St. Paul’s Union Depot at 215 Fourth Street may be on the last leg of a long round trip, heading back, though slowly, toward becoming a bustling transit hub again. Traces remain of the station’s glory days, since the most recent restoration in 2010-2012. The former ticket windows are visible behind the bar, the oversize clocks remain in the lobby area, and on the east side of the building a door with gold letters announces STATIONMASTER E.P. Bruers.
Ever wonder why it’s called Union Depot? “A union depot was a single train station that served the passengers of all the railroad companies,” as opposed to each railroad having its own, which created inconveniences for passengers, notes Donald L. Empson in On the Street Where You Live.
The first true union depot here was conceived in 1879, when “all of the companies in St. Paul assisted in the organization of the St. Paul Union Depot Co.,” according to General G.C. Andrews in his History of St. Paul, Minn. This imposing Victorian building was built for $125,000 and opened in 1881, serving at least 12 lines in and out of St. Paul. It was at the foot of Sibley Street, and boasted a huge 600-foot-long structural steel train shed with a heavy glass dome, as noted in St. Paul History and Progress (1897), which says: “The busiest place in the entire Northwest is without doubt the St. Paul Union Depot.”
As Empson says, it’s hard to conceptualize the influence of the railroads in the later nineteenth century: “almost everything and everybody entered and left the city via the railroad.” St. Paul was the third busiest rail hub in America, says Larry Millett in Lost Twin Cities. In 1895 the depot was sorting 78.5 tons of mail every day, and in 1889 it saw 8 million passengers and up to 268 trains daily. Hildegard Binder Johnson notes in her introduction to the geography of the Twin Cities, “The greatest rate of growth in population during any single decade occurred between 1880 and 1890 when the Twin Cities developed into a major railroad focal point. Since 1883 no less than nine different railroad companies served the Twin Cities and five of them established their headquarters here.” St. Paul’s population increased 221%, more than 90,000, in that decade. Andrews says, “The railroad map of the Northwest has been shaped largely with reference to St. Paul.”
The first depot had problems, however. It was rebuilt when its interior and roof were gutted by fire in 1884, but it had been built on swampy land and settled, causing large cracks in the walls and safety concerns. Its roof had been removed because of those concerns. The St. Paul Daily News later said about the 1884 fire, “the flames were running a neck and neck race with condemnation proceedings.” On October 3-4, 1913, another fire destroyed the depot in “a spectacular blaze that lit up the sky over Lowertown,” Millett notes. The St. Paul Daily News in its Union Station Edition April 4, 1920, headlined one story, “St. Paul’s Luckiest Fire.” At least 15,000 people watched the depot burn, the paper said under the headline “Crowds rejoiced as the old depot burned.” The story says, “It is doubtful if any conflagration within the history of St. Paul caused so much rejoicing and so little regret…. one thought was universal…. ‘Now we’ll have a new union depot.’ This comment was heard everywhere.”
Railroad tycoon James J. Hill began coordinating plans for a new depot in the 1880s, because the crowds outgrew the first depot almost as soon as it went up and after every later addition. For a while around 1910, a common depot at the Twin Cities’ border was considered. The Daily News says, “When the ‘Minnepaul’ talk was current . . . there was much serious talk of uniting St. Paul and Minneapolis in ‘one big city,’. . . Then the far-famed bad blood between the two cities came to the surface and the united city plan was hooted, laughed at, scoffed at and ridiculed until it had died a natural death.”
Despite the need for a new depot, the second one was a long time coming, and was begun in 1917, a year after Hill’s death. World War I further delayed the construction, as did the sheer size of the project. More than 30 acres of land were acquired, and one part of the project involved raising the track level, which in turn involved bringing in a massive amount of sand fill material and in the construction of a track-supporting structure over some seven acres of depot property, according to John L. Jensen, long-time chief engineer for the depot. Larry Millett says in Twin Cities Then and Now, “The scale of the Union Depot project was truly epic. It required the demolition of several blocks’ worth of old warehouses and hotels, construction of a new depot and concourse, and the building of a huge new platform to lift tracks above the flood-prone Mississippi.”
