When Jefferson Davis -- yes, that Jeff Davis -- led the pre-Civil War survey for a southern route of the transcontinental railroad, Phoenix didn't exist. The Salt River Valley still lay in its centuries of enchanted slumber surrounded by wilderness. So the line was set in an arc north and west out of Tucson toward California. This necessitated the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico -- otherwise, today's border would be at the Gila River. But it meant that what became the nation's fifth most populous city would end up without a mainline railroad. Even when the Southern Pacific was built across Arizona in the 1880s, Phoenix was a mere hamlet. It was served by a spur from Maricopa.
By 1910, Phoenix had more than 11,000 people and was fast overtaking Tucson as the territory's largest town -- and with the Salt River harnessed by Roosevelt Dam it would become the center of huge agricultural production. The SP remedied this by building a northern main line up from Picacho Junction through Phoenix and west to where it joined the southern main just east of Yuma. It was a matter of competitive urgency, because the rival Santa Fe railroad had built a line to Phoenix (the Peavine) from its northern Arizona main at Ash Fork. The SP's line was opened in 1926 and waiting for it was the grandest building in this city of 48,000: the lovely mission-revival style Union Station.
It's still there, at 4th Avenue and Harrison Street, the best human-made reminder I know of that Phoenix indeed has history and soul. Because of terrible short-sightedness of state leaders, it hasn't been served by Amtrak trains since the 1990s. It holds telecommunications equipment for Sprint, at once a horrid missed opportunity to create something great downtown yet it also probably the only reason it hasn't been torn down for something today's Phoenicians would consider majestic, such as a jail parking lot. I was fortunate enough to see it at the end of its glory days.
Both the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific had wooden depots around Central and Harrison. They agreed to build a station more fitting the capital of the new state together. Union Station opened in 1923. As originally built, the station had both an interior waiting room and an open-air waiting room in its east wing -- this was before air conditioning. SP shifted all but one of its transcontinental trains to the northern line as Phoenix drew tourists and business travelers. During the war, the station was overflowing with activity as Phoenix was a center of training by the Army Air Corps. (Union Station in this era figures prominently in my short story in Phoenix Noir). In the era before easy air travel and Interstate highways, huge numbers of Americans traveled by train. So there were also depots in every town of the Valley, including a lovely Monterey revival station in Mesa. In addition to the comings and goings, the stations often had the Western Union office. And the trains carried express and mail, a huge business. In each of these places, the depot was the center of activity, and none more so that at Union Station.
The main waiting room after a restoration in the 1990s. It once had a lunch counter and news stand on the far wall.
By the time I came along, what had once been the world's finest passenger rail system was in its death spiral. Yet I fell in love with the building at first sight (I was probably three). From the front, it had Union Station spelled out in letters curved over the center arch (still there) and a sign below saying: Southern Pacific -- Santa Fe (now gone). Trackside, I vividly remember turning back to look at the entry arches and learning for the first time that my city was spelled with a "Ph." Throughout the 1960s, thanks to my indulgent mother and grandmother, I spent as much time as I could there. Even when I couldn't be there, I enjoyed calling the recorded station line, listing the day's arrivals and departures.
The trackside face of the station. In its glory days it was the gateway to Phoenix.
The depot was showing signs of its neglect, in faded paint and other disrepair. The SP hated passengers and was trying hard to kill its passenger trains. Still, it was an amazing building full of excitement and history. The old open-air waiting room had been closed off as a storage area -- an architectural loss. But if you walked around that way, you saw the train dispatchers' office with old-style phones on accordion extenders from the wall. "Trainmen Only" was etched on the door, probably from thirty years earlier. Up front, the shady area inside the depot's opening arches held an office on either side. I recall one was an SP travel agent, and the other was a barber. The waiting room was large (to a kid) and airy, with the ticket booth on the west wall and a sundries shop and snack bar on the east. The benches were wooden, comfy, substantial. It was still busy at train time, and all sorts of people wandered through. The air smelled of cigars, cigarettes and the sweet scent of locomotives. Train announcements were made over a P.A. system. Through the three sets of double doors lay the tracks, as well as the schedule board for trains.
Trains there were, even at this late stage. SP ran two of its premier transcontinental trains every day: the Sunset Limited between Los Angeles and New Orleans, and the Golden State between LA and Chicago. In addition, there was a long mail train with one or two coaches at the end, the remnant of another crack train, the Imperial. Santa Fe originated a train in Phoenix that connected every day with its legendary mainline trains in northern Arizona. For much of the day the station was busy, especially in the early 1960s before the Sunset and Golden State were combined. Pullman sleeping cars from Chicago and points east were set out and picked up during winter. Mail and express cars were switched into position to be picked up, or shuttled to be unloaded. The entire long west wing of the station was occupied by the U.S. Mail and the Railway Express Agency. Their trucks were packed into the lot on the north side of the building. The transcontinental trains were long -- 14 gleaming streamlined cars in the early '60s, and sometimes still led by diesels painted in the SP's famed Daylight paint scheme. Passengers getting off were greeted by grass, hedges, flowers and palm trees, especially on the east end of the station area. Of course it wasn't a grand gateway to the city -- that idea had been neglected. But in the early and middle 1960s, downtown was still alive, diverse and a major shopping district. And the oh-so-cool Deuce was nearby, a siren for any kid who wanted to sample nonthreatening edge and danger.
