If you love train stations…Los Angeles Union Station has a 75th birthday

I have spent many pleasurable hours at Los Angeles Union Station, the largest railroad passenger terminal in the western United States.  On more than one occasion we traveled by train for New Orleans via Amtrak, enjoying many points along the way. More frequently we take the Gold Line from Pasadena to Union Station –just for the fun of it.

Whatever our final destination, we always enjoy our time at the beautiful station and the sense that time has stood still.

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In 1939 the city threw a 3-day celebration drawing a festive Los Angeles crowd of half a million enthusiasts gathered to celebrate the opening of the $11 million grand train station.

To enjoy some rare video footage of that event, click HERE.

After years of political wrangling just to get it built, the ebullient public celebrated a unified track system, and this Saturday, May 3rd, Union Station will be fêted in a highly publicized grand celebration of 75 years of city railway history.

Built in 1939–the same year as the premiers of both Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, the station was finally completed, serving the needs of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, Southern Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad.

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There is something really beautiful and special about historical train stations. The cost of duplicating this workmanship would be prohibitive today.

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What I didn’t know, is that there was another station BEFORE Union Station.

The busiest point of entry was Southern Pacific’s Central Station, built between 1912 and 1915, with 1923 welcoming 1.2 million tourists to Los Angeles.

Between 1920 and 1930 the city’s population grew from 577,677 to 1, 238,048. Considering California wasn’t admitted to the Union until 1850, that’s impressive growth.

Early in the 20th century tourists were met at Central station with a free bus ticket to the suburbs and handed real estate folders broadly hinting that oil might quite literally spurt from the ground, so why not buy property in Southern California, and participate in a petroleum based “gold rush?”

California population began to grow at unprecedented rates, and almost immediately following Central Station’s completion, city politics heated up and public outcry demanded the city officially build a Union Station that would handle greater railroad activity.

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Union Station was a significant hub of activity during World War II as one hundred trains a day brought thousands of passengers through its terminals.

When the war ended, the glory days of train service in Los Angeles took a “back seat” to the independence of travel by automobile and the birth of the freeway.

 

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Today, in addition to Amtrak service, Union Station also serves as a central hub for Los Angeles’ commuter lines under the direction of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

According to Los Angeles Magazine, current ridership is close to 70,000 passengers a day between Amtrak, Metrolink, the Gold, Red and Purple lines, with Union Station handling a million more people every two weeks than during the war.

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The distinctive architectural fusion of Spanish Mission architecture with a modern Streamline style makes the station popular with the film industry. It’s always popping up in movies, television and commercials.

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I could share many interesting stories from the early era of train travel and memories associated with this station, but  wonderful articles have recently been published and for the interested, there is currently a wealth of easily accessed information.

I think I’ll just share some of my favorite photos.

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Do you like to take the train? What’s your favorite train travel memory? Maybe you can share your own story next Saturday, May 10th, in celebration of National Train Day.

Train travel is a lovely way to exhale!

Enjoy your weekend, my friends.

 

56 thoughts on “If you love train stations…Los Angeles Union Station has a 75th birthday

    • I hope you’ll have the chance to visit Union Station, Carla. It’s really lovely. And while there, don’t forget to walk across the street and visit El Pueblo de Los Angeles, the oldest street in the city and the site of many of the oldest building in Los Angeles. It’s a bit touristy, but look beyond that! I plan to post about it again soon, but if you google “Olvera Street” you’ll get all you need. It’s directly across the street from the train station. :-)

    • I’m glad I could share some of the history of this beautiful Union Station, Amy. I would love to travel by train again. It’s been a number of years! I hope you’re enjoying your weekend, my friend.

  1. Very nice, wouldnt mind a delayed train there.
    The one and only time I traveled by train was terrible, I was sick, a bridge fell or was burned or somebody stole the tracks (there were many rumors) so it had to stop in the middle of nowhere… blabla.
    I like trains though.
    How funny about the oil thing, it was sort of true.

