When rail reigned, L.A. had several grand train depots

When rail was king, downtown Los Angeles was home to several grand train depots.

These days, L.A. is seeing a rail revival. Metro is building several new rail lines, and the state's bullet train is planned to come into the city.

Here is a look back at the last golden age of rail.

La Grande Station

The Moorish-style La Grande Station opened July 29, 1893, at 2nd Street and Santa Fe Avenue. In addition to its exotic architecture, La Grande Station featured lush gardens and, later, a Harvey House restaurant.

In the 1920s, summer discount tickets by all railroads brought a major influx of tourists to Los Angeles. During the 1924 influx, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe depot at Le Grande Station was featured in the May 19, 1924, edition of the Los Angeles Times:

Wide-eyed and wondering, the vanguard of the great army of summer tourists that will make their way across the plains of the Middle West and over the Rockies for the next few months arrived in Los Angeles yesterday.

Beginning at 7:30 o'clock yesterday morning, the three great trans-continental railroads into Los Angeles began pouring tourists into the city by the trainload. The climax to the day's influx came early in the afternoon when the Golden State Limited on the Southern Pacific and the California Limited on the Santa Fe unloaded about 620 passengers. The Los Angeles Limited on the Union Pacific came in with two sections. The last of the day's travelers from the East got in shortly before 9 o'clock last night. The day's total reached more than 1,200 passengers.…

Accustomed as Los Angeles is to having tourists come in from the East, the arrival of the first of the season's sight-seers brought great crowds down to the railroad stations. At the Santa Fe depot it was estimated that 1,500 persons were on hand to meet three sections of the limited. And they weren't all there to meet friends or relatives either.

Long before the train time at the Santa Fe the crowd of welcomers began to muster. By the time the big iron horses were dragging their human cargoes through the outlimits of Los Angeles, private cars were parked up and down the street for two blocks in front of the station. A regular battalion of taxi drivers were ready to "do their stuff." Out in the train sheds the red caps and their wagons were deployed strategically to handle the baggage of the newcomers.

A great throng of persons stood in the friendly shade of the depot, and train employees, according to one of the company statisticians who carried an adding machine slung on a strap over his shoulder, told 1,200 persons 2,400 times [... ] the first section of the limited would arrive on time on track No. ...

The clanging of a bell growing louder, the crowd begins to crane its collective neck, the little girl clutching a bunch of California roses begins to jump up and down with hysterical anticipation, and around the curve there looms the engineer of the first section, [the] engineer nearly fell out of the cab when he saw the crowd at the depot. Regaining his self-composure, however, he saved the day by bringing his mount to a halt with a great hissing of air and the proverbial grinding of the brakes. …


And it wasn't just the influx of visitors to Southern California; the discounted tickets worked in reverse. On May 23, 1924, The Times reported that "eastbound trains pulled out of Los Angeles stations yesterday carrying capacity loads. Approximately 6,500 Southern Californians bound eastward on vacation trips were said to be aboard."

The dome on La Grande Station was removed in 1933 after being damaged in the Long Beach earthquake. With the opening of Union Station in 1939, La Grande was closed. The building was torn down in 1946.

Central Station

In 1914, Southern Pacific began construction of Central Station — at 5th Street and Central Avenue — to replace the neighboring Arcade Station. The incomplete Central Station opened to passengers on Dec. 1, 1914.

Central Station was dedicated on June 12, 1915. The next morning's Times reported:

Another milestone was turned last evening on the trail of the city's progress when the Southern Pacific's new $750,000 passenger terminal was formally dedicated to the use of the public.

The exercises were held, with 1,000 people participating in the commodious concourse of the new station, which had been turned into a bower of flowers and potted plants for the occasion. …

The new station is the most expensive west of Kansas City, and for the number of persons handled, the most expensive in the United States. It adjoins the site of the old Arcade, which was opened February 25, 1889, and was operated until November 30, 1914, when the ticket office was moved from it into the baggage room of the new station, pending its completion. Previous to the occupancy of the Arcade station, Southern Pacific trains were run into the River Station, which is still in existence.

Embodying many novel time-saving details, the new station is 572 feet long, facing Central Avenue, with the main entrance almost exactly on the line of Fifth Street. The concourse is 280 feet long by eighty wide and about fifty feet in height. One wing of the station houses the baggage-room; the other a restaurant that is as fine as any in the West. The second story of one wing is occupied by the division offices; the other is unoccupied.

Everything about the new station, from the steel used in the frame of the concourse to the one-ton chandeliers, fourteen in number, that light it, was fabricated in Los Angeles. Ground for the new station was broken March 28, 1914, and the station was pronounced finished yesterday.

The ten passenger tracks, which are protected by four concrete umbrella sheds, each 780 feet long, are reached by subway from the passenger concourse, while egress is also through a subway. In this way, no passenger is forced to cross a track in getting either to or from a train. By an arrangement of passageways, two or three trains may be served at once, without confusion to passengers.

Among the outside details is parking space that will accommodate 250 automobiles, special trackage for fourteen private cars, with steam heat and telephone connections, and restricted loading space for baggage and express. …


After a 1924 fire that destroyed the Los Angeles depot, Union Pacific moved its passenger operations into Central Station. In 1939, the Southern Pacific, Union Pacific and Santa Fe railroads all moved their passenger service to the new Union Station. Central Station was torn down in 1956.

Union Station

Los Angeles' Union Station is the landmark train depot that remains standing. The architectural icon celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2014. On May 3, 1939, an estimated 500,000 people attended the station's dedication and parade.

In a front-page story in The Times on May 4, 1939, columnist Ed Ainsworth reported on the Union Station festivities:

Everybody but Casey Jones was down at the new depot yesterday.

And Casey was dead!

It was just like the 5 o'clock flyer highballing through "on time." Nobody was surprised. But, boy, wasn't she a beauty!

After all, it wasn't exactly an $11,000,000 Union Station with a highfaluting name that Los Angeles was dedicating. It was folks from 10,000 little towns all going down to their own little depots in Memory Town to listen to the whistle toot and to hear that great big bell.

Of course they had scads of railroad presidents cluttering up the place. They had millionaires and fellows with private railroad cars. They had Governors and Mayors and brass hats in droves.

Yet it was really just the people of America — from all the 48 States — who really drove the spike that nailed down a chunk of history on Alameda St. yesterday noon.

Nobody really could have been expected to be surprised. The rumor had got around that there was a big new palace of transportation down there by the old Los Angeles River just waiting to be dedicated.

But, surprise or no surprise, 500,000 persons more or less jammed and pushed and fought along Alameda St. for many, many blocks to see a dream come right before their eyes.

They knew the Southern Pacific, the Santa Fe and the Union Pacific railroads had united and built that handsome Spanish structure with the tower and the olive trees and the padded seats and the loudspeaker system and all the rest. They knew it was going to introduce the world to Los Angeles and the Old Plaza. But they still wanted to be there to see it happen. They wanted to see the past come boiling up like the smoke out of the funnel stacks of the old wood-burning engines.

And to see it they hung in trees. They swarmed on ancient red brick cornices that had resounded with cheers for Civil War heroes and Presidents. They climbed on one another's toes and swung from poles …


The Times' Shelby Grad contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 28, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "An era when rail ruled L.A. - The city was once home to several grand train depots, including one that gave way to Union Station in 1939. - CALIFORNIA RETROSPECTIVE" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe