Union Station Is Born: The Story And Photos From The Citywide Fight Over A Central Rail Terminal

Happy Birthday to Los Angeles’ primary passenger rail facility, which celebrates its anniversary today.

Union Station is not only a beautiful neighbor of ours here at Metro’s Gateway Headquarters, but a part of the family now as well.

Opening “days” crowds at the inauguration of Los Angeles’ Union Station, May 3-5, 1939. More than half a million people attended the parade alone (Courtesy of USC Digital Library. Click for more information)

The anniversary of its opening and its recent acquisition as a Metro property and facility makes this a good time to reflect on the history of “The Last Of The Great Railway Stations.”

However, the origin of Union Station is a long and complex story.

It stretches back more than a quarter of a century before its opening on May 3, 1939.  (Famed transportation engineer Bion J. Arnold, “father of the third rail,” first recommended a union station at Los Angeles’ Plaza as part of the earliest known transit study for the city in 1911).

Many facets of that story impacted Los Angeles as we know it today, including the decisive events determining whether Los Angeles would create a network of elevated rail lines connecting three major railroad stations in the downtown area.

Some of this history is preserved in the University of Southern California Libraries Special Collections’ Union Station collection.

It includes resources related to the planning and construction of the historic landmark, including correspondence, legal files, blueprints, maps, and planning documents — as well as digital images, some of which are reproduced here.

Another large collection of resources is located at The Getty Research Institute.  It contains over 6,500 photograph negatives, architectural drawings, sketches and other images, including Parkinson’s original architectural drawings, dated between 1932 – 1939.

Finally, a large number of documents are housed in Union Station itself.  We’ve barely begun the process of assessing the extent of what is housed on site, let alone its subject scope.

We are in the process of reviewing documents at all three institutions, and expect to provide an overview here in the future.

The entire story cannot be told here.  The removal of Los Angeles’ Chinatown, the legal dispute that spiraled all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and other aspects of the city’s rail history must be left for another time.

For this anniversary, we want to just take a look back at how Union Station came to be.

1924 map depicting one proposed Union Station site, adjacent to Los Angeles River between 7th and 9th Streets (Courtesy of USC Digital Library. Click for more information)

Bill Bradley authored the seminal work on the terminal.  In The Last Of The Great Stations: 40 Years Of The Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal, he writes:

In July, 1915, several city agencies seeking the removal of grade crossings and improved transportation facilities filed a complaint with the California Railroad Commission against the Santa Fe, Los Angeles and Salt Lake (later the Union Pacific) and Southern Pacific Railroads.

For the first time, the issue of consolidation of certain duplicate facilities — including terminals — arose.

On June 11, 1917, the beginnings of a long fight resulted in the California Supreme Court deciding that the Commission had jurisdiction over grade crossing in Los Angeles.

The next ten years were an odyssey of planning, proposals and pitched battles between various factions of the city’s political, business and media forces.

Scott L. Bottles’ Los Angeles And The Automobile: The Making Of The Modern City contains an entire chapter dedicated to “The Union Station Controversy,” offering a detailed overview of the conficts that eventually led to the planning and construction of the facility we know today.

He explains:

For ten years, the City Council had been trying to force the three railroads servicing Los Angeles to construct a union passenger station similar to those found in eastern cities.

Public officials felt that the city needed such a station both to expand the inadequate passenger terminals and to provide for future growth.

The carriers resisted these efforts largely because a union station would allow competing lines to enter the city by making important rights-of-way and station facilities available to newcomers.

In an attempt to stave off the council’s suit before the state Railroad Commission, the railroads offered an alternative plan that would link their existing stations together through a series of elevated railroad tracks.

As a further inducement, the railroads offered to share these elevateds with the PE [Pacific Electric].

This would have removed hundreds of PE interurban trains from the city’s streets each day.

The railways hoped this offer would convince the City Council to drop its petition before the Railroad Commission calling for a union station.

Thus, what began in 1916 as an attempt to improve the city’s railroad stations had evolved by 1926 into a major controversy over the nature of the city’s public-transit system.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles voters had recently approved a City Charter amendment that required the city to adopt a master rapid transit plan before the City Council could permit any elevated or subway franchises.

Blueprint map from J.M. Terrass’ 1922 PhD. dissertation, depicting overhead Pacific Electric lines serving a union station in Los Angeles (Click for more information)

The Kelker-De Leuw report, formally known as Report And Recommendations On A Comprehensive Rapid Transit Plan For The City And County Of Los Angeles (219p. PDF), submitted to the Los Angeles City Council in April, 1925, presented a general design for a comprehensive metropolitan transportation system.

It argued for segregating different modes of transportation to relieve the rapidly increasing congestion in 1920s Los Angeles.

By the 1920s, traffic in downtown was horrible, and public transportation in the central business district grew increasingly less desirable since streetcars were at-grade and didn’t help people get around any faster.

Bradley’s work depicts the variety of sites and designs which were proposed for a union station during the decades before the final design was ever selected.

They include Main Street with a “new” Plaza adjoining it, a terminal modeled on Union Station in Washington, D.C., and a forward-thinking proposal which placed a landing strip on top of the tracks to facilitate “air mail.”

