All Aboard! : Union Station’s 50th Anniversary Stirs Memories of Days and Trains Gone By

FIFTY YEARS AGO,500,000 Angelenos massed on Alameda Street in front of the new Union Station for its dedication. The day was Wednesday, May 3.

A three-day fiesta with a big parade was about to begin. The governor, the mayor and the presidents of the three railroad companies that were to share the station mounted the reviewing stand.

Boy Scouts and police fought vainly to clear a path through the crowd for the parade. It budged only when the Army’s 38th Coast Artillery pushed through behind armored trucks and a mounted 14-inch gun. Nineteen people fainted; one woman fell from an automobile bumper and broke a leg.


There was much speechifying. The presidents of Union Pacific, Southern Pacific and Santa Fe buried the hatchet after 30 years of fighting the new terminal with money, power and wile. They had been sharing two depots and really wanted separate terminals. Only after reaching the U.S. Supreme Court three times was the issue decided--and the terminal was named Union Station to symbolize the union of the three competing railroads.

For two more days, crowds streamed through the station, rubbernecking at its ornate 52-foot ceilings, its two dozen banks of deep, hardwood waiting-room chairs with genuine leather cushions, its Spanish-Moorish architecture, its moderne details, its ticket concourse with 30 windows, its enormous restrooms, its two courtyards with native trees and plants and its sumptuous Harvey House restaurant and adjoining bar. The station had taken six years to build and cost $11 million (the cost of about a mile and a half of Metro Rail today.)

At first, 60 trains a day used the station, among them the Chief, the Super Chief, the Sunset Limited, the Lark and the Golden State. Movie stars arrived at The Coast aboard the Super Chief and posed on its steps for news photographers.

When World War II came, the station seemed providential. Thousands of soldiers and sailors shipping out or going home on leave passed through its doors. Hundreds of joyous reunions or tearful farewells were enacted every day. There were 100 trains a day. Lines waiting to board the trains backed up through the cavernous waiting room. Twice during the war, I had stood in those lines. The first time, in 1943, I was traveling under military orders to the Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C. The last time was in 1946; the war was over, and I was being transferred from San Diego to San Francisco, for discharge. Union Station was a place where even a civilian might feel the war: its wrenching dislocations, the endless wash of the nation’s young and brave.

After the war, Union Station began receiving the war’s wretched tides of refugees. Thousands of Jews and Central Europeans freed from Nazi concentration camps poured in. As a young reporter, I talked to many who tried to express their feelings in broken English. They huddled in the waiting room in bewildered groups, shabby and gray, some with name tags, all with numbers tattooed on their wrists. Many wept as they embraced friends and relatives, realizing that this train ride had ended in freedom, not death.

Then came the airplane, and, overnight, Union Station’s decline began. The multi-engine airplane and the jet soon made trains old-fashioned. Recently, I spent an hour at the station at midday. Only nine people sat in the waiting room. Only one of the bank of 11 telephones was in use. The hardwood chairs were scuffed; some of the leather seats were split or slashed. But the room still had grandeur.

One person sat in the great concourse opposite the ticket windows. Just two windows were staffed. A ticket seller, grizzled, with rimless spectacles, stood at one. He assured me that the counter top was marble and slapped it with his hand: “Black marble. No Formica here.”

About 40 passengers lined up at the gate for the Desert Wind, bound for Las Vegas, Denver, Omaha and Chicago. It left at 12:45, and the waiting room was empty again.

The lower windows of the old Harvey House had been blackened. I stood on a bench and looked through an upper window. Except for its large central buffet, the restaurant was vacant. The bar next door was locked. Through a port, I saw the long, curving bar at which soldiers and sailors used to stand four deep. I had stood there, too, drinking beer and engaging in the fleeting camaraderie of war.

In a festive gesture, colorful banners hung from the rafters to celebrate the coming 50th anniversary. Will there be a 100th? Maybe so, if people tire of airplane food, airplane delays and jet lag.

Recently, I took my granddaughter to San Juan Capistrano on the San Diegan, a train still popular with commuters. On that Sunday, the train was not crowded. It was a thrill for both of us when the train began to move, almost imperceptibly at first, gradually gaining speed. We rolled through the industrial back yard of the city and into the clean Orange County suburbs. We saw people and bicycles and schools and dogs. For me, it was pure nostalgia; for her, a new adventure.

Many contemporary uses of Union Station have been proposed, including shops, hotels and museums. Some proposals are optimistic; some, absurd.

Perhaps, like the pyramids of Egypt, it will find its future in its past.

UNION STATION FESTIVITIES--In celebration of Union Station’s 50th anniversary, there will be an open house at the terminal on saturday and Sunday, May 6-7. Displays will include one of the most famous steam locomotives, the Southern Pacific Daylight; three vintage diesel-electric passenger trains, and a new Amtrak passenger car. Other transportation-oriented exhibits and activities, as well as food carts and musical entertainment, are planned. At 1:30 p.m. Sunday, a plaque commemorating the occasion will be dedicated on the north patio. The U.S. Marine Corps band will perform at the ceremony.

The open house, which is free to the public, will run from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. both days. For more information, call 625-2672. Union Station is at 800 N. Alameda St.