The Saint Paul Union Depot may look unimpressive from the outside but its interior is nothing short of breathtaking. Its concourse features stunning stained glass artwork in an arched roof design. The history of the depot dates back to around the time of World War I and replaced a former building that was just as impressive, visually, as its later counterpart. Because the station was the primary terminal serving St. Paul several railroads chipped in on its construction. Since the late 1970s the depot stopped serving as a functioning facility when Amtrak moved all of its operations serving the Twin Cities to the Great Northern's former station in Minneapolis. However, with millions in funding secured and after years of renovations the facility reopened in late 2012 hosting both commuter and intercity trains.
The current St. Paul Union Depot (in the streamliner era it was often known by its initials, SPUD) is actually the "third" terminal to be located on the site. The original was opened in 1881 and was a three-story, mostly-brick structure. It was a massive complex that witnessed millions of travelers passing through its doors and was significantly updated around 1890 to include more space. Additionally, a centered but low-profile clock tower was added to the building to give it a more lavish exterior appearance. This certainly worked and significantly added to the station's elegance although a fire in 1915 mostly destroyed the terminal. As such, it resulted in the present-day station's construction two years later in 1917.
Saint Paul Union Depot was constructed by architect Charles Frost for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad (The Milwaukee Road) and opened in 1923 (due to World War I ongoing the station's completion was delayed for years). The terminal, built in the Classical Revival style, replaced two former buildings on the site and by the time it was built the “Golden Age” of passenger rail travel in this country would soon be ending. However, the station still served millions of passengers each year through WWII and played host to the Milwaukee Road’s most famous passenger trains, the Hiawathas.
Despite being operated by the Milwaukee Road the station was also served by nine different railroads whose regional and long distance trains all called to the terminal. For instance, classic Midwestern railroads like the Chicago & North Western, Burlington Route, Great Northern, Rock Island, Chicago Great Western, and others all used the station with names like Empire Builder, Twin Cities 400, Twin Cities Hiawatha, Zephyr Rocket, Blue Bird, and others boarding there.
While the station was primarily a stub-ended design featuring 18 tracks and 9 platforms (meaning trains had to back into and pull out of the staging the tracks to return to the main line), the through main line also passed right next to the building where additional boarding was available. While the Saint Paul Union Depot saw traffic dry up a few years after it opened due to the Great Depression during its peak years more than 280 trains arrived and departed from its tracks on a daily basis. As rail traffic declined through the 1950s trains began to stop calling to the terminal with the first being the C&NW's Twin Cities 400 in late July, 1963. By April 30, 1971, the last day prior to Amtrak, then-Burlington Northern's Afternoon Zephyr was the final privately owned passenger train to depart the station.
When Amtrak took over intercity passenger rail operations in 1971 it opted not to use Saint Paul Union Depot, instead decided on nearby Midway Station for its services to the Twin Cities. Thankfully, Saint Paul Union Depot has been preserved; in 1974 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and today serves as an office building although future plans for it are much grander. With millions in funds secured the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative oversaw the Twin Cities region provided with high-speed commuter rail and light rail service. The Saint Paul Union Depot became the centerpiece of that plan and after many years of renovations (inside and out) it reopened to the public during a grand ceremony on December 8, 2012. Actual intercity rail and commuter services began using the terminal in early 2013. For more information about how St. Paul Union Depot will fit into this plan please click here to visit the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority’s website.