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Memory-filled Union Depot will be bustling again as multi-transit hub

A daughter reminisces about what the St. Paul landmark means to her family. The depot’s grand reopening is Saturday.

Mattson family
Courtesy of Karen Bruning
The Mattson family in 1942

Karen Bruning kept the picture all these years.

Taken on the steps of St. Paul’s Union Depot in 1942, the photo shows her father standing tall in his Navy lieutenant commander’s uniform; her mom with a corsage and a bow hat and the two young girls all dressed up in front, 6-year-old Karen smiling, 4-year-old Ruth gazing into the distance.

They were saying goodbye; Dr. Carl Mattson was taking the train to a naval base in Oakland. The family would go there to visit him before he shipped out to the fighting in the Philippines, But Mattson never returned to St. Paul; he was killed in a plane crash Jan 15, 1945, near Luzon.

That family picture at the depot — along with letters her dad wrote daily to their mom and weekly to his daughters — are how the girls have remembered their doctor dad.

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Bruning got an early look at downtown’s newly renovated depot recently, and she hopes to attend Saturday morning’s grand opening ceremony that will show off the $243 million project. She even had a picture taken of her, her husband and a daughter, in the very same spot beside the pillars.

Back in the 1940s, the Union Depot was a bustling place; boys and men heading off to war, folks coming and going to Chicago and Seattle and all points east and west. It was a lot like the mid-20th century Grand Central Station we see in the movies, or so they say.

The depot closed in 1971, the victim of macro-transportation changes. When was the last time you took the train to Spokane?

The elegant head house, with its pillared entry, remained open and housed restaurants and offices and, recently, condos. But the concourse and old lobby were relegated to storage for the nearby Post Office (also now closed) and opened only occasionally to the public, most notably for the 1999 exhibit of Titanic memorabilia.

Thankfully for history buffs, the complex was never razed, as happened in some cities.

And now, with a new emphasis on transit and the coming of the Central Corridor light rail line, the Union Depot has been restored to its former brilliance.

The big public kickoff celebration, with lots of speeches, is scheduled for Saturday at 9:30 a.m. A big plastic curtain will be dropped to reveal the newly renovated site. Other public activities are planned throughout the day.

The renovated Union Depot
The renovated Union Depot

With federal, state and local funding, the price tag includes $148 million for construction and about $95 million for acquisition costs.

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The neo-classical building was built in the early 1920s and has been restored, pretty faithfully, to its original condition. A frieze running across the top of the waiting room depicts the progress of transportation, starting with ox carts, but is frozen in time at the steam locomotive.

The goal is to turn the depot into a “multi-transit hub.” So, local buses will start arriving there Saturday.

Light-rail trains will arrive at a station in front of the depot when the Central Corridor begins running between downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis in 2014.

Jefferson Lines plans to use the depot for its regional buses in January, although Greyhound has not gotten on board, so to speak, and, at least for the near future, will run its buses out of the Minneapolis station.

Later next year, Amtrak will return its passenger rail service to the depot, after years in St. Paul’s Midway area.

There also will be a space in the depot for bicycle commuters to store their bikes and shower.

Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough, who also chairs the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority, sees three big roles for the depot:

  • As, most importantly, a transit hub.
  • As “St. Paul’s living room (a place for weddings and other events, and to show off to visitors).
  • As an economic development engine in the starting-to-thrive Lowertown area.

For Karen Bruning, who’s now 76 and lives in Woodbury, it also brings a touching sense of family memory and nostalgia.

Karen Bruning returns to Union Depot
Photo by Josh Collins
Karen Bruning returns to the renovated Union Depot with her family.

“I am so glad it ended up on the Historic Register and wasn’t torn down,” she said Wednesday. “It’s very bittersweet to go back.”

She has only hazy memories of that day 70 years ago when she said goodbye to her father.

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“I remember we were all together, and certainly didn’t expect what would happen,” she said.

She also remembers being at home, on St. Paul’s East Side, two-and-a-half years later.

“I still remember the doorbell ringing, it was at night, three naval officers were at the door. My mom knew immediately, and I remember her crying out.

“The official telegram and all the rest came after that.”

Even after the war, her family took took train trips from the Union Depot to Washington and Illinois to visit relatives.

“So I’ve got lots of good memories of the place, too,” she said. “It’s exciting that they’ve been able to bring it back.”