No other major U.S. city was served by so many passenger terminals as Chicago. Long regarded as the country's rail hub nearly all of the major eastern, western, and southern trunk lines met in the Windy City to exchange freight and passengers. Interestingly, no centralized union station was ever conceived although groups of carriers allied together and eventually built six different facilities including Dearborn Station, Central Station (Illinois Central), LaSalle Street Station, Grand Central Station, Northwestern Station (Chicago & North Western), and finally Chicago Union Station (CUS). The latter terminal had two predecessors before the current building was completed. According to Brian Solomon's book, Railroad Stations, the first was opend in 1858 but alas destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.
Other Famous Chicago Terminals
Chicago served so many railroads that even if every major system had agreed upon one, massive centralized union station it likely would never have been feasible. As it were, six prominent facilities sprang up around the city. Along with Chicago Union Station these included Dearborn Station, Grand Central Station, North Western Terminal, Central Station, and LaSalle Street Station. Interestingly, while Union Station often earns the most recognition, Dearborn actually witnessed more usage with several major railroads calling there. Alas, today all of these magnificent facilities are mere shadows of their former selves, altered in some manner through either demolition (partial or complete) or adaptive reuse.
North Western Terminal
Sometimes referred to as North Western Station this facility was Chicago & North Western's primary terminal in the Windy City until the railroad finally discontinued all passenger and commuter services during the 1970s. Designed by architects Frost & Granger (Charles Sumner Frost and Alfred Hoyt Granger) in the Renaissance Revival style it opened for service in 1911 and replaced Wells Street Station. The new facility was located at Madison and Canal Streets featuring five beautiful Corinthian columns on the main façade flanked by decorative clocks above them. Inside was the building's main concourse along with dressing rooms, baths, and a doctor's office. The main waiting room was roughly 200 feet long featuring an 84-foot, barrel-vaulted ceiling. To help improve traffic flow North Western Terminal featured dual concourses; the upper-level hosted long-distance passenger trains while a street-level facility was tailored for commuters. Overall, the station was served by 16 staging tracks covered by an 894-foot long train shed. The three story building had cost $20 million and remained largely unchanged until 1984 when the headhouse was razed to construct the 42-story Citicorp Center. Today, the location is known as the Ogilvie Transportation Center and still served by Metra.
LaSalle Street Station
This facility, located along LaSalle and Van Buren Streets, was opened on July 1, 1903 and built by the same architects as North Western Terminal, Frost & Granger. Two previous facilities had occupied the site before the current building was erected. LaSalle was certainly the least impressive from an architectural standpoint, essentially a 12-story, steel-frame office building with platforms and tracks. From its earliest days a New York Central predecessor utilized the station (Lake Shore & Michigan Southern) and was later joined by the Rock Island. These two roads were always the primary tenants although for a brief period, from 1904 until 1913, the small Chicago & Eastern Illinois also used LaSalle. Following the Penn Central merger the carrier integrated its services into nearby Union Station after October 26, 1968. The Rock Island continued using the facility into the 1970s and today Metra still operates commuter trains at the location.
The oldest of Chicago's great terminals, Dearborn opened on May 8, 1885 designed in the Romanesque Revival style by architect Cyrus L. W. Eidlitz. The pink granite structure, located at the corner of what is today West Polk Street and South Plymouth Court, was only three stories tall but featured a magnificent center clock tower standing nearly 200 feet over the surrounding landscape. In addition, a 700-foot train shed extended behind the head house. The depot had cost nearly $500,000 and had to be rebuilt in the mid-1920s following a severe fire that damaged the tower. The Santa Fe was the most notable to occupy Dearborn while other major carriers to use it included the Chesapeake & Ohio, Chicago & Eastern Illinois, Chicago & Eastern Illinois, Monon, Erie (later Erie Lackawanna), Grand Trunk Western, and Wabash. During its peak years a total of 25 railroads served the station. When Amtrak took over intercity services on May 1, 1971 Dearborn was shuttered in favor of Union Station. Today, its head house remains but all approach and staging tracks have been removed with the property redeveloped.
This facility was Illinois Central's primary Chicago terminal, located at the south end of Grant Park near Roosevelt Road and Michigan Avenue. It opened on April 17, 1893, replacing an aging depot, designed by architect Bradford Gilbert in the Romanesque Revival style. The station featured nine stories used as the railroad's general offices while a gorgeous thirteen-story, 225-foot clock tower adorned one corner. In addition, there was a magnificent three-story waiting room constructed of marble with an outdoor balcony overlooking Lake Michigan (at the time the station and tracks lay right next to the waterfront). With a steep, pitched roof and spiral peaks surrounding its tower the building carried a very Medieval look. Central Station served IC's long-distance trains and local commuter services. The final train to use the terminal was the southbound Panama Limited, departing on April 30, 1971. A few years later the entire complex was demolished.
Grand Central Station
The Baltimore & Ohio's primary Chicago terminal was Grand Central Station located along Harrison Street on the city's Southside. This facility had originally opened in 1890, funded by the Chicago & Northern Pacific, then a subsidiary of the Northern Pacific. Architect Solon S. Beman was chosen for the project, conceiving a terminal in the Norman Castellated style with a marvelous 247-foot clock tower. In addition was an enormous train shed spanning 555 feet in length, 156 feet wide, and 78 feet high. During the financial Panic of 1893 Northern Pacific lost control of the property and it was sold at foreclosure to the B&O in 1910. Other tenants to use the building included the Chicago Great Western, Pere Marquette, and Soo Line while the C&O later dispatched its trains to the station. The B&O still owned Grand Central when it elected to raze the structure to sell what it perceived was valuable property beneath. Unfortunately, the ground never sold and largely remains unoccupied today.
A second terminal was then finished in 1880 by Pennsylvania Railroad's Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago and used by the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul (later Milwaukee Road); Chicago & Alton (predecessor to the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio); and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (Burlington). Constructed in the Victorian Style and largely laid in brick it was a beautiful facility featuring arched windows and doorways trimmed in stone. As traveling demands soared after 1900 the consortium formed the Chicago Union Station Company to operate and oversee the construction of a new station in 1913. As Mr. Solomon notes in his book, Railway Depots, Stations & Terminals, the PRR owned a 50% stake in the corporation while the Milwaukee and Burlington each owned 25% (the C&A was merely a tenant). Initially, the new terminal was meant to include the Michigan Central (New York Central) while the Chicago & North Western also contemplated joining. However, in the end neither of these two railroads joined the group.