Tacoma’s Union Station is a study in wild rides. When finished in 1911 it was almost too late to the party. The glory days of the transcontinental railroad were over and the automobile was about to plunge America’s great train stations into obsolescence. It did enjoy heydays during the early years of Camp Lewis and the World Wars when thousands of soldiers passed thru its soaring rotunda. Fifty years after its opening though, Union Station was the saddest building in the city and travelers seated under the dome were as likely to be looking up warily at broken plaster and roof drips as they were marveling at the architecture. But when the last train left in 1984 and the station was surrendered to the pigeons, vandals and phantoms an astonishing thing happened. Even though the City Engineer and a few City Council members wrote the building off its fate and future spurred the most coherent and popular period of rebirth in Tacoma’s History. Union Station’s near death adventure 20 years ago was indeed the last lap in a wild ride and standing in our city’s most important room today, it still take your breath away.
1965 was an earthshaking year for downtown Tacoma, both in a literal sense when an April quake of 6.6 rocked the city and in an economic sense when the Tacoma Mall opened in October. No building showed the withering effects more than Union Station, where Amtrak was struggling to find passengers and freight let alone the budget to patch the aging Beaux Arts copper roof. A few desperate schemes to revive the grand old station emerged, notably a quiotic “Depot Galleria” plan in 1975 that added new buildings and tarted up the 1911 depot as an 1890’s Victorian theme market. But by the early 1980’s I-705 was being planned where the east side concourse reached out to the tracks and Amtrak was building a bland little stop out on Portland Avenue. For more than a century Union Station has written Tacoma’s story, thru good and bad it is our diary in a steady hand, shaken and crumbled a bit at times but still here like the city itself.
One last image of Union Station before we move on to other subjects. The exquisite corpse portion of this image comes from Historic American Building Survey (HABS) photographs made of the rotunda in 1988 and it captures the grand empty station at its lowest ebb. Standing in the room then, there was only the papery sound of pigeon wings lost in the broken glass and plaster and the faint echo of a city that seemed to be pulling away like a ghost train. The once busiest room in Tacoma was as obsolete as a telegraph key. It was Morse Code for forgotten and would have been in most cities.