According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press (September 5, 2011), at its peak in the 1920s, the Depot served more than 20,000 passengers a day on 10 platforms served by more than 280 trains and 21 tracks.
The headhouse (today’s Union Depot Building) was completed in 1926. It was hailed as the largest construction project in Saint Paul in the twentieth century. Ironically, this was the beginning of the end of the railroads’ heyday, as cars and airplanes became prominent transportation modes.
The building was designed by Chicago architect Charles Frost, who also designed the Minneapolis depot, and local Toltz Engineering Company served as structural engineers. No writer on the topic seems to have praise for the exterior of the building. It has “nary a hint of ornament or color to ease the severity of its overweening Doric colonnade” (Millett, Lost Twin Cities). “The facade is a sober Doric colonnade in Bedford stone without any flourishes of ornamentation” (H.F. Koeper, Historic St. Paul Buildings). “The depot is a simple, rather severe example of the Neo-classical style of architecture often used in public buildings during the first half of the twentieth century” (Ramsey County History 26:4, 1991, “What’s Historic About This Site?”).
The interior is of Kasota dolostone, pink Tennessee marble, gray Missouri marble and reinforced concrete, and is “lavishly decorated with travertine murals and reliefs depicting the history of transportation in Minnesota.” Its five stories (including a basement and sub-basement) have contained many disparate activities and services, including an archery range, a 12-lane bowling alley, a barbershop, a drugstore, a radio station, a dormitory with cots for military personnel, Internal Revenue Service offices, and a Canadian Pacific colonization office for Americans interested in homesteading in Canada (Hite, Pioneer Press, 5-2-1971). Jensen mentions the presence of a restaurant, coffee shop, newsstand, restrooms, shoeshine, Travelers Aid, taxi stand, baggage check service, train information, porter service and ample seating. During World War I, he notes, the American Red Cross maintained a canteen there for service people, and for many years a model railway exhibit was in a room at the west end of the lobby. In 1957, he says, the depot installed six elevators to serve the most-used train platforms. The Saint Paul Pioneer Press (September 5, 2011) mentions also a Western Union Office and a WCCO Radio studio in earlier years.
With all those enterprises, the Depot employed many workers, including many of the city’s African Americans. Days of Rondo records memories of some of those workers. “I was a Redcap at the Union Depot… that’s how I paid the bills,” said Melvin Whitfield Carter, Senior. “A Redcap was a guy that worked at the train station, and he wore a red cap so the people would know who he was. He would carry the luggage for passengers… also parked cars under the building… [was] responsible for cleaning the public areas and office. Polishing the brass was a daily job we all hated. We had to clean the bowling alley on the second floor. Nobody liked that job.” Carter added, “When Black travelers came to town they were not welcome in most hotels and they’d ask Redcaps where the Rondo neighborhood was or where they could find a room.”
“The Depot wouldn’t hire me as a matron until I was thirty-one,” said Gloria Ellen Gilbreath Wilson. “I worked there for sixteen years. A matron is one that cleans the restrooms, takes care of the travelers as they come through, sees to their needs, helps them, gives them all the assistance she can.” Wilson, too, helped various travelers: “My mother would always say, ‘I never know what she’s bringing home.’ I brought anyone home, Black or White… If they needed help, I assisted.”
“Dad was the captain of the porters down at the Saint Paul Union Depot…. he assigned people to go carry people’s bags…. He was a Redcap,” recalled Deborah Gilbreath Montgomery. “Mama was the matron in the bathroom…. She cleaned the bathroom, mopped the floors, cleaned the toilets, cleaned the washroom and the sinks, and made sure that there were towels. So I know all the nooks and crannies of the Saint Paul Union Depot!”
A particularly interesting feature of the Depot was the room for immigrants. Even though it was in the sub-basement, it was considered the finest in the U.S., according the St. Paul Daily News. It featured nine large windows, a women’s rest room and baths, interpreters, pumped-in fresh air and, uniquely, a laundry with an electric dryer.
