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Houston Union Station: From Terminal To Ballpark

Published: June 29, 2024

By: Adam Burns

Houston Union Station stands not only as a historical landmark but also as a testament to the golden age of American rail travel.

From its inception in the early 20th century to its current status as an integral part of a modern sports complex, the station has witnessed significant transformations, encapsulating the dynamic growth of Houston, Texas.

During its peak years of service the station was primarily used by the Rock Island, Santa Fe, and Missouri Pacific which dispatched such famous trains as the Twin Star Rocket, Texas EagleHoustonian, Oleanian, and Texas Chief to and from the facility.

Interestingly, the Southern Pacific and Missouri-Kansas-Texas, two notable railroads which also served Houston, operated their own passenger stations within the city.

The last regularly-scheduled train to serve the facility was Amtrak's Lone Star (successor of the Texas Chief), was rerouted to the Southern Pacific's former station on July 31, 1974.

Today, Houston Union Station is part of the Minute Maid Park's main lobby, home of the Houston Astros which opened in 2000 as Enron Field.

3946092835727359238727693878.jpgSanta Fe 2-8-0 #1953 switches the "Texas Chief" at Houston Union Station, circa 1950. Ed Olsen photo. American-Rails.com collection.

Opening and Location

Houston Union Station officially opened its doors on March 1, 1911. The facilty was built to address the burgeoning demand for a more unified rail terminal that could serve multiple rail companies, consolidating their operations in Houston.

Located at 501 Crawford Street, the station was strategically positioned in downtown Houston, facilitating easy access for passengers and serving as a central hub for rail traffic.

Architectural Design

In 1909, the Houston Belt and Terminal Railway Company sought to elevate Houston’s prominence as a transportation hub by commissioning a new union station.

The renowned New York City architects Warren and Wetmore were tasked with designing this ambitious project. The chosen location required significant changes to the existing landscape, necessitating the demolition of several notable Houston structures, including the residence of Horace Baldwin Rice and the synagogue of the Adath Yeshurun Congregation.

Initially estimated at a cost of $1 million, the project was undertaken by the American Construction Company. However, the final expense soared to five times the original estimate.

The vision for Union Station materialized with grandeur—its exterior walls crafted from a blend of granite, limestone, and terracotta, while the interior boasted extensive use of luxurious marble.

Union Station officially opened on March 1, 1911, further cementing Houston’s status as the premier railroad hub of the Southern United States, a fact proudly reflected in the city’s seal, which features a locomotive.

To accommodate growing needs, two additional floors were added the following year, enhancing the station's capacity and architectural stature.

Railroads Utilizing

During the streamlined era the Texas Eagle, Texas Chief, and Twin Star Rocket were the most famous trains calling at Union Station, operated by the Missouri Pacific, Santa Fe, and Rock Island/Burlington respectively.

The Twin Star Rocket was launched in 1945 and connected Minneapolis-St. Paul with Houston, Texas, traversing significant cities like Des Moines, Kansas City, and Dallas.

Featuring sleek, modern cars, the Twin Star Rocket aimed to provide a swift, comfortable journey, catering to the post-war boom in rail travel.

However, with the rise of automobile and air travel, its popularity waned, and the service was discontinued in 1967. The Twin Star Rocket remains a memorable part of mid-century American rail history.

The Texas Eagle is a historic passenger train service initially operated by the Missouri Pacific Railroad and later by Amtrak. Launched in 1948, it connected St. Louis, Missouri to San Antonio, Texas, covering major cities like Little Rock, Dallas, and Austin.

Known for its comfort and reliability, the service became a staple for travelers in the region. In 1971, Amtrak assumed operations, and the Texas Eagle continued to serve as a vital route.

Today, it extends from Chicago to San Antonio, with tri-weekly connections to Los Angeles via the Sunset Limited, remaining a key component of Amtrak's long-distance network.

Launched in 1948 by the Santa Fe, the Texas Chief offered premier passenger service between Chicago, Illinois, and Galveston, Texas, with key stops in Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, and Houston.

Renowned for its speed and luxurious amenities, it catered to business travelers and tourists alike. The train featured streamlined cars and was part of the esteemed "Chief" series.

In 1971, Amtrak took over operations, rebranding it as the Lone Star in 1974. However, the route was discontinued in 1979. The Texas Chief remains a celebrated chapter in U.S. railroading history.

Operation and Decline

During its heyday, Houston Union Station was bustling with activity, reflecting the growth and vitality of Houston as both a commercial and transportation center. The station served not only long-distance travelers but also local commuters, facilitating the movement of people and goods vital to the city’s economy.

However, the mid-20th century brought significant changes to the transportation landscape in America. The rise of automobile travel and the expansion of the interstate highway system began to erode the dominance of railroads.

Airlines also emerged as a faster and more convenient mode of long-distance travel. These shifts led to a decline in passenger rail services, and Union Station was no exception.

By the late 1960s, the number of trains and passengers using Union Station had dwindled. The consolidation of rail services and the subsequent closure of some lines further contributed to its decline. In 1974, Union Station officially ceased passenger operations, marking the end of an era for the historic terminal.

Transformation and Current Status

While Union Station no longer served as a bustling rail hub, its historical significance and architectural beauty ensured that it would not be forgotten. In the late 1990s, the station found new life as part of a major urban redevelopment project.

In 2000, Houston Union Station was incorporated into the design of Minute Maid Park, the new home of the Houston Astros baseball team. The renovation preserved the station’s facade and key architectural elements, integrating them into the new stadium complex.

The grand hall of Union Station now serves as the main entrance to Minute Maid Park, providing both a functional space for events and a historical touchstone for visitors.

Inside Minute Maid Park, Union Station’s grand hall has been repurposed as a large atrium known as Union Station Lobby. This space is used for a variety of events, from baseball games to corporate gatherings, and celebrates the rich history of the site.

The preservation of the station within the stadium complex serves as a reminder of Houston’s transportation heritage and the pivotal role railroads played in the city’s development.

In addition to its incorporation into Minute Maid Park, Houston Union Station has been recognized for its historical significance. It was designated a Texas Historic Landmark, ensuring its preservation for future generations.

This recognition highlights not only the architectural merits of the station but also its importance in the broader narrative of Houston’s growth and evolution.


Conclusion

Houston Union Station stands as a remarkable example of how historical structures can be preserved and repurposed to meet contemporary needs while honoring their storied past.

From its opening in 1911 as a major rail terminal designed by renowned architect Jarvis Hunt, to its decline in the mid-20th century and eventual rebirth as part of Minute Maid Park, the station has remained a symbol of Houston’s growth and resilience.

The legacy of Union Station is reflected in its enduring architectural presence and its continued use as a venue that brings people together, much as it did in its early days as a bustling rail hub.

By preserving this historic landmark, Houston has demonstrated a commitment to honoring its past while looking towards the future, ensuring that the story of Union Station continues to be told for generations to come.

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