Cincinnati Union Terminal (CUT) was one of the last great railroad stations built in this country. Prior to the terminal's construction Cincinnati was home to several different railroad stations used by the many different Class I systems that passed through or terminated at the city. To better streamline operations and serve passengers, in the 1920s discussions began about building a centralized terminal that would be served by all of the Class I railroads that reached Cincinnati. Today, CUT has been beautifully restored and is still served by Amtrak's tri-weekly Cardinal but functions in many more ways than just a train station as you can shop, watch movies, and even learn about the city's past in the building.
The city of Cincinnati, Ohio situated along the Ohio River is uniquely located, in terms of our nation's railroad grid, to be the terminus or major artery of several Northeastern, Southeastern, and Midwestern railroads. These railroads included the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, Louisville & Nashville Railroad, Pennsylvania Railroad, New York Central System, Southern Railway, and Norfolk & Western. For years these railroads used five different stations to serve their passenger trains. However, in the early 20th century local businessman George Dent Crabbs convinced the seven to jointly build a centralized union terminal to serve not only passenger operations but also freight.
His efforts paid off and in 1927 the Cincinnati Union Terminal Company was born to oversee construction of the new building. Architects Fellheimer and Wagner of New York City built the station and as was common in those days CUT was constructed in the Art Deco style featuring a beautiful arched facade with a large centered clock and fountain to greet visitors as they pulled up to the building. To properly adorn the interior German artist Winold Reiss was commissioned to design several mosaic murals portraying the history of Cincinnati. To the say the least it was a breathtaking station once completed and officially opened to the public on March 31, 1933.
Unfortunately, while this building was stunning in appearance it was built far too late to ever see its full potential realized. By the time Cincinnati Union Terminal opened, the United States was in the midst of the worst depression of its history. Additionally, in general rail travel was waning as airplanes (later jet liners) and automobiles were increasing in popularity and reliability. A brief upturn in traffic during World War II was of little solace as by war's end traffic began the long decline, which would not recover.
Despite the fact that the terminal was constructed in the wrong era, it still witnessed numerous famous passenger trains and streamliners calling there. These included names like the B&O's National Limited, PRR's Spirit of St. Louis (one of just several of the railroad's named trains to stop there), NYC's Cincinnati Mercury, C&O's George Washington, Southern's Florida Sunbeam, and the N&W's Powhatan Arrow. During the terminal's heyday, essentially first decade of service, it witnessed 216 trains every 24 hours passing through (108 departing and 108 arriving). While the building's construction meant that passengers had to pass through the concourse and walk down to track level to board their trains (a number of large terminals enabled passengers to walk directly to their trains, unless they were located underground like at Penn Station) it was designed to efficiently move cars with a wide, semi-circle drive located at the front entrance.
By the 1960s railroads were looking for a way out of the passenger market and in 1971 the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (or Amtrak) was signed into law by President Richard Nixon, which began operations on May 1st of that year. Soon afterward the new passenger carrier reduced service to just two trains a day and by the fall of 1972 abandoned the terminal all together. Not long after the building's use as a train station was discontinued it was in danger of being destroyed all together as the Southern Railway made plans to use the grounds for expanded yard service. However, in the spring of 1973 the forward thinking of the Cincinnati City Council saved the building and designated it an historic city landmark.
While the station's concourse was destroyed by the Southern the rest of the building was saved and still serves in its original capacity as a station stop for Amtrak's Cardinal. Of course, the present-day look of the station required much work to updated its appearance. By the 1970s the building was extremely rundown after years of neglect and lack of maintenance. After the city saved from sure demolition, $20 million was spent renovating the building and it reopened to the public (amid much fanfare) on August 4, 1980. Unfortunately, the new shopping mall complex, which housed nearly 60 vendors, fell on hard times after the recession of the early 1980s and the building again lay empty by the mid-1980s.
However, a passed levy in the local Hamilton County area allowed for a second renovation and the terminal reopened again in 1990. Today, Cincinnati Union Terminal is a major tourist attraction to the city thanks to the six organization located there; Cincinnati History Museum, Museum of Natural History & Science, Robert D. Lindner Family Omnimax Theater, Cincinnati Historical Society Library, Duke Energy Children's Museum, and the Cincinnati Railroad Club. To learn more about the Cincinnati Union Terminal please visit their official website by clicking here.