You Have Built It, But Will They Come? St. Paul Union Depot

When I was in college I became familiar with St. Paul’s Union Depot.  I took Great Northern’s Western Star for spring break skiing in Whitefish, Montana.  The Star was Great Northern’s ‘ “second train.”  I couldn’t afford the flagship Empire Builder.  On shorter holidays, like Thanksgiving, Suzi’s family hosted several of her college friends who lived far away from Minnesota, including me, for Thanksgiving.  We took Rock Island’s Twin Star Rocket to the St. Paul and back again to Northfield.  The Rocket took on extra cars for the holiday as students from Northfield’s two colleges went north to the Cities or south to Iowa and beyond.  Other students took the Northern Pacific’s Hiawatha to Chicago or its North Coast to Bismarck or Billings.  At least during holidays Union Depot was a hopping place filled with students and denizens of St. Paul sleeping on the bench seats, looking for some warmth and comfort.  I remember it as a dark cavern and not very clean.

In 1879 the St. Paul Union Depot company was formed to serve several railroad companies.  In 1881 the first trains used Union Depot.  Two fires damaged the depot but the platforms continued to be used.  After the 1913 fire the Great Northern’s founder, James J. Hill, aka “The Empire Builder” after whom the train was named, decided to build a new Union Depot.  In 1914 Charles Sumner Frost was commissioned to build a new depot in the neo-classical style.  Hill died in 1916 so never saw his building complete.  In 1917 construction started but was delayed by World War I.  The new depot opened in 1920.

In its peak years, in the early 1920s, the station’s 10 platforms and funneled 20,000 passengers a day to 282 trains on 20 tracks.  That heyday didn’t last long.  By the late 1920’s people started using cars for much of their travel.  The station had a second peak during the Second World War.  The skylights were painted black and the place became gloomy.  Union Depot’s decline started in earnest after the war not only because of the explosion of cars and the Interstate Highway system but also airplanes.  By the 1960s Union Depot was the dark cavern I remember from college days.  In 1971 the last Empire Builder left Union Depot and Amtrak built a new station midway between the Twin Cities.

The ticketing hall (Head House) became an event venue and housed a Greek restaurant.  The post office took over the concourse and large waiting room.  Tracks were pulled out and mail trucks loaded and unloaded on the platforms below the waiting room.

In 2005 the Ramsey County Regional Railroad authority started the procedure to buy the whole depot.  In 2011 restoration began and 2012 the facility was opened to the public.  In May 2014 Amtrak’s Empire Builder returned.  It was 70 minutes late.

The facility is designed as an intermodal transportation hub with Amtrak, Jefferson Line and Greyhound long distances buses on some of the platforms used for mail trucks and the terminus for the new Metro Light Rail’s Green Line.

I was excited to see the depot and disappointed with what I saw, not with the restoration, which is beautiful, but by the emptiness of the halls.  It was a Friday afternoon, a St. Paul Saint’s Baseball game was about to start at the nearby field but I counted five people in the concourse and waiting room not including Suzi and me.  One was a janitor and one a security guard.  More people were in the Greek Restaurant in the ticketing hall.

The Light Rail station is in front of the station so no one bothers to go in.  I saw exactly six Jefferson Lines buses listed on the signboard for the day.   I expected to see coffee shops, a Starbucks or Caribou Coffee, newsstands, a book store and a notions store in the concourse.  All I saw was a pop machine, a row of gumball machines, a cart where you could pick up a paperback book and leave one you have finished and a ping pong table.  I have never seen a large train station without coffee or a newsstand/bookstore.

The brochure says that someday commuter rail may use some of the platforms but that can be years off.  Today it is a ghost station with beautiful restored Socialist Realism murals with images of heroic workers building Minnesota.

A Frieze along the cornice depicts the history of transportation from oxen drawn wagon train to railway train.  There were are modern art installations.  The men’s room has what looks like the original tilework on the floor and walls, although, fortunately, the fixtures are new.   Bench seats with armrests were comfortable to sit in but the armrests prevented people from lying down.  In one corner of the waiting room the Empire Builder lounge was locked, waiting for the 10 PM train.  But the place was clean.

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