Union Station and downtown Chicago

Union Station and downtown Chicago

Included here is historical information on Chicago's former intercity railroad terminals

Union Station is the last remaining passenger terminal of the six downtown terminals that once served intercity trains in Chicago.

The station building occupies a full city block just west of the downtown area, and is bordered by Clinton, Canal and Adams streets on the west, east and north respectively, and by Jackson Boulevard on the south. The photo at right was taken from the corner of Canal and Jackson.

The station is a busy place. All Amtrak trains use it, as well as commuter trains operated by Metra, the Chicago area's commuter train authority. Metra trains using the station travel on BNSF's ex-CB&Q "racetrack" to Aurora, and on the ex-Milwaukee Road lines--now owned by Metra--to Elgin and Fox Lake. Limited service is also provided on CN/IC's ex-GM&O line to Joliet, the Metra/Norfolk Southern route to Orland Park and CN/WC's ex-Soo main line to Antioch, Illinois. The station's main waiting room is a cavernous place that has been beautifully restored. Amtrak owns the station, and a few years ago attempted to raise some cash by selling "air rights" to a developer who wanted to add another eight or ten stories to the building. The project was foiled when preservationists took the issue to court and won. Recently, however, another plan that would add 18 stories has emerged. So the battle to keep the station looking as it does here continues.

Roosevelt Road overpass

If you walk south from the station on Canal Street about three-quarters of a mile, you'll come to Roosevelt Road which passes over the trackage south of the station. In the photo below, you are looking south. The Amtrak coach yards are on your left, the empty Metra coach yards on your right (empty because the photo was taken on a weekend when most trains were at their outlying terminals awaiting the Monday morning rush). In the distance the viaducts of the St. Charles Air Line and a now abandoned B&OCT route can be seen crossing the yards. The Air Line is a former Chicago & North Western connecting route now owned jointly by Union Pacific and Canadian National. Transfers from UP yards west of here use it to access the ex-Rock Island tracks at 16th Street and CN's ex-Illinois Central main line. At the left, beyond the Amtrak yard, are the moveable bridges carrying the Air Line and B&OCT across the south branch of the Chicago River (the B&OCT bridge is permanently in the raised position). In the far distance toward the right is the lift bridge just north of 21st Street Crossing.viewing area. If you're coming west on 18th Street, it can be reached by turning right at Stewart Avenue.

The Roosevelt overpass also offers a view to the north. It is not as panoramic, but makes for nice photos of trains arriving and departing the station. During rush hours on weekdays, an almost constant two-way parade of Amtrak and Metra trains can be observed.

In the old days, you could walk east on Roosevelt from this spot, cross the river, and see plenty more rail activity. First, you would cross over the tracks bringing trains of the B&O, Soo, Pere Marquette (later C&O) and Chicago Great Western to Grand Central Station. Walking further east, you would cross tracks coming south from LaSalle Street Station carrying trains of the New York Central, Rock Island and Nickel Plate. Walking east still further, you would pass over the Chicago & Western Indiana tracks coming south out of Dearborn Station. Passenger trains of the Santa Fe, Wabash, Erie, GTW, C&EI and Monon used these tracks. Walking east yet another few blocks, you would come to Illinois Central's Central Station at Roosevelt and Michigan Avenue.

Now, however, it is a much different scene. The tracks to Grand Central are gone (as is the station), and the C&WI tracks have been taken up as well. Central Station has also disappeared and only commuter platforms remain. Some of the LaSalle Street tracks are still in place, and are used by Metra's ex-Rock Island commuter trains to Joliet.

Lumber Street

If you walk further south on Canal from Roosevelt, you'll walk underneath the St. Charles Air Line, and at 16th Street you will have a nice bird's eye view of the Canal Street wye (for more, see Canal Street wye and Union Avenue). For a ground level view of the wye, head east at 17th Street and then north a half block.

If all that is too much walking for you, take any westbound street in downtown Chicago to Canal, or from the Dan Ryan expressway, exit at Roosevelt Road and head east to Canal. In either case, drive south on Canal and turn left at 17th Street to reach the viewing area.

If you're coming west on 18th Street, this site can be reached by turning right at Stewart Avenue. A block or two south of the Canal/18th intersection, you will arrive at Lumber Street. Head east on Lumber and cross the Amtrak main. The road curves north, and before passing underneath the 18th Street overpass you'll find a nice spot for observing trains to and from Union Station, as well as freight movements off the Canal Street wye. You can park alongside the tracks between the crossing and the 18th Street overpass. Just south of this location is the Amtrak lift bridge, and beyond it is 21st Street.

The photo at right looks north toward the downtown area. Shown here are the Amtrak engine servicing facilities, the St. Charles Air Line viaduct and, to the left, the south leg of the Canal Street wye.

For more on passenger operations in the area, see 21st Street and Canal Street wye and Union Avenue. See also 16th Street Crossing at South Side (various).

Chicago's Historic Passenger Stations

Before Amtrak was created, there were six passenger terminals in downtown Chicago. Only two of the terminal buildings remain standing, but passenger service can still be found at four of the locations. Listed in roughly east-to-west order.

Central Station

  • Location: Roosevelt Road and Michigan Avenue.
  • Railroads:
    • Illinois Central
    • New York Central - Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis (Big Four)
    • New York Central - Michigan Central (until 1956)
    • Chicago, South Shore & South Bend
  • In addition to intercity trains, the Illinois Central operated electric commuter trains on three routes. Trains to Florida also used the station, running on IC tracks as far as Birmingham, Alabama. Illinois Central owned the station.

