King Street Station is Seattle's last reminder of what once was regarding intercity passenger trains. At one time Seattle was home to and served by two large stations; Union Station served by the Union Pacific and Milwaukee Road and King Street Station, served by the Great Northern and Northern Pacific. Today, both still stand and either have been or are in the process of being restored. However, only King Street still serves in its original capacity, as a functioning railroad station and is happily undergoing a multimillion dollar restoration that will see it returned to its original splendor. After Union Pacific abandoned Union Station in 1971 (the Milwaukee Road had quit 10 years earlier) the building's staging tracks were torn up with the property now housing skyscrapers.
King Street Station has its beginnings dating back to 1906 when the Northern Pacific and Great Northern officially opened it after two years of construction that dated back to 1904. The station came about due to a need to not only move main line tracks away from the waterfront but also replace the city's original passenger terminal that simply was not adequate for the rail travel demand at the time. Additionally, the new terminal was located along a new freight yard complex the railroads had completed along the former Tide Flats next to Puget Sound. Interestingly, for years the NP/GN offered the only intercity railroad station available to passengers heading to and from Seattle. However, things finally changed in May, 1911 when what would become known as Seattle Union Station opened (it was originally known as the Oregon & Washington Depot), serving the Union Pacific and Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific (Milwaukee Road).
King Street Station was designed and built by architects Reed & Stern of St. Paul, Minnesota (they had also assisted in the design of New York Central's Grand Central Terminal in New York City) and the builders used a nearly mile long tunnel (5,245 feet) under the city to unable the station to be a through design and not a stub-ended layout (as was the case at Union Station, meaning that rail service ended at the station and did not continue on as at King Street Station where the main line passed right beside the building). The station itself was built in red brick, terra cotta with a beautiful 245-foot clock tower, with each clock facade displaying the times of the four cardinal directions. The clock was built and installed by the E. Howard & Company of Boston.
The building's interior was also quite impressive with elaborate ceiling designs and marble used throughout (the station also features a beautiful compass on the floor of the entry hall named, appropriately enough, the Compass Room). The clock tower was modeled after the Campanile of the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy and the overall terminal was constructed in the Neo-Classical style. This architecture dated back to the mid-18th century and employed elements once commonly found in ancient Greece and Italy during the times of Roman rule and carrying on through the Renaissance era.
While it may not seem like it today, when completed King Street Station was the tallest building in Seattle and one of the only structures on the west coast to feature such an impressive time piece. During the height of passenger rail travel King Street found itself home to several named trains like the Northern Pacific's North Coast Limited and Mainstreeter; Great Northern's Empire Builder, Western Star, International, Oriental Limited, and Cascadian; and finally the Spokane, Portland & Seattle's Columbia River Express. While King Street would not lose rail service, as train travel declined in the 1950s so too did the upkeep on the building.
By the time of Amtrak in 1971 much of the marble had been removed from the building, a bland and unattractive false ceiling had covered the original, and under the ownership of the Burlington Northern microwave dishes had been placed on the clock tower. Additionally, the building had lost half of its original waiting room space as GN, NP, and later Burlington Northern looked to decrease the amount of maintenance the building required. But, fate once again looked down on the century old building and today its future looks brighter and more secure than ever. In March of 2008 a deal was finalized between the City of Seattle and BNSF Railway transferring ownership to the former in the way of a mere $10 purchase price.
This ownership transfer has paved the way for nearly $30 million in restoration money to come available and the plan now is to completely restore the building to its original splendor. Today, the station is served by Amtrak and Sounder commuter trains, and one can still even watch passing container trains of the BNSF Railway. Even better, King Street Station is now on the National Register of Historic Places, receiving that distinction in 1973. Currently, the terminal is nearly fully restored save for foundation worked needed to protect it against future earthquakes and seismic activity. For more information on the restoration of King Street Station please click here