100-Year Celebration: Union Passenger Station
The month of March marks the 100th Anniversary of Union Passenger Station, a building that has stood tall in the City's history.
Millions of travelers, war heroes and dignitaries have come and gone riding the rails coast to coast. They have all left, and continue to leave, a mark on the history of transportation, economic growth and commerce in El Paso.
Union Passenger Station, also referred to as Union Depot by many, has represented El Paso's connection to the rest of the world for the past 100 years. It supported the establishment of trade between the United States and Mexico as the first International Train Station in the United States. The Southern Pacific, Santa Fe, Galveston, Harrisburg, San Antonio, Texas, Pacific and the Mexico Central Railroads all moved in and out of the City.
But in 1902, Union Depot was just an image on paper. The seven railroads that ran through the City each had different stations, all of them in poor condition. People had to change railroad lines, a difficult task for many who had to transfer from one station to another. Many El Pasoans believed one central depot was needed, although some businessmen opposed the idea. They supported the multiple depots believing they offered passengers the time to shop and to see the city.
In 1899, C. B. Rogers started a building fund for a new station that would bring the different rail lines to one location. In 1901, the Terminal Association was formed to create the Union Depot Corporation who proposed the project to City Council. And, on Feb. 7, 1903, architect Daniel H. Burnham of Chicago and contractor Frank Powers of El Paso were awarded the contract for building the Union Depot.
Two and a half years later, the Union Passenger Station was completed, built in a neo-classical style in red brick. Its most outstanding feature was a bell tower with a spire standing six stories high on the building's northeast corner. Inside the depot several smooth-surfaced center columns offered contrast to the scored effect of the corner columns. A gallery with a simple balustrade encircled the second floor space. The cost of the new train station was approximately $260,000.
The ribbon cutting ceremony was celebrated on February 6, 1906 and the doors were officially opened for business on March 1, 1906, welcoming 22 trains per day during its first year of operation.
History or tale, it is said that Pancho Villa used the bell tower of Union Depot as a lookout during an attack on Juárez during the Mexican Revolution. Today the tower is a reminder that the railroad industry shaped the future of El Paso. Once a lively social center of El Paso, the historic Union Depot stands as a quiet sentinel over downtown.
One attraction of the depot was the establishment of the Harvey House, one of the city's finer restaurants.
In 1940, the Women's Department of the Chamber of Commerce began a campaign to remodel the exterior of the depot to a more Southwestern look. The great steeple and the canopy over the entrance on the north side were removed, and a small clock tower installed. The red brick was covered with stucco and cream-colored paint and the iron fence was replaced with an adobe wall.
With the end of World War II, railroads around the nation had been losing passengers. Travelers began depending on automobiles and airplanes. Union Depot was no exception. By the early 1970s, traffic had declined drastically and so had the upkeep of the building. The operations were ceased on Feb. 18, 1974. Amtrak was the only company operating under lease to the owners of the depot; the building went up for sale in 1975.
Eventually, the City of El Paso purchased the depot for $925,000. The city moved its mass transit system, Sun Metro, into the building. The old depot would once again become useful.
In 1982 renovations began on the Depot to restore it to its former glory of 1906. The light paint was removed to reveal the original red brick, and marble was imported from Italy to replace the deteriorated columns just as before. The steeple was reconstructed and returned to its rightful place.
Today, Sun Metro leases space to Amtrak which provides passengers with three destinations: Los Angeles, San Antonio and New Orleans. Community groups occasionally rent space for concerts, art and craft fairs and other events. Union Depot is open to visitors during Amtrak hours.
The El Paso Union Passenger Station was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on March 4, 1975.
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