In praise of Joliet Union Station

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Santa Fe's second 23, the 'Grand Canyon' pulls out of Joliet Union Station behind three-unit F7 diesel 305. Tracks in the foreground at the Rock Island main.
A recent afternoon of enjoying nonstop train action at Joliet, Ill. — my first visit back in perhaps 20 years — left me with this question: from the viewpoint of the fan, is Joliet Union Station the finest suburban hot spot in the U.S.?

If the criterion is train frequency, great railroad architecture, a variety of railroads, no-hassle access to platforms, nearby amenities, and an intriguing history, then I think the answer is “yes.” That’s certainly the feeling I came away after visiting this classic Chicago-area location.

For those unfamiliar with Joliet, it’s an old industrial city on the southwest edge of Chicago’s metro area, known for its elegant stone buildings, a direct outgrowth of the city’s historic ties to limestone and dolomite quarrying. If you’re familiar with John Belushi’s release from the Joliet Correctional Center in “The Blues Brothers,” then you know the architecture.

The city’s Union Station looms over one of the most strategic locations on the Chicago railroad scene, the once-upon-a-time intersection of the Alton Route (later Gulf, Mobile & Ohio), Santa Fe, and Rock Island. Today they are, in order, Union Pacific, BNSF, and Metra. The UP’s line changes to Canadian National ownership just a few blocks to the north.

It would be crazy to try to estimate the exact number of trains rolling past Union Station on any given day. Yes, you can count the number of Metra trains on the Rock Island Corridor (40-plus on weekdays) and the ex-GM&O Heritage Corridor (7), along with Amtrak’s five Lincoln Service trains on the route to Springfield and St. Louis, including the Texas Eagle. But after that, thanks to 70-plus trains on BNSF, it’s anybody’s guess. Throw in occasional CN coal trains on UP as well as daily CSX and Iowa Interstate freights on the old Rock (mostly at night) and, well, you get the picture — the place never slows down.

A Rock Island suburban train leaves Joliet Union Station for Chicago behind an EMD F7 diesel. Photo by Wallace W. Abbey
Looming over the whole shebang is the imposing, distinguished Union Station. Built in 1912, the Beaux Arts Classical monument was designed by Jarvis Hunt, a Chicago-based architect with a blue-chip resume that included Kansas City Union Station, the Newark (N.J.) Museum, and Union Pacific’s headquarters in Omaha. Finished in smooth Bedford limestone, it looks as good as the day it opened for business.

It must be reported that Union Station is no longer a working railroad depot; in recent years it was converted to an events venue. But that’s OK, because across the tracks, in the northeast corner of the junction, is the new Joliet Gateway Center, a $51 million facility serving Metra and Amtrak passengers.

With its public amenities and its own spacious platform, it’s an effective complement to the original station. That’s certainly the opinion of Metra Chairman Norm Carlson, who appreciates the junction’s history.

“It’s a tastefully designed terminal, providing significant natural light that gives it a very welcoming feeling,” Norm told me. “It’s bright and airy, conveying the message to sit back and relax until your train is ready for boarding. It’s a wonderful gateway to the city of Joliet.”

The new station includes something novel: a restored and somewhat reimagined Tower UD, which has presided over the interlocking for decades. Apparently removing the tower was out of the question because one of its walls was integral to the grade separation, so it is gradually being converted in a small museum, complete with the original model board for UD interlocking.

And those platforms — on both sides of the junction — draw photographers, lots of ’em. On the day of my visit, there were several shooters recording the action. As a measure of the place’s popularity, I checked in with and my search criteria turned up an astounding 2,306 images taken in Joliet. Not all were at Union Station, to be sure, but plenty were.

That’s the way it’s been for decades. In fact, in the black-and-white heyday of the postwar passenger train, the station drew a number of notable photographers. Perhaps its most enthusiastic documentarian was Wallace W. Abbey, the former Trains staffer who went on to a public relations career with industry associations, the Soo Line, and Milwaukee Road.

Wally’s greatness as a photojournalist was on display in the March 1952 issue of Trains, featuring his photo story simply entitled “Joliet Union Station.” In 11 perceptive images, Wally made a definitive record of an important passenger station at a moment in time.

Two Abbey photos from 1952 that didn’t make the editor’s cut are presented here. One shows a Rock Island FP7 pausing at the diamond with an inbound suburban train, the other the station stop of Santa Fe’s Second 23, the Grand Canyon, behind a trio of F7s.

The eastbound 'Alton Limited' arrives late at Joliet on June 29, 1958. Photo by Bruce R. Meyer
For good measure, I discovered another treasure, by Bruce R. Meyer, showing an unidentified man framed by the arched support of a signal bridge, contemplating the arrival of GM&O train 68, the eastbound Alton Limited, on June 29, 1958. The E7 and E8 on the head end help drive home the point that Joliet was a great place to witness streamlined passenger power.

In his 1952 photo essay, Wally Abbey called Joliet a “potpourri of typical depot action.” Frankly, I’d take issue with that. Joliet is way more interesting than “typical,” even today, and I won’t wait 20 years to go back.

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