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St. Paul Union Depot

2013

John W. Diers

St. Paul Union Depot

A landmark history of St. Paul’s historic Union Depot and a tale of a bygone era when travel and adventure meant passenger trains

St. Paul Union Depot brings to life the sights and sounds and the behind-the-scenes inner workings of what was the most important rail passenger station west of Chicago. It is also about the people—the stationmasters, mail handlers, train directors, engineers, and others who were employed there, as well as the millions of passengers who passed through its doors.

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

St. Paul Union Depot was among the busiest and best-known places in the city—one of the largest depots in the nation and St. Paul’s link to the world. It had nine platforms, twenty-one tracks, and well over 140 trains coming and going each day. At its peak in the 1920s, the Union Depot processed more than twenty million pieces of mail each year. Construction of the new depot began in 1917, among the burned remains of the previous depot, and was finally finished in 1926 as both a monument to St. Paul’s urban growth and its gateway to the Northwest.

Practical rather than pretentious, the Union Depot served St. Paul for more than fifty years—complete with a restaurant, drugstore, infirmary, and playrooms for children. Millions of people bought tickets and walked through its lobby and concourse to board waiting trains. It sent children to summer camps and schools, and young men and women to wars. The depot hosted U.S. presidents and presidents-to-be, international royalty, famous authors, movie stars, and the rich and famous—but it also sheltered the homeless and the troubled seeking a warm place on a cold night. Though it closed in 1971 after years of declining passenger rail service, today the St. Paul Union Depot is once again being revived as a Twin Cities transit and commercial hub, just as rail travel throughout the United States experiences a renewal.

In St. Paul Union Depot, John W. Diers brings to life the sights and sounds and the behind-the-scenes inner workings of what was in its time the most important rail passenger station west of Chicago. He captures an era when competing railroad companies came together and agreed that one depot was better than nine. Of more interest, though, St. Paul Union Depot is about the people—the stationmasters, gatemen, switchmen, ticket clerks, mail handlers, train directors, locomotive engineers, and others who were employed there, as well as the millions of passengers who passed through its doors.

Awards

Winner of the David Stanley Gebhard Award from the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians

St. Paul Union Depot

John W. Diers 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.

St. Paul Union Depot

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

St. Paul Union Depot by John W. Diers presents a landmark history of St. Paul’s historic Union Depot and conjures up a bygone era when travel and adventure meant passenger trains. Presenting now only the sights and sounds, but also the inner workings of one of the more important rail stations west of Chicago, St. Paul Union Depot is about not just trains but people.

Model Railroad News

Outstanding is the only way to describe this tribute to one of America’s big city depot treasures.

Michigan Railfan

Diers has made a strong contribution to the literature of American station. His research is superb... and his coverage is impressive. A first-rate piece of scholarship.

Lexington Quarterly

St. Paul Union Depot

Contents

Prologue: A Night on the Builder

Railroads Serving St. Paul Union Depot

Introduction

1. Railroad Avenue

2. St. Paul and Its Railroads
Leroy Buffington

3. A New Union Depot for St. Paul
Milwaukee Road Depot
Great Northern Station Minneapolis
Charles Sumner Frost and the Firm of Frost and Granger

4. Arrivals and Departures

5. Mail and Express

6. Last Call

Epilogue: Whither the Passenger Train?


Appendix: Passenger Train Discontinuances in Minnesota, 1950–1971
Bibliographic Resources
Illustration Credits
Index