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‘St. Paul Union Depot’ brings back a world of travel as relaxation

John W. Diers’ boyhood fixation on transportation never went away; he ultimately spent his career working in transit.

Passengers waiting to board trains in the concourse of the St. Paul Union Depot, 1949.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

When John W. Diers was a youngster in the 1940s and ’50s, he loved streetcars, and convinced his family to take him out to the trollies most every weekend.  He is pretty certain he managed to travel on every working line in Minneapolis and St. Paul before the age of the streetcar came to an end in the 1950s. So when he realized, as a young adult, that the same fate was about to befall the passenger railroads, he hit the rails.

“I knew it was going to go away, and I wanted to see it all before that happened. I scraped together money for tickets, and when I was in college at the U of M, between quarters, I would take these amazing train trips all over the country. I got to see it all before it was too late, and I have some wonderful memories of those trip,” he says.

His unique fixation on transportation never went away, and Diers ultimately spent his career working in transit, including 25 years with the Twin Cities Metropolitan Transit Commission. The author, with Aaron Issacs, of “Twin Cities Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul,” he writes a regular column for the Prior Lake American and contributes to train magazines. His latest book, “St. Paul Union Depot” (University of Minnesota Press), commemorates one part of local transit history that has been given a remarkable second chance.

St. Paul’s Union Depot building has been hiding in plain sight since it closed in 1971. It is hard to believe the Union Depot, situated on a prime piece of Lowertown real estate, was never destroyed — and it’s almost as hard to believe it ever existed. This majestic train station has all the cinematic glamour of Grand Central Station, is architecturally unparalleled in either of our downtowns, and connects generations of Twin Citians to memories of a past that is nearly out of reach. The Union Depot received new immigrants, returning soldiers, and everyday travelers for half a century before it was shut down and mothballed to the public. The post office and UPS used parts of the building as a distribution hub, which ultimately saved it, and in December 2012 it reopened, after a meticulous restoration.

Photos of depot’s first life

“If you walk into the building right now, you are looking at things pretty much as they were when it opened in 1920,” says Diers, who remembers the building when it was busy — and starting to look tired — in the 1950s. His book is filled with photos of the Union Depot in its first life, populated by elegantly attired passengers, and details the social, historical and logistical role the building played in the development of the Twin Cities.

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The Union Depot will be busy again soon, when the building becomes St. Paul’s main hub for the Central Corridor light rail, Amtrak service, and bus, bike, and pedestrian traffic. It is a key part of the redevelopment of Lowertown, along with the new ballpark and expanded farmer’s market.

However, even though the building is already coming back to life, with Christo’s Restaurant serving Greek in the lobby and a constant parade of wedding parties and photographers, society has changed. Diers’ book captures an aspect of transportation that is hard to imagine today: travel itself as relaxation.

“The trains were a place to relax, read, converse, and take care of little things. They had bar cars, valets, ladies’ maids, barbers. But by the late 1950s, the trains were losing gobs of money, and we didn’t have time for that anymore. We have turned away from enjoying travel for its comfort and style, and focus only on speed,” he says. “The trains are going to come back, but it’s not going to come back the way it was.”

Next on his agenda: Roads and highways

Times change, and Diers appreciates many of those changes. In fact, his next book will be a history of Minnesota’s roads and highways — an exchange of rails for rubber tires that he is eager to research. But the highways will never have the allure the rails hold.

“I have a lot of nostalgia for those times and in some ways would have been happy for time to have stood still,” he says. “So I wanted to write this book for younger generations. My goodness, think of the number of people who have been born since the 1960s and have no memories of the rails! I hope this book rekindles some interest in bringing some of these things back.”