    • It sounds like you had a most miserable train experience! How unfortunate. I do remember traveling one time with a fellow passenger who described the time he’d been on a train that derailed! I remember thinking that I would prefer not hearing that story while we were speeding along at 80 miles an hour! LOL! Train travel is supposed to be relaxing. Maybe you can try again sometime. :-)

    • I’m so glad you recognize Union Station, Tilly! There are few vantage points we see so frequently, and laugh when the move is supposedly set in Europe or American east coast. If it weren’t for the fact that we now use the terminal for commuter trains, I’m sure it would have met its demise. Fortunately there are people very dedicated to preserving these old train stations. So many of the old and very beautiful buildings from the 30s and 40s have been completely gutted. Los Angeles has not been known for preserving it’s architectural history. :-(

    • ’m so glad you recognize Union Station, Tilly! There are few vantage points we see so frequently, and laugh when the move is supposedly set in Europe or American east coast. If it weren’t for the fact that we now use the terminal for commuter trains, I’m sure it would have met its demise. Fortunately there are people very dedicated to preserving these old train stations. So many of the old and very beautiful buildings from the 30s and 40s have been completely gutted. Los Angeles has not been known for preserving its architectural history. :-(

  2. I just learned that Union Station has a Harvey House! it’s closed to the public but it’s there, and just as beautiful as the rest of the station (minus that ugly hallway leading to the trains. And the fast food places at the entrance to the hallway. And the subway platforms.)

    • Yes, it’s right there, on one of the outside wings. Of course you can’t go in there, but I’ve thought of taking one of the Los Angeles Conservancy walking tours that does give access. Two years ago they were heavily advertising for someone to take over and open the restaurant, and I wonder if at some point they’ll possibly revive the Harvey House. Wouldn’t that be exciting! There are some nice changes taking place at the station right now, including the “fast food” area. The improvements have really brightened the area a lot and there’s a real effort to restore it to it’s former glory–as much as possible given a Subway, Starbucks and Wetzel’s Pretzels. LOL!

  3. wow, an elegant railway station! I love travelling by train but it rarely happens these days when our nearest train line is hundreds of kilometres away …. my favourite journeys were by steam train as a child :)

    • Your comment has me wondering about the travel we did when I was a child, Christine. I wonder if any of those trains were by steam. I’m not sure when those trains stopped running. I do remember how elegant the train service was, though. Cloth napkins, beautiful silverware and goblets. And we certainly weren’t traveling anything but economy! It was just a more gracious era for travel. We were probably very well dressed, too! I enjoyed sharing the photos of Union Station and I’m never there but that I don’t think of what it must have been like in its heyday! It’s not as large as many other Union Stations across the country, but I do think it’s a jewel. :-)

  4. I would love to see this station, Debra, and appreciate your sharing its history with us. My mother took the train from Chicago to LA, toward the end of WWII, to visit my father who was stationed in San Diego. She would have departed from Chicago’s Union Station. I wonder now if she arrived in LA’s Union Station.
    I love being in Chicago’s Union Station, as well as Ogilvie Station, which is a block away. So ornate and stately, I can see why you enjoy coming into this station in LA.
    My favorite train ride was on an old train; an event from a railway club. We chugged along from La Grange, Illinois’ Stone Station, a wonderful old stone station, and went up to Geneva, IL for the day, a festival there, and back. It was like turning back to the earlier part of the 20th century.
    Fun and informative post, Debra. Thanks.

    • So few of our old stations still exist, Penny. I think you have many, many more historic stations! We went the southern route to New Orleans and then traveled by car to Mississippi to see family. I don’t recall exactly how we ended up in Chicago, but I do remember changing trains on our way home and being in Chicago’s Union Station. It was beautiful, and much larger than Los Angeles. It was also a much busier train station! But as you describe the train ride from La Grange to Geneva, you mention what most appeals to me, too–turning back the clock! I just love the feeling of not being rushed or hurried in any way. Commuter trains are very new connecting Pasadena to Los Angeles, the light railway is nothing like a passenger train, but I’m always glad we have the chance to spend a little time at the beautiful station. I hope you and Tom have a wonderful weekend, my friend. We’re having another one of those killer heat waves. It’s been in the 90s all week…isn’t that just crazy? I’m just trying to keep some of the new little spring flowers alive. I hope you aren’t having a snow storm. LOL!

  5. What great photos, Debra. I love the seats ~ very “art deco.” I could happily sit in one and people watch while waiting for the conductor to cry, “All~ll Aboard!”

    I enjoyed my trips on the auto train from FL to DC in 2012. Fun meeting fellow passengers, snacking in the lounge, dining in the dining car, sleeping in the sleeper compartment, etc.

    • Florida to DC would have been a lovely trip, Nancy. It’s long enough to feel like a real excursion! I also enjoyed meeting other people and we still laugh at how much food we ate! As you probably experienced, too, the meals were part of the ticket with a sleeping car, and we weren’t exercising, yet ate three big meals a day. The food was quite good, I thought. We’d like to try traveling again without the sleeping car, and see how we do. We may find we’re not up to that, but the sleeping car is so expensive and yet a “seat” is quite reasonable. We talk bout it…and haven’t yet committed. I think I’m afraid we’ll find out we’re too old for that. LOL!

