Union Station exemplifies well what once was in years past in terms of intercity passenger trains serving Seattle; while the station survives today it no longer functions in its original capacity (however, that is not to say that passenger rail is dead or dying in the Land of Coffee as it is actually quite the contrary). At one time Seattle was served by two large stations; Union Station owned by the Union Pacific (and later shared by the Milwaukee Road) and King Street Station, the property of the Great Northern and Northern Pacific. Today, only King Street Station still serves in its original capacity, as a functioning railroad station and is happily undergoing a multi-million dollar restoration that will see it returned to its original splendor. After Union Pacific abandoned Union Station in 1971 (the Milwaukee Road had given up on passenger service to the Puget Sound some 10 years earlier) the building's staging tracks and platforms were torn up and today the property houses skyscrapers.
Union Station (originally known as the Oregon & Washington Station for the company which built it, the Oregon-Washington Railroad Company), opened on May 20, 1911, was initially Union Pacific's answer to the Great Northern's and Northern Pacific's King Street Station, which opened five years earlier in 1906. The two stations sat literally right across the street from one another with Union Station located at the corner of South Jackson Street and 4th Avenue while King Street was located just across 4th Avenue to the west. Soon after UP acquired ownership of the new terminal it was joined by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific (the Milwaukee Road). In July of 1927 the Milwaukee completed its electrified lines into Union Station, instantly gaining appeal for the cleanliness such operations provided (remember that this was during the era of belching steam locomotives).
It is argued that Union Station was the more grand of the two terminals; built in the Beaux Arts style the station featured a magnificent vaulted ceiling that rose 55 feet, arched concourse that provided vast amounts of interior open space, large oak benches, and beautifully tiled flooring (not to mention plenty of office space). Of course, from an exterior standpoint the terminal did not quite compare to King Street. With a rather simple exterior design (three floors in total) and no large clock tower it simply did not carry the same eye-catching "awe" as its next-door neighbor.
While Union Station's interior may have been more aesthetically pleasing than King Street it also lacked, from an operational standpoint, the functionality of the latter with a stub-ended rather than a through design (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). In another words, this required trains of UP and Milwaukee to back into and out of the terminal.
Once the Milwaukee Road joined Union Pacific from a railfan's perspective, the most interesting operations at the station began. With its electrified service to the terminal and serving different markets than Union Pacific, as well as directly competing with the Northern Pacific and Great Northern, the two railroads teamed up to provide increased service to different cities. For instance, Milwaukee Road passengers could travel through service aboard the Union Pacific to cities such as Portland while UP travelers reaching Seattle could take the Milwaukee back east all of the way to Chicago if they so desired.
During Union Station's heyday one could watch Milwaukee Road EP-1 "Boxcabs" and EP-2 "Bi-Polars" arriving and leaving with the railroad's plush passenger train, the Olympian Hiawatha (and before that, the Olympian) as well as catch Union Pacific's beautifully streamlined City of Portland. However, these unique operations were to be short lived. After only 50 years of service the Milwaukee Road pulled out of the passenger market to the Pacific Northwest in 1961, throwing in the towel to NP and GN, both of whom were just too well established by the time the Milwaukee had launched its flagship train in the late 1940s. Union Pacific would carry on operations for another ten years at Union Station until it too stopped calling there in 1971.
After UP left so too did any chance of seeing passenger trains ever again at the terminal. The approaches and staging tracks at the building were soon demolished to make way for the ever-growing development of downtown Seattle and large skyscrapers now stand where these tracks once were. Amazingly, while the building was left for dead, it somehow survived and was beautifully restored in the 1990s, reopening to the public in 1999. Today, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and houses offices of such entities as Sound Transit, the commuter rail agency that serves the Puget Sound region. You can also using the terminal's stunning "Great Hall" to host large events, such as business parties and weddings. For more information about the history of Union Station please click here to visit this web page.