Chicago Union Station today stands as the last reminder of the city’s once dominance in the passenger rail market being home to numerous impressive stations and the flagship trains which called to them. While the station’s passenger concourse was torn down in the late 1960s the main waiting room and the rest of the building continues to be used in its original capacity by Amtrak passengers, and local Metra commuters. The station’s future also looks to be very interesting. While there are many who worry about the Chicago Union Station’s beautiful exterior being tarnished, plans are in place to build an 18-story tower and glass enclosed atrium over the main building which will be used for commercial, residential, and hotel space (some additional 800,000 square feet).
Today’s Union Station is actually a replacement for two previous stations, which either burned or could no longer handle the traffic. Because of this, the three railroads who were regularly using the station; the Pennsylvania Railroad, Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, Chicago and Alton Railroad (later the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio), and Milwaukee Road jointly created the Chicago Union Station Company to oversee and construct a new station in 1913. Initially, the new terminal was meant to include the Michigan Central Railroad, and the Chicago & North Western Railway also contemplated joining. However, in the end these two railroads decided against using the new station. While plans called for the new terminal to be constructed in 1914 it was not completed for eleven more years, until 1925, because of World War I.
While Chicago Union Station would become the city's largest and most prominent such terminal it was certainly not the only one. Chicago, of course, was the place to be in the 1970s and earlier when dozens of well known railroad companies reached the city. If you enjoyed railfanning and watching trains a trip to the city was a must. Additionally, Chicago also provided the largest concentration of railroad terminals anywhere in the country. Along with the Chicago Union Station there was Dearborn Station (also known as Polk Street Station), the B&O's Grand Central Station, Illinois Central's Central Station, and the Chicago & North Western Terminal among others. Some of these massive, and architecturally impressive, buildings still survive while others have been razed.
The new terminal was not the first to be located on the current grounds as an earlier Union Station, dating to 1881 was previously located there. As traffic, demand, and trains increased the railroads realized that a much larger facility was needed to accommodate the public's needs. Chicago Union Station was designed by the architect firm Anderson, Probst & White who had done work on a number of other railroad stations and like many large terminals of the period it was built in the Beaux Arts style, one of the very last to receive such architecture.
Chicago Union Station’s original layout was roughly in a “back-to-back” setup with the Milwaukee Road and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy using the north end served by ten tracks along with the Pennsylvania and Gulf, Mobile & Ohio using the south end which featured fourteen tracks (there was also two tracks which ran through the entire station to connect both sections). The building itself was built with Indiana limestone and features Tuscan columns, similar to that of the late Pennsylvania Station in New York City. The station was designed as two distinct sections, the main waiting room and passenger concourse working as one with the two connected via an underground passageway.The concourse was the section destroyed in the late 1960s but the main waiting room continues to stand. Known as The Great Hall, the room measures over 34 meters in height to a magnificent vaulted skylight and the wooden benches in the room are arranged for visitors to easily wait for their connections. The hall was the building's hallmark feature and is where the famous photo to the right was taken.
Despite the fact that Chicago Union Station was in service only during the very late years of the industry's "Golden Age" of rail travel it was in use during the hectic days of World War II. At the time, the station played host to more than 300 trains and 100,000 passengers every day. Aside from the splendor of the The Great Hall, Chicago Union Station also has Tennessee marble and terracotta walls incorporated into it. Today, along with continuing to serve over 50,000 daily commuter and intercity passengers (both Amtrak and Metra serve the terminal), the station is also used for several large gatherings and special events. While the station itself may soon change, for perhaps better or worse depending on one’s perspective of the 18-story addition in the works, it is somewhat fortunate that the building itself remains today when so many others, especially in the Chicago area itself, have fallen to the wrecking-ball over the years.