  6. Truly the most interesting train station I’ve ever known! Would love to take a visit again, but I think I’ll stay away from the crowd. ;) And thanks again for letting me know. Now, I know to be very early so I can dodge LA traffic when I head to SD tomorrow. Hmp, I haven’t done a post on Union Station. Grrr me.

    • I hope you have something enjoyable planned in San Diego, Rommel, but of course I think any time in San Diego is going to be enjoyable! Stay clear of Los Angeles this weekend for the heat alone! Who turned on the oven and forgot to turn it off? LOL! If you do go to Union Station and plan to photograph, don’t forget to share about the MTA building that’s right there, too. It’s a nice feature…I may share about it in the future, but I simply couldn’t take the time to do more photographing this last time, and I don’t know what I’ve done with photos taken another time. I couldn’t find them! Again, enjoy San Diego!

  7. The next time I’m there, I must visit Union Station. Like you, I adore the layered history of these old buildings and never miss an excuse to take a train. We used to take Amtrak to Tampa when MTM’s mom lived there, and I always looked forward to getting out at Tampa station, another jewel of a building.

    • I’ve never taken a long train trip without one of the little roomette/bedrooms, Andra, and that’s really nice with quite a bit of privacy. But those little rooms are getting so exorbitantly expensive I don’t think we’d do that again. So the next question we have is whether we’d be reasonably comfortable, or at least not uncomfortable, in a standard seat. It’s been a while! Union Station is really pretty, though, isn’t it? I love to imagine what it was like during the war when it would have been relatively new and absolutely teeming with activity. I love train stations and would enjoy seeing others across the states. I think that would be a fun little architectural tour! I hope you have an enjoyable weekend planned, my friend. ox

  8. Fascinating post Debra and great photos. What a beautiful and historical rail station this is, such glorious architecture and detailing. I have so many special memories and stories of riding the rails, in the UK, Europe and here in Canada. It was always my preferred method of travel but now, alas, it is no longer so accessible or affordable in this country.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the train station photos, John. I have only enjoyed American train travel, and have always heard such wonderful things about the Canadian railway. My parents took a lovely Canadian rail trip maybe 20 years ago and described it as quite gracious and I think their experience was that it felt superior in many ways to typical Amtrak travel (U.S.). Our rail system is still affordable if you don’t require bedroom privileges, but that is because it is very substantially government subsidized. This is a growing controversy and I’m sure one day will be considered expendable. Until then, we don’t travel often, but we’ve been thinking of taking a short trip just to see if we still enjoy it. :-)

  9. I just love this share… train travel in our country is dying a slow death, with only a few private or quasi government operators still going… these operators are for the rich and famous as their prices are beyond the majority…. urban commuter trains are basically all that now continues on a daily basis, with heavy road transport doing most of the business of moving products from city to city…
    As a youngster I lived in one city in Rhodesia and studied in another, every weekend I’d catch the overnight train between the two cities, home on a Friday night and return on a Sunday night… I loved these trips I did for four years…

    • I do wonder about the future of train travel in the United States, too, Rob. Amtrak, our passenger train service, is very heavily subsidized by the government, and although I don’t think it’s in jeopardy right now, there may be a time it is deemed no longer necessary and thereby expendable. A seat without bedroom privileges is still quite affordable and if one isn’t in a hurry, I think it’s a preferable way to travel and still see a glimpse of the changing landscape. Your childhood travel memories probably stir some lovely nostalgia and I think that’s what happens to me, too. I can remember traveling with my grandmother and I often think of how exciting that was. It was also in a day when people dressed more formally for travel and the train employees really “served” the passengers. I have lovely images in my memory. I hope you’re enjoying your weekend, Rob. Soon I’m going to be posting some photos of a couple of birds that quickly passed through my backyard. I’m going to need help identifying them! :-)

  10. That station building is just beautiful – the perfect setting for an old film from the 1930s/40s! I can imagine the people bustling around with their hats and gloves and leather suitcases, jumping into old-fashioned cabs. Ahhh, lovely images! I used to travel by train a lot, and love going on long journeys where you can just sit back and watch the world whizz past. I have seen many wonderful things from railway carriages, such as foxcubs, storks and lots of wild flowers!

