Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Great Halls

Someone once suggested that the enormous train stations located in the hearts of America's great cities were gifts from the railroads who built them. They have been lasting gifts in many cases and many that remain have outlasted any remnant of the companies who originally built them.

In 1925, Chicago's second Union Station was built through the agreement of five different railroads: The Pennsylvania; The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy; The Michigan Central; The Chicago and Alton; and The Milwaukee Road. The twenties were roaring and the bold station reflected the importance of the railroad companies in American society. The Pennsylvania Railroad proclaimed itself, "The standard railroad of the world" and the Milwaukee proudly billed the "Electrified" Olympian and Columbian passenger trains that left daily for the Northwest Coast.

Now, more than 80 years later, the grand Union Station still stands in downtown Chicago and finds itself at the heart of passenger rail just as it always has been. Vestiges of the past still cling to the present here: leaving from the North Concourse, the commuter line is still called the Milwaukee District. This despite the fact that the Milwaukee itself has been gone since 1986 and no electrified Olympians have departed for Tacoma since 1961.

It's easy to feel the depth of history in places like Union Station. So many people have walked beneath the tall statues and beneath the arched entrances. Through times of depression, war, and dramatic social changes places like Union Station seem to remain a relative constant. Inside the Great Hall waiting area, where the celestory roof lofts itself high above and the arched entrances grace the walkways, travelers today are still lost in the grandeur of the old building just as they always have been. The gold and bronze colors that trim the hall still seem stately as though the building itself is a doorway to things far greater just beyond.

Wandering through the Great Hall this Christmas Eve I had to wonder at it all. The birth and death of so many great trains and enormously powerful companies seems ironic compared to the monolith they left behind. Leaving out of the North Concourse onto old Milwaukee rails, travelers this holiday can't ride in Superdomes but they can still get to Seattle by train. Amtrak can get you there even if the old orange and red colors of the Milwaukee's passenger equipment are lost to the decades absorbed by Union Station.