Even in the 1960s, Union Station anchored one of the city's most vibrant and important economic hubs. The Valley sent huge trainloads of produce and vegetables back east. Produce handling and shipping operations, as well as distribution businesses and farm-related supply and manufacturing businesses, were spread along the tracks for blocks in both directions. Tracks ran along Madison and Jackson streets, so refrigerator and box cars could be shunted into place at the warehouses. The Santa Fe freight station sat amid another tangle of tracks around 6th Avenue with a blue neon "Santa Fe" sign on the roof -- a remnant of the building is incorporated into a county parking garage today. Trains and trucks vied for position during the busy weekdays. The two railroads also interchanged freight cars here. South of the passenger-track grid, the SP had a bypass track for its freight trains (now ripped out) and this line was busy. Sadly, I can find no photos of this amazing show. But you can get a sense of its size by driving over the overpasses at 7th avenue or street -- all that space beneath these large spans was occupied by railroad tracks. I still have magic memories of crossing the 20 or so tracks on 7th Avenue before the overpass -- we were sure to be stopped by a train. The railroads themselves were big "economic engines" as a later age would put it, employing thousands of union workers making excellent wages and operating rail yards and maintenance facilities.
I had a chance to ride every train, if only to Tucson and back. The little Santa Fe train that departed promptly at 4 p.m. every day held special appeal. Our class from Kenilworth School rode from Union Station to the depot in Glendale as a field trip. But by that time, I was an old hand. I was around six when an engineer let me in the locomotive cab -- my grandmother was the wife and mother of railroaders and was accorded special treatment always. She and I took the train several times north. Although we were too poor to get on one of the flashy streamliners that ran between Chicago and LA through Flagstaff and -- by the 1960s -- Williams Junction, the Santa Fe treated us first class. In the busy season, the train had a sleeping car and a diner, with service Amtrak can't match. At every stop north, whole little towns seemed to turn out for the train -- I especially remember the crowd at tiny Skull Valley. All around us was the empty glory of unpopulated Arizona. We would change to another Santa Fe train at Williams Junction that headed on a branch line north. From the window of that train I got my first glimpse of the Grand Canyon. (Theodore Roosevelt: "Leave it as it is. You can not improve it. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it. What you can do is keep it for your children, your children's children, and for all who come after you...").
Alas, the moment was short and I was too young to take it all in, much less with a camera. Where it had once been possible to reach every major city by train from Phoenix in 1960 -- the station agents would give me timetables of far-away railroads -- by the end of the decade the "train offs" had started to kill the system. A particularly short-sighted act by the federal government was to shut down almost all mail contracts with the railroad companies, eliminating revenue that was essential to keep the passenger trains going. Santa Fe's train 42 and 47, informally dubbed the "Hassayampa Flier," was shut down in the late 1960s. I remember going to see the Sunset around 1970, before Amtrak, and it consisted of one battered, paint-flaked old locomotive and one coach running three times a week. This had once been among the finest trains in the world. Station hours were steadily reduced. The phone recording went away. (Amtrak continued to serve Phoenix at Union Station until 1996.)
The east end of Union Station, circa 1978, and the Sunset Limited. Note even in the Amtrak era the two railroads that built the station have their names displayed. The closest wing was once an open air waiting room.
Such are one kid's memories. When I die, so will they. I suspect only a tiny minority of my contemporaries who grew up in Phoenix ever had these experiences. Their kicks came from sitting in the river bed at 40th Street on the edge of Sky Harbor and watching the jets land overhead.
Union Station represents bigger things, too: The relentless destruction of railroads by national policy of subsidizing cars, trucks and airlines. The loss of more scalable economies, represented by the "less than carload" freight carried to every city by rail and delivered to freight stations. The chance to build a more balanced transportation system for a future of higher energy prices, worsening urban congestion and climate change, rather than our reliance on trucks, cars and planes. The killing of agriculture, the oldest human activity in the Salt River Valley and a valuable source of exports and economic diversification. Arizona's self-destructiveness is not preserving the northern main line and Amtrak service to Phoenix or using Union Station for commuter service (also a foolish, bean-counter decision by SP/Union Pacific, resulting in terrible service problems in the 2000s). The misbegotten nature of Amtrak when just subsidizing the private railroads and maintaining the mail contracts most likely would have yielded a better system. The Santa Fe never allowed Amtrak to use its train names (such as the Super Chief) because the service was not up to Santa Fe standards. Santa Fe brass later reflected that they might have done better just keeping their passenger trains going. Now America barely has a train system outside some corridors, including California, and it lags the advanced world in the sustainable future: high-speed rail. And Union Station, like the Westward Ho, once the grandest hotel in town, represents Phoenix's tragic inability to capitalize on its historic icons.
Still, the building remains. Now it sits amid blight, the hedges and flowers long gone, most of the palm trees dead, the network of tracks mostly ripped out and sold as scrap so China can build its economy. It sits dwarfed by the large, dull modern buildings of downtown Phoenix. It is more beautiful than all of them.
Think Phoenix has no history? Check out the entire Phoenix 101 archive.