Chicago Union Station today stands as one of the last reminders of the city’s storied history with passenger trains. It once boasted no fewer than a half-dozen terminals served by all of the major railroads reaching there with legendary trains such as the Broadway Limited, Super Chief, and 20th Century Limited all boarding at different locations. While the station’s passenger concourse was torn down in the late 1960s the main waiting room and the rest of the facility continues to be used in its original capacity by Amtrak and local Metra services. The station’s future also appears quite secure. As Amtrak's third busiest terminal (according to historian John Gruber), Chicago Union bares witness to tens of thousands of travelers and commuters every day. In 2015 the carrier announced plans for a major overhaul, opening formerly closed spaces and replacing the wornout/decaying staircases
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.
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.
Construction commenced in 1914 but World War I delayed completion by several years and the third (current) Union Station did not open until 1925. The original designer was architect Daniel Burnham, well known for his work on Washington Union Station, who envisioned the Chicago facility in the classic Beaux-Arts style (one of the last ever built employing this architectural design). The building featured Indiana limestone and Tuscan columns, similar to that of the late Pennsylvania Station in New York City. Unfortunately, Burnham died before its completion and the firm Graham, Anderson, Probst & White was hired to finish the project. Chicago Union Station’s original layout was roughly a “back-to-back” setup with only the Milwaukee Road using the north end served by ten tracks while the Pennsylvania, Burlington, and GM&O used the southern end featuring fourteen tracks. In addition, there were two through tracks connecting both ends.
The station was also designed as two distinct sections, the main waiting room and passenger concourse were separated but worked as one with the two connected via an underground passageway. The concourse was destroyed in 1969 to make way for a new office building but the main waiting room still stands today. Known as The Great Hall, the room measures over 34 meters in height to a magnificent vaulted skylight and the wooden benches in the room are arranged for visitors to easily wait for their connections. The hall was the building's hallmark feature and is where the photo below was taken. Aside from the splendor of the The Great Hall, Union Station also has Tennessee marble and terracotta walls incorporated into it. Also of note was the station's famous Fred Harvey restaurant and shops designed by architect Mary Colter.
She was often employed by the Santa Fe to construct Harvey House hotels and other facilities for the railroad along its main line across the Southwest, which came to be known as the "Santa Fe Style" of architecture. Interestingly, the Santa Fe never used the terminal and instead dispatched from nearby Dearborn Station. While CUS was only in use during the very late years of the industry's "Golden Age" of rail travel it witnessed the flurry of World War II, one of the busiest times in its history. At that time the station played host to more than 300 trains and 100,000 passengers every day. Some of the best remembered streamliners called there such as Milwaukee Road's blazing fast Morning and Afternoon Hiawathas, Pennsylvania's elegant Broadway Limited, and Burlington's sharp Twin Cities Zephyr. Today, there are no more streamliners to enjoy. However, the station remains an important facility hosting 300 trains and 120,000 travelers every weekday between Amtrak and Metra.
Chicago Union Station is the last remaining of the city's grand terminals still functioning in its original capacity. This was largely due to the startup of Amtrak, which took over most intercity passenger trains across the country during the spring of 1971. To centralize operations in Chicago it combined all services there. After carrying out this plan the other terminals were either razed or redeveloped. In 1984 Amtrak acquired full ownership of the facility and completed a major renovation in 1992. In June of 2015 the carrier announced another extensive update to the building although it is unknown when this project will be completed. As Mr. Gruber notes, Union Station has not received the historical coverage of other large terminals around the country but the fact that it still stands and is a Chicago Landmark is a wonderful thing indeed.Home › Stations And Depots › Chicago Union Station