Railroad wars and the St. Paul Union Depot

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In 1915 the Union Depot Company revealed plans for a depot so large that it
would have required diverting the channel of the Mississippi River to make
room for it. This artist’s rendering shows architect Charles Frost’s
conceptual design. The building would have faced Third Street with the
main entrance on Sibley Street. Images from St. Paul Union Depot
by John W. Diers.


Railroad wars and the depot that was never built

Firefighters were summoned to the St. Paul Union Depot late on the evening of October 3, 1913. A small fire smoldering in the second-floor restaurant kitchen, undetected for perhaps an hour, had burned its way through an inside wall, found a draft, and exploded, enveloping the entire upper half of the building. It was the second fire in the depot in thirty years, and it left St. Paul and more than two hundred daily passenger trains without a rail station.

The railroads responded to the emergency with their usual efficiency, clearing away rubble and transforming an adjoining warehouse into a temporary depot. There was no interruption to passenger service, but it would take five years before construction started on the new facility, a situation that led to much complaint from city leaders and the traveling public.

Planning for a new depot was already under way when the old depot burned. The board of directors had formed an engineering committee and appointed W.C. Armstrong, then chief engineer of the Union Depot Company, as engineer for the project. However, there was mixed enthusiasm, especially over the size and the cost of the new facility. The Great Northern, Northern Pacific, Burlington, Milwaukee and Omaha were enthusiastic backers of a grand new passenger station as was the City of St. Paul. The Soo Line, the Rock Island, and the Minneapolis & St. Louis ran fewer passenger trains but were persuaded of the need for a new terminal and were sensitive to the public interest.

Chicago Great Western president Samuel Felton held a different view. Much of the public frustration over delays would rest squarely on his shoulders. Felton was a difficult man with an even more difficult task, rescuing the Chicago Great Western, a weak railroad recovering from a 1909 receivership. The Great Western was in no position to fund what Felton considered an extravagant project, and he resolutely opposed the plans of the other railroads arguing for a much smaller facility, possibly and prophetically in St. Paul’s Midway District. Said Felton, “If the City of St. Paul wants a civic monument, they should pay for it.”

The ground floor of the 1915 proposal.

The board responded to Felton’s charges and directed depot company president Edmund Pennington to secure a second opinion. Pennington hired John F. Wallace, former chief engineer for the Panama Canal project. Wallace came to St. Paul on June 2, 1914 to review the proposed plans and inspect the site. He also considered the area between Minneapolis and St. Paul and the possibility and desirability of building a union station in St. Paul’s Midway.

Wallace agreed with Felton’s concerns over costs, recommending a $15 million as opposed to the $18 million budget then under consideration. However, he rejected the Midway site, recommending, “That the extension and development of the union passenger terminal on the site of the old station will best serve the railroads and the City of St. Paul.”

The proposed station would grow the terminal property from 17.2 to 54.2 acres enough room for twenty-six tracks. Total track mileage would go from 9.2 to 24.9. A three level station building would rest on the corner of Sibley and Third Street. More land would be needed and to avoid taking developed property north of Third Street two plans called for diverting the channel of the Mississippi River. One would direct the river just below Raspberry Island to a new channel over the river flats. The other more ambitious plan would return it to an ancient channel from Harriet Island around the West Side Bluffs reclaiming six hundred to seven hundred acres of land for commercial development.

Felton objected, pointing to declining passenger revenues and the loss of short haul, local business due to increased automobile competition. He was, also, alarmed by the sharp increase in construction costs due to the outbreak of war in Europe. His concerns were valid but irrelevant, because early in 1915 the War Department rejected plans to relocate the river channel and the entire project had to begin all over again. Two more years would go by before construction started. There was much complaint, but this time it wasn’t the railroads’ fault.

Chicago Great Western president Samuel Felton (front row, far left)
joined other railroad executives at a 1921 White House meeting.
Felton thought plans for the new depot were far too ambitious and
expensive. He argued for a smaller facility, possibly in St. Paul’s
Midway District. History would prove him right.

Building the depot, 1917-1926

Starting over meant tearing up the old plans and turning away from the river to a strip of land north of the existing depot along Third Street, an area then occupied by warehouses, the temporary depot and freight facilities owned by the Great Northern.

