May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
I admire the majestic piles of stone and steel that stand today as monuments to the past of American railroading, but even so, I think most of these edifices are overrated. The greatness of a railroad station seems to depend on its size and architectural merit. The main waiting room is three times larger than the Baths of Caracalla. Its ceiling is as high as the dome of St. Peter’s. The floors are covered with enough marble to pave Market Street in Philadelphia. If all the toilets in the ladies’ room were flushed, the stream of water would equal that of the Charles River. The train shed…and on it goes, size and grandeur. What about passenger convenience and comfort? To me these are the real measures of a great railway terminal. Does the user find it comfortable? Easy to get around and on a scale big enough to handle its basic job as a passenger shelter yet not so vast as to wear out the weary traveler? No one wants to tramp three football fields to buy a ticket and then retrace their steps back to the waiting room, only to negotiate a long stairway down to a thousandfoot-long platform, adequately lit only for a midnight mass. Yet long walks and wasted space are minor inconveniences compared with the dilemma of multiple stations, once a common situation in most large American cities.
The Indianapolis Union Station of 1853. This is rarely mentioned in historical texts, yet it appears to have been the first to collect all the major rail lines entering a city and put them in one building. The building was hardly a marble palace, nor did it likely spend much in the way of gilt ornamentation. It was just a great barn, 425 feet long by 200 feet wide, a cheap commercial structure built for a purpose rather than a look. Here passengers could change trains for destinations throughout the area just by walking between platforms. Platform 1 might be limited to trains for Cincinnati, Platform 2 for Madison and Louisville, and so on. By 1870 it was serving eleven railroads and handling seventy-six trains a day.
A few other cities, such as Chattanooga and Cleveland, followed Indianapolis in just a few years. But other major cities punished rail travelers with the old inefficient multiplestation system.