The St Paul Union Depot Company was incorporated in 1879 by the railroads serving St. Paul. The company was created for the purpose of building and operating a single, jointly owned railroad passenger terminal. The first depot opened in 1881. It was destroyed by fire in 1884 and then rebuilt. The depot received an addition in a 1900-1901 remodeling project.
On October 3, 1913, fire struck again. The fire sped up plans for construction of a new depot to better provide for the city’s growing passenger traffic. The nine owning railroads: the Great Northern, Northern Pacific, Rock Island, Minneapolis & St. Louis, Milwaukee, Omaha, Burlington, Soo Line, and Chicago Great Western, agreed on a 15 million dollar price tag after a long dispute over the size and cost of the new depot. Charles Frost, who designed the Great Northern and Milwaukee Road depots in Minneapolis and was a nationally-known designer of railroad stations, was chosen as the architect. George J Grant Construction Company and Foley Brothers were the principal contractors. Work began in 1917.
The new depot went up on the site of the old. During construction, a neighboring warehouse became a temporary ticket office and waiting room. Trains continued to arrive and depart as they had before the fire. As work progressed, all tracks and approaches to the new depot were elevated above the original site. The old tracks on the lower level removed. The entire project took nearly nine years to complete.
The business and ticket lobby opened on March 1, 1920. The concourse and the waiting room were completed and opened in phases between 1922 and 1924. A roundhouse for servicing locomotives was located southeast of the depot complex. A two-story yard office building served as an operations center for train directors. Train directors supervised the movement of trains in and out of the depot, much like today’s airport ground controllers.
For the passengers, the business lobby, concourse and waiting room offered all the comforts of a big city passenger station. There was a ticket office and baggage check, a Western Union office and telephone room, a Travelers Aid office, barber shop, drug store, coffee shop, dining room, and a newsstand. Rest rooms had bathing facilities for the tired traveler. Above the business lobby there were offices for the Union Depot Company and a small emergency hospital. A recreation center, featuring a twelve-lane bowling alley, opened on the second floor of the concourse in 1941. That same year, the Twin City Model Railroad Club added a model train layout adjoining the ticket lobby In 1954, the William Crooks, Minnesota’s first steam locomotive, was put on display across from the ticket office.
After New York and Chicago, St Paul Union Depot was the largest railway mail transfer facility in the country. The depot was also headquarters for the tenth division of the US Railway Mail Service. In the 1940s and 50s 40,000 to 50,000 mail bags per day, along with thousands of parcel post packages and railway express, moved through the depot. Some 400 people worked at loading and unloading cars and sorting mail pouches and packages.
The number of trains using the depot declined in the 1920s and 1930s. The number briefly rose during World War II, only to slide again as railroads stopped costly passenger trains in response to automobile and airline competition. Amtrak took over intercity passenger service on May 1, 1971. They moved the remaining trains to the Great Northern Station in Minneapolis. The depot closed. All the tracks and boarding platforms were removed. The concourse and waiting room sold to the US Postal Service in 1978. A private developer purchased the business lobby in 1981. In 2012, the Ramsey County Rail Authority owns the property and is transforming it into a regional transportation center.
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