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LA's Union Station at 75: A look back at the landmark's history

by Patt Morrison | Off-Ramp

KPCC's Patt Morrison at Union Station Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

It doesn't sound like much of a name — Union Station — but when the grand Spanish-deco train station opened 75 years ago in downtown L.A., it was a very big deal.

Since the end of the Civil War, nearly 200 railroad companies were formed in L.A. County. Only a handful lasted, of course, and those fought hammer and tongs to wipe out the competition.

For a few hours one day in 1887, railroads charged a dollar fare — one dollar — from Kansas to LA. They also fought in the newspapers, they fought in the courts, and sometimes they fought outside the law.

RELATED: View restored footage of Union Station's 1939 opening parade

Early one Sunday in 1888, while the courts were closed, a Southern Pacific crew started to lay track illicitly on the Irvine Ranch, but the ranch hands were already there, with guns at the ready.

Each line had its own train station, like the Central Station, and the Arcade Station, with gardens like a park. The Salt Lake line depot in Pasadena was designed in the Mission style, and the Santa Fe depot, in what is now downtown L.A.'s arts district, was a marvel of Moorish domes and turrets.

One result of this clash of competition, not surprisingly, were a lot of train versus trolley accidents, a lot of train versus car accidents, and a lot of dead Angelenos. In 1915, the city filed a complaint: It wanted one single train terminal.

It took 24 more years, a citywide vote and the complete destruction of L.A.'s original Chinatown for the big three railroads to make nice and make the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal come to pass.

May 3, 1939 — the day the Andrews Sisters recorded "Beer Barrel Polka" and Hungary approved anti-Jewish laws — a half-million Angelenos showed up to take a gander at the "mission moderne" style, the 52-foot-high ceilings, the array of antique railroad cars. Some of them on loan from director Cecil B. DeMille. 

Every first was duly noted: the first tickets sold — L.A. to Glendale, 28 cents — the first pickpocket arrested; the first little kid lost and found.

The restaurant could serve 800 people an hour, and in very short order, it had to, as World War II soon drafted Union Station into service. A hundred trains a day brought throngs of thousands — soldiers, sailors, defense workers, civilians. By the war's end, the passengers were refugees and returning troops.

Peace, as it turned out, was hell, at least for the passenger train business. Angelenos now wanted to ride in their own cars, not railway cars. 

The day before Union Station had opened, Los Angeles had voted down a bond measure for a municipal airport. Bad call. In 1939, only seven long distance travelers in a hundred went by air. Less than 20 years later, those numbers had flipped.

And by the time Union Station was named a national historic site in 1980, its glory days, like long-distance train travel's, were history.

Moviemakers, eager for authentic period locations, help keep Union Station going. It played a sinister hangout in "The Hustler," a police station in "Blade Runner" and a kangaroo courthouse in "The Dark Knight Rises."  

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Union Station had the noir chops to star in a 1950 crime thriller called "Union Station," with William Holden and Nancy Olson, who had just co-starred in a film featuring another LA landmark, "Sunset Boulevard."

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Just like in the movies, rescue can come in the last reel. For Union Station, it has, after a fashion. Riding the rails is back in vogue, and 75 years after glamorous, transcontinental passengers once boarded for New York, commuters now throng the concourses to take the Red Line or Metrolink — all aboard for Covina, Pomona and Rancho Cucamonga. 

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