The Depot lobby, at 80 x 180 x 45 feet, was among the largest in the world when it was built. The St. Paul Daily News called it “a spacious room of marvelous beauty,” and noted its ceiling was of green-tinted glass with a battery of electric light bulbs above it for illuminating the large room. The 18 ticket windows had a newfangled system installed that would automatically call the police if someone attempted to break in.
The Union Depot stayed busy for many years. In the 1920s it handled as many as 350 trains a day, but even with the commuter trains gone in the 1940s, Jensen says, “there were about 150 scheduled trains per day in addition to quite a few troop trains during the war years…. During rush hours in the morning and evening the depot yard was as busy as any yard in the nation.” He also notes the Depot was one of the largest U.S. mail handling facilities in the country, and its volume was heaviest in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when there were more than 400 mailroom employees. In 1959, he says, the Depot installed the first automatic mailbag sorting system in the U.S. He also mentions (but gives no date) the American Railway Express Company handling 1,000,000 packages per month.
Between 1854 and 1929, “orphan trains” brought thousands of homeless children to the area.
During World War II many men in uniform passed through on their way to and from the fighting, so the skylight windows overhead in the Depot were blackened with tar as a defense measure. That blackening was removed in the most recent renovation.
Floods closed the Depot in 1965 and 1969, Jensen says, and the second time “the water got to be about 3 feet high in the mailroom area.” In April of 1954, the William Crooks, Minnesota’s first railway locomotive, was moved to the lobby of the Depot, where it remained until the Depot closed; eventually it was moved to Duluth. The head house was sold to Asset Development Services in 1981, some ten years after it closed to rail service. Ramsey County History says it was closed for 12 years, and a massive restoration headed by St. Paul architect Craig Rafferty began in 1983.
In 1971, the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Railpax), took over the nation’s rail passenger service, and St. Paul was no longer a stop (Minneapolis was). Congress created Railpax to preserve a minimum basic network of rail service. Many mourned that day, May 2. “If all went according to plan, the St. Paul Union Depot today became a virtual mausoleum,” Hite said. Two trains from Seattle, Burlington Northern’s Empire Builder and North Coast Limited, were to combine here, and their departure to Chicago was the last passenger train to leave the station. Gareth Hiebert (Oliver Towne), was on that train, and decried its loss in a column. He recalled many personal memories, including, “… the bands had met the sailors who had come off the destroyer Ward one night in January 1942… the men were enveloped by cheers, screams, laughter and tears. One sailor… ran outside and gleefully rolled in the snow.” When the last train pulled in, Hiebert says, “Eddie Bruers, the last stationmaster, was at the trainside to welcome us home for the last time.”
In 1974, the Union Depot’s Head House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
As the Union Depot’s web site notes, the United States Postal Service bought the train deck, concourse and waiting room in 1977, razed the roundhouse and removed the tracks and train platforms, and converted the property to handle mail transport by truck. The Head House is the only part of the Depot that has remained open, and during the intervening years has housed Continental Cablevision, Lee Ann Chin and Christos restaurants.
The Regional Railroad Authority began repurchasing the site in 2005, with an eye to making it a “multi-modal transit hub,” that is, providing access for Amtrak passenger trains, local bus service, inter-city buses, Central Corridor Light Rail, automobiles, bicycles and pedestrians. The impetus for this action was that Lowertown had been designated as the eastern terminus for the new Green Line light rail. The 33-acre site cost $95 million to purchase.
Supporting the re-purposing of the Depot to its original use, the Saint Paul Pioneer Press editorialized on August 11, 2011, “To say they don’t build ’em like this any more is an understatement” and “. . . we can’t imagine allowing a treasure like the Union Depot to wither and die.”
A 2011 groundbreaking was the beginning of a massive restoration that aimed to restore the depot to its original elegance, the web site says. For example, 10,000 square feet of marble floors, walls and columns were cleaned, and 38,000 square feet of decorative ceiling plaster was repaired and restored to historically appropriate colors. The depot now accommodates trains with two tracks, as well as buses, and has links to pedestrian and bicycle trails. It reopened December 8, 2012.
Though not as busy as it once was, the Union Depot now offers events as well as train and bus stands. Most importantly, it still resonates with memories for many.
July 2007, revised February and August 2019