    • The description of what you’ve observed from your seat on a train is lovely, Cathy. Train travel is often simply not practical for the time that it takes relative to air travel, but on the few occasions that we’ve traveled any distance, I really enjoyed feeling unhurried and the ability to look out the window and see the changing landscape the further we moved east. I think in its “heyday” Union Station would really have been gorgeous. I know that my mom has very vivid memories of it during the war and has often mentioned how many people thronged there. I’m glad you enjoyed the photographs. It isn’t as large a station as others across the country, but I think in some ways by being smaller in scale many of the details are even more pronounced. Enjoy your beautiful very green garden this weekend, my friend. Can you believe our temperatures were in the high 90s this week? LOL! What a contrast, huh?

  11. That is some serious population growth in a 10 year span. Wow! And what a beautiful train station. I too love the historical feel of them. When we visit St. Louis we always stay in a hotel that’s in their old union station. Something magical about the architecture and atmosphere of these buildings.

  12. What an interesting history, Debra. I’m not a huge fan of taking the train, but then my most recent rail experiences were in Vietnam where the compartments were VERY basic and the trip from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to Hanoi took 30 hours.

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

  13. My Grandpa Johnny was always fond of trains. He hopped on a train illegally from New York, and arrived at Southern Pacific Central Station in the teens. Later, whenever Grandpa was angry at Grandma Lillian, he threatened to go to the train station and take off!

  14. I love train travel – it’s very romantic and it does speak (sadly) of a bygone era. I’ve heard of Union Station because it’s often mentioned in movies! You are right – the architecture is stunning and yes, definitely price prohibitive these days. Thank goodness this station still exists and hasn’t been pulled down and replaced with something modern and ugly! xx

  15. Dear Debra, thank you so very much for sharing this 75th celebration with us. Here in Kansas City we have Union Station, which is used mostly as a museum with many fine touring displays. I so remember my college days in Atchison (the town of the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe Railway). Each time I’d come home on the train for a weekend or holiday visit, Dad would pick me up after work.

    And after each visit, Mom and Dad would drive me from where we lived in the country outside Independence to the heart of Kansas City, Missouri. I’d buy my ticket and the three of us would walk to the station platform where I’d say good-bye. Their faces always displayed mixed emotions: pride that their daughter was able to be in college, sadness that I was leaving, and happiness because when they looked through the train windows after I’d boarded they could see me being greeted by friends who’d also been home for a visit. Those are wonderful memories. Thanks so much for recalling them to me. Peace.

    • You paint such a poignant and emotional picture recalling the departures from the train station and saying goodbye to your family, Dee. Those are the kind of scenes I still see when in airports or train stations, and I am always very moved to see the “goodbyes” and find the “welcome homes” much easier to watch! The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe had a presence in early Los Angeles. At Los Angeles Union Station there once was a beautiful Harvey House, and I always think of Judy Garland singing “The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.” I’m sure you’re familiar with that,too. Train stations seem to tell stories, and I think that is in part why we enjoy them. I’m glad I stirred some pleasant memories, my friend.

  16. I thoroughly loved reading this post! The train system is a lot better in California compared to Western Canada which is such a shame. We have the land and distances to create a railway. Your photographs are gorgeous. The LA train station is a beautiful structure with a lot of design. I have travelled the trains in Europe and Australia. My best trip was from Geneva to Paris. Beautiful landscape, train and train stations! Hope all is well!

    • Most American train travel isn’t elegant as it once was, but it’s still very enjoyable. I’m glad you enjoyed the photos of Union Station. I enjoy imagining what it would have been like 50 years ago! Men wearing hats and women dressed in their Sunday best–nothing like today. LOL! From Geneva to Paris? Now we’re talking, Thea! :-)

  17. Wow! Gorgeous photos. It’s been so many years since I rode a train, maybe 50 years, except for a small narrow gauge one in Felton, California. This makes me want to go ride one again!

    • I think you’d really enjoy some train travel, Tom. Check out the Amtrak website and just see all the short trips that are available! Of course, a nice cross country trip would be great, too. LOL! But we settle for the short runs and have a good time. Union Station is worth a field trip all by itself. I’m glad I could share the photos and possibly inspire a little interest. :-)

  18. Wow, that is a glorious building, Debra! I loved the slideshow with so many views of it. The US has some truly magnificent train stations. When DS took me to New York on a short trip in 2007 one of the highlights was a visit to the recently restored Grand Central station – just awe-inspiring.

I always enjoy hearing from you!

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