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Today’s Question:
July 25, 1980
— Updated Jan. 29, 2009

Dear Cecil:

Chicago has a railroad facility known as Union Station. I happen to know there also are or were Union Stations in Kansas City, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Washington, D.C., and many other cities. What accounts for this? Could no one think of another name? Are they a celebration of the labor movement? Some kind of franchise operation, like Yellow Cab or Starbucks? Please explain.

— M. Smith, Chicago

Cecil replies:

This is one of those questions that shows you the vanity of human endeavors.  Union Stations — at one time there were more than a hundred throughout the U.S. and Canada — were an attempt to deal with one of the burning urban issues of a century ago: too many passenger railroads operating too many stations and tracks, tying up valuable downtown real estate. A union depot, the thinking went, would allow all the railroads to share the same station, as airlines now do at airports. Enormous energy was expended making these projects a reality — only to have later generations ask: You did all this why?

Chicago, the country's main rail hub, is a good example of the problem union stations were supposed to solve. With 6,000 miles of track and seven downtown stations, not to mention numerous yards and freight terminals, the city had the most complex and in some ways most chaotic metropolitan rail system in the world. Nowhere was this better illustrated than in the circuitous routes some passenger lines had to negotiate to get out of the city. Baltimore & Ohio trains, ultimately headed east (that's where Baltimore and Ohio were) first had to travel five miles west to escape the congestion. Grand Trunk Western trains, bound for Canada by way of Michigan, had to chug south to 47th Street, west to Central Park Avenue, and south and southeast to Griffith, Indiana (13 miles south of the lake). Only then did the tracks turn northwest.

Numerous schemes (19 of them before 1913) were proposed to eliminate this mess. The best known figured prominently in the Burnham Plan, approved by the city in 1910. Daniel Burnham wanted to boil the existing seven stations down to three, one of which was to be a grandiose union station fronting on Roosevelt Road between State and Franklin. A reorganized web of approach tracks would stretch across the south and southwest sides and out of the city. To make room for the new station and tracks, the South Branch of the Chicago River, which meandered eastward between Polk and 18th streets, was to be straightened — a huge undertaking all by itself.

Parts of this plan were completed, although the final product bore little resemblance to Burnham's ambitious scheme. A Union Station of sorts (the one we now know) opened in 1925. In itself the new facility was a model of efficient design, but only five of the city's 24 passenger railroads and 390 of its 1,500-plus weekday trains used it. The straightening of the South Branch was completed in 1929. Hopes for a union depot on Roosevelt had long since evaporated, but civic leaders expected the railroads would straighten out the tangle of tracks leading to the existing rail stations in the South Loop, making it possible to extend city streets and speed auto traffic. The Depression put an end to such thoughts. The tracks weren't moved, the streets weren't extended, and other than simplifying barge navigation on the river, the project was a waste.

As late as 1958, Mayor Richard J. Daley proposed that service at the Dearborn, Grand Central, and LaSalle Street stations be transferred to Union Station, a notion made feasible by the postwar decline in intercity rail passenger traffic — he wanted to use the land for a new University of Illinois campus. Inertia again triumphed, and Daley ended up leveling an old west-side neighborhood for the campus instead.

Eventually the problem solved itself, as the railroads abandoned service and closed their stations. (Freight rail congestion remains a problem, as the Canadian National Railway's recent purchase of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern points up.) Union Station in Chicago remains a busy place, and quite a few similar depots elsewhere remain in operation, although at a much reduced scale. Others have been converted to new uses such as shopping malls or torn down. Gives you pause, especially in my business. Imagine the question somebody is going to text into the Straight Dope blog a few decades hence: "In every town I visit, I see an impressive building for a long-departed enterprise. It was called a newspaper. What the hell was that?" 

 — Cecil Adams

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