  • Disposition: A few intercity trains used the station for about a year after Amtrak's creation in 1971. However, the station was closed in 1972 and the trains moved to Union Station. The station building was demolished in 1974, but the commuter platforms are still in place, used by both Metra Electric (who inherited the IC commuter lines) and the South Shore.

Dearborn Station

  • Location: Dearborn and Polk Streets.
  • Railroads:

    • Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe
    • Erie
    • Grand Trunk
    • Chicago & Eastern Illinois
    • Monon
    • Chicago & Western Indiana
    • Wabash

The C&WI was the station's terminal line. The C&WI officially owned the station, but it in turn was jointly owned by the Wabash, Erie, Grand Trunk, C&EI and Monon. The Santa Fe, who scheduled the greatest number of trains here, was a tenant. The C&EI operated several Florida trains in conjunction with southern railroads.
  • Disposition: The station was closed in 1971 when Amtrak began operation. For a few years, Norfolk & Western's ex-Wabash commuter trains continued to operate from the station's annex (shown to the left of station in the above photo). They were eventually moved to Union Station. The train shed and tracks were gone by 1977, but the building has been restored and is now a shopping mall.

LaSalle Street Station

  • Location: LaSalle and Van Buren Streets.
  • Railroads:
    • New York Central - Lake Shore & Michigan Southern
    • New York Central - Michigan Central (after 1956)
    • Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific
    • New York, Chicago & St. Louis (Nickel Plate)
  • The Rock Island offered commuter service through Blue Island to Joliet. Together with Southern Pacific, the Rock Island also operated trains to the west coast. New York Central and Rock Island jointly owned the station. The Nickel Plate was a tenant.
  • Disposition: After the Penn Central merger, New York Central trains were moved to Union Station. The station building and trainshed were torn down in 1981 and replaced with an office tower. Operation of the Rock Island commuter trains was transferred to Metra and they now use a new facility at the rear of the tower.

Grand Central Station

  • Location: Harrison and Wells Streets.
  • Railroads:
    • Baltimore & Ohio
    • Soo Line
    • Pere Marquette (Chesapeake & Ohio after 1947)
    • Chicago Great Western
  • Baltimore & Ohio owned the station. The abandoned B&OCT route that paralleled the St. Charles Air Line was used to access the station. Soo Line trains were moved to Central Station in the mid 1960's.
  • Disposition: The station was closed in 1969, and the few remaining trains were transferred to North Western Station. The station building, trainshed and all of the tracks are gone now. Both the building's exterior and interior were widely regarded as architectural classics. However, preservation efforts were unsuccessful and the building was razed in 1971.

North Western Station (a.k.a. Madison Street Station)

  • Location: Madison and Canal Streets.
  • Railroad:
    • Baltimore & Ohio / Chesapeake & Ohio (1969-1971)
    • Chicago & North Western
    • For many years, C&NW jointly operated west coast trains with Union Pacific and Southern Pacific. In addition to intercity trains, C&NW operated an extensive commuter service on its North, Northwest and West lines. Trains that had used Grand Central Station were moved here in 1969 and lasted until Amtrak began operation. C&NW owned the station.
    • Disposition: Intercity trains were discontinued with the creation of Amtrak in 1971. The station building was demolished in 1984 and replaced with an office tower. Metra commuter trains now operate out of a station, known as the Richard B. Ogilvie Transportation Center, occupying the second floor of the tower.

    Union Station

    • Location: Adams and Canal Streets.
    • Railroads:
      • Pennsylvania
      • Chicago, Burlington & Quincy
      • Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific (Milwaukee Road)
      • Chicago & Alton (Alton Road, Gulf, Mobile & Ohio after 1945)

    • The Burlington handled trains of the Northern Pacific and Great Northern, and operated their famous Zephyr to the Bay Area in conjunction with Rio Grande and Western Pacific. It also had an extensive commuter operation, as did the Milwaukee. The Pennsy and the Alton operated limited commuter service. Together with southern roads, the Pennsy also offered service to Florida. The station was owned by the Union Station Company, in which Pennsy, Burlington and Milwaukee each had an interest.
    • Disposition: The building and tracks are still quite active — the only intercity terminal left in Chicago. Originally, the station consisted of two structures (see photo at right), but the building atop the station's main concourse was demolished in 1969, leaving just the main building pictured at the top of this page. All Amtrak trains use the station. Metra commuter trains on the Burlington, Milwaukee and Alton lines also use it. Commuter trains to Orland Park were moved here from an annex next to Dearborn Station in 1976. In 1996 commuter service from Antioch, Illinois, commenced using Canadian National's ex-Wisconsin Central tracks to Franklin Park, and ex-Milwaukee trackage from there to the station.

    Other Downtown Stations

    In addition to the commuter platforms at Roosevelt Road (the Central Station site), Metra Electric's ex-IC trains and the South Shore use two stations to the north: Van Buren Street Station (at Michigan Avenue), and the Randolph Street terminal (now known as "Millennium Station") at Michigan and Randolph.

    Two interurban lines also had stations in the downtown area. The Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee used the elevated rapid transit tracks to reach their terminal at Roosevelt Road, and the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin had a terminal on Wells Street. The CNS&M ended service in 1963, and the CA&E was abandoned in the late 1950s.

    Photo credits

    Central Station: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Buildings Survey, ILL, 16-CHIG, 99A-1.
    Dearborn Station: University of Illinois-Chicago Image Base. Photo courtesy of Carroll W. Westfall.
    LaSalle Street Station: Photo courtesy of Dan Minkus.
    Grand Central Station: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Buildings Survey, ILL, 16-CHIG, 18-1.
    North Western Station: Photo by Bob Baker, reprinted with his permission.
    Union Station: Photo courtesy of Robert Surman of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White Corporation.


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