Union Station: 153-Years of History
written by My Local Utah feature writer Lynn Blamires,
with assistance from Union Station Curator Hope Eggett
No event had a more remarkable impact on the country than the one that occurred at Promontory Point in May of 1869. When the golden spike was driven, the wedding of the rails connecting America’s east and west coasts changed the country dramatically. Coast-to-coast travel could be made in a few days instead of months and for the first time in history communication between East and West Coast cities was instantaneous. This was made possible by the telegraph lines that were built alongside the railway route.
Union Pacific Was First to Reach Ogden
Subsequently, the effect in Utah and specifically, Ogden was remarkable. Union Pacific and Central Pacific were the two railroad companies competing in a race to reach Ogden, with Union Pacific winning by finishing the line on March 8, 1869
Vying to be Junction City
With the completion of this monumental project, the two companies needed a hub city to serve the two railroad operations. Four cities were in competition for this brass ring.
Promontory was too remote to serve the purpose. That left three cities vying to be a major transit hub for cross country travelers. Uinta was a second option, but their campaign died early. Corrine was a strong possibility, but as the last hell-on-wheels city that followed the railroad to its completion, the idea was sharply opposed by Utah’s religious pioneer population. Luckily the railroad went through Ogden and a temporary station was needed here even before a hub was established.
In the Meantime, a Station Was Built
On the banks of the Weber River, once a winter camp for the Shoshone Indian Tribes and near Fort Buenaventura, a two-story wooden structure was completed and dedicated on November 22, 1869. This new station was maintained by both railroad companies and stood for approximately 20 years.
In the Meantime, a Station Was Built
Meanwhile, Brigham Young, leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was determined to present Ogden as the prime location for the transit hub. With material provided to Young in lieu of cash due for labor on the railroad grade, a connecting road to Salt Lake City was completed in January of 1870. That year the Ogden station saw ten trains a day using this new station.
Under the contract, Union Pacific agreed to pay Young’s crews for grading through Echo Canyon and on into Nevada. The Union Pacific did not have the money when payment was needed, so Young settled for $600,000 (12.9 million dollars today) of material including rails and rolling stock.
With a connecting line to Salt Lake City and the start of new lines south of the city in 1871, citizens were encouraged to donate or sell land for the transit hub. A substantial 130-acre package was acquired to accommodate the building of the hub in Ogden. This donation helped sway the decision and Ogden City was awarded the designation of “Junction City,” with the wishes of the citizens that it was to remain a railway station.
A New Station Announced
The same year of the award, the Ogden City Council appropriated $5,000 for a new permanent structure to house the station. Local brick was used in the construction, which included a large clock tower. Completed in 1889, it accommodated travelers and had 33 hotel rooms, a restaurant, a barber shop, and other convenience stores.
However, it wasn’t long before complaints were lodged against the building. Ogden residents wanted something modern, this station was too dark, outdated, and small for the rail traffic that continued to increase. At the time, Union Pacific did not want to invest in a new building so the timber structure continued to stand until February 13, 1923.
A hot iron was left on a pair of trousers in one of the hotel rooms that day, starting a fire. The fire quickly spread to the rest of the building. The Ogden Fire Department responded quickly, but the building was heavily damaged.
To Ogden’s disappointment, Union Pacific announced plans to repair and not replace the building. While repairs began, business went on as usual with adjustments made to accommodate the workers.
The Fate of Frank Yentzer
Frank Yentzer, an employee of the Union Depot for four years arrived at work on February 26, to find that his cashier’s office had been temporarily moved outside on the train platform to make room for needed repairs.
The large clock tower received the most damage. Behind the clock tower and above the platform was a facade with two very large decorative stone cones each weighing 250 pounds. A crew was working on the roof when a strong gust of wind blew the roof support loose dislodging one of the stones, sending it crashing through the skylight of the temporary cashier’s office striking Frank and killing him instantly.
Public Outcry Helped Get a New Station
The public outcry over the incident was so strong that Union Pacific completely dismantled the old station and built a new one on the same site.
The new building was ready for dedication on November 22, 1924, 55 years to the day after the original wooden station was finished. Designed by a father-and-son team of architects – John and Donald Parkinson, the Spanish Colonial Revival design (with Italian Renaissance influences) of the new station has stood for 98 years. Decorative features include terra-cotta roof tiles, mosaic tile walls, brick grills above entry-level lintels, miniature jambs around the doors, carved archivolts at the entrance, and flushed imposts between arched openings. The two main entrance tympanums depict a blue sky filled with golden stars with a round relief of a bison.
In 1980, New York artist Edward Laning was commissioned to produce two 50’ x 12’ murals depicting the wedding of the rails. He painted them in New York and had them shipped to Ogden where he supervised their installation in the station – one placed at the north and the other at the south end of the station. The station and the murals remain today as a powerful legacy of the role Ogden played in railroad history.
Ogden City: The Crossroads of the American West
In the 1920s and onwards, rail travel was in its heyday and it was not anywhere more evident in the nation than it was in Ogden. Sixty passenger trains were coming through the Union Station every day.
At the peak of WWII, 120 trains a day including freight and passenger traffic rolled through the Ogden Union Station. An underground passageway was built under the 17 sets of tracks so that passengers could cross safely.
Rail traffic declined rapidly after the war as air travel and automobile travel increased. By 1950, the number of passenger trains passing through the Union Station was down to 20 per day.
The end of the 60s saw only two passenger trains per day. Tracks were removed, leaving just five tracks and two platforms to serve rail traffic. The Ogden Union Station was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on April 11, 1971, and ownership of the building was turned over to Ogden City in 1977.
In 1978, the state designated Union Station to be the home of the Utah State Railroad Museum where an impressive number of artifacts remain today. The station now houses the John M. Browning Firearms Museum, The Browning-Kimball Classic Car Museum, the Western Heritage and Utah Cowboy Museum, and a library with some notable archives.
The history of the Union Station is not over yet. Since last December it has existed for 153 years, and the best is yet to come.