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(rshsdepot) Union Station - Los Angeles, CA

Union Station Helped Turn a City Into a Metropolis


Union Station, a monument to the entwined elements of history and
transportation, was a Johnny-come-lately as train stations go, but it played
a leading role in making Los Angeles into the nation's second-largest city.

For more than a century, the mighty transcontinental railroads had helped to
transform Los Angeles from an isolated town of 10,000 into a modern
megalopolis. But getting them to unite behind a single station, a Union
Station, was a task almost as difficult as bringing the railroads west. In
1869, railroad workers drove the golden spike at Promontory, Utah, joining
the Union Pacific and the Southern Pacific into a seamless transcontinental

The same year, Gen. Phineas Banning built the first railway south of the
Tehachapi Mountains: the San Pedro & Los Angeles Railroad. On the
locomotive, a sign painter lettered "LOS ANGELOS," an error discovered in
the nick of time for the maiden run.

Banning's railway covered the 22 miles between San Pedro and downtown. The
line, with its station at Alameda and Commercial streets, provided the
city's only service for a decade. In 1873, the line was turned over to the
Southern Pacific to entice the big railroad to come to Los Angeles.
(Banning's station would become a flag stop for the Southern Pacific;
travelers had to flag down the train to get aboard. That station was torn
down in 1888.)

On Sept. 5, 1876, the Golden State's own golden spike connecting north and
south was driven at Lang Station in what is now Santa Clarita. The Southern
Pacific--called "the Espee" for its initials and immortalized as "The
Octopus" for its stranglehold on state politics in Frank Norris' novel of
the same name--finally chugged into Los Angeles.

No other single California company ever held the power and influence that
the Southern Pacific did. For more than three decades, its slightest
decision about where to lay tracks and where not to created some cities and
destroyed others.

In 1880, in an area halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco called
Mussel Slough, a dispute over land rights between settlers and the Southern
Pacific erupted into violence, leaving seven men dead. The brief
bullet-punctuated episode became a turning point, as public outrage swelled
against the powerful railroad.

Over the next several decades, the SP operated out of three grand train
stations, beginning with the Los Angeles Junction, which boasted a hotel and
dining room in an area known as "the Cornfield," bound by Spring Street and
North Broadway. In 1888, the SP moved to the Arcade Station at 5th and
Central streets, which was rebuilt on an adjoining site three decades later
and called Central Station. (Although the SP began making stops at a
storefront brick building called the River Station in Chinatown in 1884, it
was only a flag stop, not one of its three main stations.)

Two more railroads would battle the SP for a foothold in the West, and each
had its own station. In 1891, the Los Angeles Terminal Railway
Station--whose title spawned the name for Terminal Island--opened on East
1st Street, just east of the Los Angeles River. After changing its name to
the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake, it eventually was swallowed up by
Union Pacific. When the station burned down in 1924, Union Pacific moved to
Central Station.

The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad also joined the fray--sometimes
literally. More than once, Santa Fe and SP workmen faced off against each
other with rifles.

In 1885, the SP paid the Santa Fe, which had reached San Diego, $500,000 a
year to make San Bernardino its terminus instead of Los Angeles, to keep
competition away. Their pact lasted only two years, when the Santa Fe
acquired a route, becoming the third railroad line into the city and
triggering a half-century-long conflict.

Travelers benefited from vicious fare wars. Thousands of settlers came to
Los Angeles from as far away as Kansas, some on tickets that, for a few
hours in 1887, sold for one dollar.

Six years later, the Santa Fe's Moorish-style La Grande Station opened,
between 1st and 2nd streets on Santa Fe Avenue. It had a first-class
restaurant, the Harvey House, which was Judy Garland's fictional employer in
the 1945 MGM movie "The Harvey Girls." Garland sang: "Do ya hear that
whistle down the line? I figure that it's engine No. 49. She's the only one
that'll sound that way. On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe."

Trains were the chief mode of transport for goods and passengers, bringing
their share of glamour to Hollywood. Once in the 1930s, actress Mae West
arrived aboard the Santa Fe's Super Chief.

After posing for photographers, she was met by a handsome deputy district
attorney, who had been sent to escort her by her friend, Dist. Atty. Buron
Fitts. Fitts had ordered the man to give her a big kiss and say, "This is
from Buron"--to which West issued her classic bawdy rejoinder: "Is that a
gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?"

A politically connected pimp ran a prostitution business near the train
stations for years. His "girls" took out ads, such as those that appeared in
the "Souvenir Sporting Guide" published in 1897, colorfully describing
prostitutes' services. His lucrative deal ended in 1913 with the Red Light
Abatement Act.

The railroad tracks ran right down Alameda, uneasily coexisting with
trolleys and other vehicles. In 1915, after years of fatal accidents,
several city agencies that were seeking a joint terminal and a new track
location filed a complaint against the three railways with the California
Railroad Commission. The panel intervened, prompting a decade-long court

Finally, the presidents of all three railroads grudgingly agreed to pay for
a terminal, which was named Union Station to symbolize their reluctant

City voters approved the new station in 1926, but it took almost a decade to
agree on the 48-acre site and raze part of Chinatown.

On May 3, 1939, half a million people attended the opening of Union Station,
which took six years and $11 million to build.

Opening-day ceremonies culminated in a historical parade featuring horsemen,
muleskinners, stagecoaches, horse-car trolleys and California's first
smoke-belching locomotive, the Southern Pacific's No. 1 engine of 1869,
chugging down the tracks that still ran right down the street. (However, by
then passenger trains no longer used those rails.)

For three days, crowds streamed through the station, rubbernecking at its
ornate, 52-foot ceilings; its rows of deep, hardwood waiting-room chairs
with leather cushions; its ticket concourse with 30 windows; enormous
restrooms; two courtyards with native trees and plants; and the sumptuous
Harvey House restaurant and adjoining bar. During World War II, the
restaurant could feed 800 people an hour.

Critics nicknamed the station's architectural style "mission moderne." The
Spanish heritage was evident in its exterior design. Architects H.L. Gilman,
J.H. Christie and R.J. Wirth created a Moorish clock tower, high-arched
windows and slanted red-tile roofs. The influence of the consulting
architects, the father and son team of John and Donald Parkinson, was
reflected in the many Art Deco touches.

Soon, 64 passenger trains a day were passing through, bearing names like the
Chief, the Super Chief, the Sunset Limited, the Lark, the Golden State, the
Desert Wind and the City of Los Angeles.

Throughout World War II, dramas of tearful departures and joyous homecomings
played out thousands of times a day in Union Station. Troops came and went
around the clock as the number of trains increased to 100 a day. Lines
waiting to board were backed up through the cavernous waiting room.

After the war, Union Station began receiving a tide of refugees. Thousands
of Jews and Central Europeans freed from Nazi concentration camps poured in
on train rides that ended in freedom rather than death.

Scared and shabbily dressed children with nametags waited in anticipation
for their new adoptive families as volunteers from the Travelers Aid Society
held their hands.

But the glory days were long gone by 1971, when Amtrak took over passenger

Competition from airlines and cars had reduced the station to an average of
seven passenger trains a day, just as long-distance trucking had put a dent
in railroads' freight business. And the venerable Harvey House had closed
four years before.

But the past proved to be prologue. In recent years, Union Station has been
revived as a dining and shopping mall and as a transit hub.

Amtrak, bus lines, the Red Line subway, Metrolink trains, van pools and taxi
and shuttle services converge every day, again bringing commuters and
tourists into the City of Angels.

The Railroad Station Historical Society maintains a database of existing
railroad structures at: http://www.rrshs.org