On the other hand, the jointly proposed plan of the three major railroads played up the advantage of streetcars separated from automobile traffic and Pacific Electric trains entering directly into the Southern Pacific station.  Pacific Electric trains would also use a terminal across the Los Angeles River, facing the Santa Fe railroad station.

These proposals would provide easier access for local transit riders to connect with long-distance railroads.

However, proponents and opponents quickly lined up on both sides of the issue.

The Los Angeles Times had been a long-standing advocate of a union station and lobbied for the terminal.  It described the railroads’ proposal as “four miles of hideous, clattering, dusty, dirty, dangerous, street-darkening overhead trestles.”

That network of overhead track is visible on this map that accompanied the 1925 Kelker-De Leuw report (click to enlarge), which supported the elevated rail lines connecting separate terminals for each railroad.

1925 Kelker-De Leuw City County Comprehensive Rapid Transit Plan Map, Urban Area (Click to enlarge and for more information)

Lines in lighter red show elevated rail lines radiating out from downtown Los Angeles down Pico Boulevard in the west, south along Main and other streets, above Whittier Boulevard to the east, and north of downtown as well, along with additional proposed overhead lines for future consideration.

The Los Angeles Examiner also came out in favor of elevated tracks and against the union station proposal.

Bottles writes that:

“Without specifically identifying anyone, the Examiner alluded to the fact that certain supporters of the union station held extensive real estate tracts in the area of the Plaza. The charge was directed at Harry Chandler, publisher of the Times, who repeatedly denied its implications.”

Both the mayor and Board of Public Utilities commissioners came out in favor of the railroads’ proposal, which the Times furiously attacked, accusing Southern Pacific of using its vast financial power to control the city’s other newspapers and the “Boss-controlled” city administration by retaining city officials on its payroll.

An independent advisory committee appointed by Los Angeles Mayor George E. Cryer also favored the railroad proposal because it would provide relief more quickly.

The state Railroad Commission held hearings on the union station controversy, but that didn’t stop each side from hardening its position.

A Citizens’ Rapid Transit Committee and an Anti-Elevated League were formed to drum up support on either side of the issue.

The Los Angeles Examiner used crude racial images in frightening the public out of voting for a union station “between Chinatown and Little Mexico.”

The Los Angeles Times responded by running a series of sensational front-page articles about the evils of elevated lines in eastern cities.

Opening “Days” crowds, May 3-5, 1939 (Courtesy of USC Digital Library. Click for more information)

On one side, the railroads and four of the city’s six daily newspapers endorsed the “Central Station” site and elevated rail lines.

On the other side stood the City of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Times.

In 1926, Los Angeles’ citizenry marked their ballots with their choice between a vast network of elevated railways or a union station to consolidate the different railroad terminals.

With an issue before them that had polarized the city like no other in its history, voters approved the union station concept 61.1% to 38.7%.

Its location, which was a separate ballot measure, was approved for the Plaza much more narrowly: 51.1% to 48.9%.

The 60% voter turnout was the largest to date for a city election in Los Angeles despite the fact that no candidates appeared on the ballot.

Bottles concludes:

When the electorate finally voted down the railroads’ proposal, the city was left with the same problems it had before.  Downtown traffic was increasing, streetcars and interurbans stall in the congestion, and the city lacked a plan for improving its public-transit facilities…

The [Pacific Electric], on the other hand, could not afford to build a subway  system and Angelenos showed no desire to assess themselves to subsidize a private corporation — especially one that had antagonized them in the past.

Thus, Los Angeles society reached an impasse in its attempts to address the issue of improving its public-transit system.

The Kelker-De Leuw report was now tainted because the railroads had adopted it and because it favored elevated railways…

Without a strong consensus favoring public action, the city’s denizens did little to save mass transit in Los Angeles.

But the inauguration of the terminal was cause for celebration.

By the time Union Station opened in 1939, the public embraced the idea of a central terminal wholeheartedly.

Over 500,000 people turned out for the Opening Day parade.  (The city’s 1940 census population was just over 1,500,000).

A 6,000 seat ampitheatre was set up to stage “Romance Of The Rails,” an elaborate production depicting the history of Southern California and its development through transportation.

Hollywood luminaries gathered at the brand new terminal for the premiere of “Union Pacific.”  It included a special train launching a 10,000 mile trip across the U.S. to promote the new feature-length film.

In a city full of instantly recognizable architecture, it stands out as an iconic symbol of Los Angeles.

When the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Project Administration Guide To Los Angeles was reissued earlier this year, the University of California Press chose an image of Union Station to grace its cover.

However, just two years after opening, World War II was underway.  When it ended, the combination of affordable jet travel and a national interstate system left the nation’s great rail stations, including this one, in the shadows of their former grandeur.

Special thanks to the USC Library Special Collections staff for permission to use these historic photos from their online Digital Library.

Additionally, historic images of early Union Station can be viewed in this film excerpt, which was prepared in anticipation of Metrolink’s service to Union Station beginning in 1992:

Note: This post was written in 2011.  It has since been edited to include the only known video footage of Opening day for Union Station, which was discovered by Metro’s Research Library & Archive and digitized with the help of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences Margaret Herrick Research Library.