Thursday, January 20, 2011

Under Wire in the Emerald City

In 1911 a new station opened in Seattle - not so far away from the current King Street Station.  Actually, it was just across the street.  The main concourse was truly grand and reflected the importance of the railroads at the time.  Union Station (as it came to be known after some initial confusion) is today one of the fine examples of historical preservation.  The original tenants, the Union Pacific and Milwaukee Road, are long vacated but the building stands ornate and proud as it did 100 years ago when passenger trains were called "Varnish" and heavy-weight Pullmans were the preferred mode of luxury travel.

Today, Union Station is the hub for Sound Transit and travelers can descend below ground to catch the bus or light-rail from this historic building just as  travelers from times past.  The difference in decades is unmistakable, however.  Today's long distance travelers board the light rail bound for the SEA-TAC International Airport, not the Armour Yellow of departing Union Pacific or Milwaukee Road passenger trains.  Inside on the main level, painted names above open doors still advertise the Women's Waiting Room or Men's Toilet and Barber Shop but these amenities are long vanished from the old station.  The era of the highly polished and well-dressed traveler are seemingly over.  Travel has changed and become more accessible to all, while at the same time, entering into an era of TSA body scanners.

It is interesting to consider Union Station and its undergrounds.  In days past, travelers entered on street level, but departed on Olympians from sub-ground platforms.  The Vintage Seattle Blog has a very nice post card of a departing Olympian on the sub-level.  The close relation of the two Seattle depots is obvious.

Look carefully in the post card:  the overhead catenary is visible above the waiting Olympian Hiawatha.  This electrified Olympian must have been one of America's truly unique travel experiences.  Certainly the lands it traversed seem unequaled, and the line it traversed was one of a kind.

The Milwaukee Road's final runs from Union Station were in 1961 and by that time the Bi-Polars were replaced with E-units from General Motors.  For the next 10 years, the Union Pacific would utilize the station until the coming of Amtrak when all passenger trains into the Seattle downtown were relocated across the street.  A massive refurbishing and rebuilding of Union Station was completed in 1999, formally saving the Great Hall for the future in the glory of the past.  Beneath the surface, another nod to the past exists:  the electrified light rail, where passengers can still depart the Emerald City under wire.