twin Cities 400, and Burlington’s Twin Cities Zephyrs. Indeed, SPUD was the only station used by all three competitors.

Sometime in the 1930s or early '40s, Great Northern's 'Empire Builder' steams along the Mississippi River toward St. Paul Union Depot, whose dark-colored concourse is visible below the tall, light-colored buildings at left. GN photo
All of that was long over when I first encountered SPUD in the summer of 1972. I was visiting the station with Jeff Wells, a college buddy who’d just found a job in Minneapolis. Although the station had ceased train service the previous year with the advent of Amtrak, you could still walk into the headhouse and make your way down to the platforms.

What I remember was the deep, ghostly silence of the place. The main hall was dimly lit, its vast marble floor unoccupied except for the presence of balloon-stack 4-4-0 William Crooks, built in 1861 for a GN predecessor and since moved to the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth.

It was just as gloomy down on the 18 station tracks, which in those days were stuffed with surplus passenger cars stored by Burlington Northern. Jeff and I managed to get into some of the cars, the highlight of which was GN observation-lounge Going to the Sun Mountain, the most lyrical name I ever encountered on a passenger car. When we left later that night, I figured that faded old SPUD wouldn’t last long.

I was wrong, of course. The depot managed to hang on for decades, protected, perhaps, by its limited commercial potential and its 1974 designation on the National Register of Historic Places. Mostly it gathered dust, but at least it was still standing.

It’s not dusty anymore. Reopened in 2012 after a $243 million renovation, the sparkling depot is a testimonial to the enlightened work of its current owner, the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority, and the citizens and politicians who believed in the project.

Best of all, it’s a working transportation hub again. Everything gleams, from the skylights and chandeliers of the headhouse to the arched ceiling and sculpted steam-era frescoes of the waiting room and concourse. Large historical murals and carefully updated gate signs attest to the building’s heritage. Down at track level, new platforms serve Empire Builder passengers. Out front on Fourth Street, phalanxes of Siemens light-rail trains line up to travel the Green Line to Minneapolis.

To be sure, SPUD has a ways to go to match the potential that drove the original renovation. With only the two Amtrak trains (which vacated the 1970s-vintage Midway station in favor of SPUD) and a modest slate of Greyhound buses, the depot has little impact on total Twin Cities intercity travel. Indeed, when county officials pushed for the renovation, they noted the building’s potential to handle nearly 4 million passengers a year. This year it won’t even reach 100,000.

One of the Train Day exhibitors, All Aboard Minnesota, is working hard to improve the station’s utility, lobbying hard not only to keep the Empire Builder running amid current threats to long-distance Amtrak trains, but also to expand service to Chicago. I have to figure a Zephyr- or Hiawatha-like corridor service would be a boon for the depot.

Meanwhile, the ghosts of SPUD’s original owners can rest in peace knowing that, nearly 100 years after it opened, their stolid edifice in downtown St. Paul is still doing its job.


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