Providing adequate capacity for moving trains, people, and mail and express was fundamental to the planning. The final design that emerged was a terminal encompassing some 21 acres of land, 21 tracks, nine passenger boarding platforms, engine servicing facilities, and a yard office. Great Northern and Northern Pacific coach yards were located off site. Space, was also needed for baggage, mail, and express. In 1916 the depot received and forwarded 1,285,262 pieces of baggage. Approximately 445 tons of mail passed through each day along with 5 million items of express handled annually. The final design was projected to handle up to 1.1 million passengers per year and reach capacity in 1955. Ironically, it never did because, by the time it was completed in 1924-25, the passenger train was already in decline.

Charles Sumner Frost was selected as project architect. Frost was one of the most productive architects of the Gilded Age. With his business partner, Alfred Granger, their firm, Frost and Granger, is credited with some 200-railroad passenger stations, not to mention dozens of office buildings, schools, and private residences. Besides St. Paul Union Depot, Frost was the architect for the Great Northern and Milwaukee depots in Minneapolis.

Frost proposed several designs. One sketch shows a grand esplanade, reminiscent of Washington Union station and the City Beautiful, stretching from Sixth Street to the depot’s entrance on Fourth. It pleased city fathers but the railroads had little enthusiasm for such grandeur and expense, and it was never built. The terminal that emerged was less opulent than others of that era and was given mixed praise. Railway Age in 1920 called it “a structure of monumental proportions and classic design”; some sixty years later, in its 1974 inventory form, the National Register of Historic Places saw it as a “severe and rather sober example of Neo-classical architecture.” Frank Lloyd Wright thought it “a beautifully spacious building, even if they did dog ear the tops of the columns.”

There were several components in Frost’s design: a head house and business lobby, a concourse leading to the waiting room, the waiting room itself, platforms, the track structure and approaches, and the undertrack rooms for the handling of mail and express. St. Paul Union Depot was the largest construction project in downtown St. Paul in the twentieth century, and like today’s freeways, it was built while traffic continued to move around the construction. There was nowhere to detour the approximately two hundred trains that called every day, so construction proceeded in four stages with contractors working around a steady stream of trains, people, and mail and express. Although work began in 1917 with the demolition of a number of old warehouses along Third Street, the First World War and financing issues delayed completion of the new head house until April of 1920. This first phase also involved construction of a temporary concourse, or passageway to the old train shed.

The second phase opened with the demolition of the temporary facilities and adjoining structures and construction of the first six elevated tracks, platforms and train sheds. At the same time, the concourse and the waiting room were extended over Third Street. This was completed in 1921. Phases three and four involved extending the waiting room and completing the remaining elevated tracks. Phase three was completed in February 1924. Phase four was finished in February 1925. With the exception of miscellaneous finishing work that extended into 1926, February 1925 marked the end of construction. At last it was done. Now would come the challenge of making it work.

The head house was completed in 1920 with the concourse and waiting rooms finished between 1922 and 1924.


John W. Diers, author of St. Paul Union Depot, has worked in management in the transit industry for thirty-five years, including twenty-five years at the Twin Cities Metropolitan Transit Commission, where he started as a bus driver–dispatcher, then moved on to administrative assistant to the general manager, division superintendent, chief of radio communications, and manager of maintenance administration. He also worked with ATE Management and Services as general manager of the transit system in Racine, Wisconsin. He is now an independent consultant on transit operations and a writer and researcher on transportation history. He has written for Trains magazine and is coauthor, with Aaron Isaacs, of Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul (Minnesota, 2007). He has served on the board of the Minnesota Transportation Museum and on the editorial board of the Ramsey County Historical Society. He is president of the Scott County (Minnesota) Historical Society.

“The story of the Union Depot is St. Paul’s story. By chronicling the history of this magnificent building from the vantage point of its current renewal, John Diers gives us an insight into how we became the city we are today.”
—St. Paul Mayor Christopher B. Coleman

“The Union Depot was the heart of St. Paul in its glory days when the railroad was king. John Diers captures the energy and excitement of that era, but his narrative tells a larger story as well—an American story of creative destruction, progress, and its costs. Meticulously researched and written, lavishly illustrated, and a delight to read, St. Paul Union Depot educates, captivates, and makes one yearn to hear again the echoing call, ‘now leaving on Track 7.’”
—Mary Lethert Wingerd, author of North Country

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