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January 11, 2010


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I was in Tennessee a few years ago checking out the remnants of America's glorious past. In Nashville, the old train station, a stunning gothic pile, now houses a Wyndham Hotel. In Chattanooga, the train station incorporates Pullman cars in a kind of hotel/railway theme park. In Memphis, the grand beaux-arts train station was torn down in the late 60s for a postal annex. You can imagine what that looks like.

The damage that cars have done to this country are beyond calculation because there's no metric that can quantify the visual horror of most American cities. Most of us just accept it as a given, as if Europe was destined to be "quaint" while American cities were destined to be zippy. But prior to World War II, most American cities, including Phoenix, were much closer to the European model. And what we gave up in the name of prosperity and personal mobility should - and does - haunt our dreams.

I wish nostalgia worked but it just makes us cranky. Kunstler's jeremiads about the American crudscape are thrilling to read because they're so obviously right and gloriously angry. But we're stuck now with an infrastructure too expensive to revamp and ultimately too expensive to maintain. How we navigate the future is anyone's guess. I'm guessing it won't be pretty.

I am an Arizona native (born in Tucson in 1976) who lived in the Phoenix area from age three until 27, when I left for a job in Boston. I witnessed the changes that occurred as the "Valley" grew rapidly during the 1980s through my 2004, when I left town. I still remember those green welcome signs that greeted motorists as they entered Phoenix, announcing the city's population at 885,000. To an 8-year-old kid, that was a staggering figure. On a side note, motorists who were about to leave Phoenix were bid goodbye in Spanish on identical-looking green signs: "Adios, Amigos."
During the 1980s, my old man owned a business adjacent to the steel mills just west of the State Capitol. When school let out at St. Theresa, I took the city bus to the main terminal on Central. He picked me up and I would ride with him as he visited job sites across the metropolitan area. Occasionally, we would pass by Union Station, which at the time, had passenger-rail service. I never got to visit the inside of the station, but I was always curious what it looked like, and for that matter, what it was like to ride a train. I always thought the exterior of the station was beautiful.
I love reading Jon's Valley 101 columns; as someone who grew up in the city, they remind me of what made Phoenix a great city (the citrus groves, the Japanese Gardens, the untouched desert just beyond Phoenix's northern border, Bell Road) and sadly, what has contributed to its devolution: the Arizona Legislature, the influx of people from other parts of the country who don't care and just want to be left alone and the loss of influential business leaders and groups such as the Phoenix 40, which worked hard to diversify the region's economy and bring high-paying jobs to the area.

I was 18 years old in 1965 when I came to Phoenix to check out ASU and returned to Illinois via train and left from the Union Station.It was December and I had a wonderful 3 day trip with lots of time to write a term paper that was due and relished the dining car experience.The day before I left,they released water into the dry Salt River that I had driven through earlier in the week and as the train crossed the river in Tempe I thought "what kind of nuts build roads in riverbeds?"I later did work at the station when they refurbished in the 8o's or 90's and it was a beautiful old building still then.It brought back a lot of good memories that I will always cherish about Phoenix.

Dear Mr. Talton,

Thank you for this bit of nostalgia. It doesn't make me "cranky" -- in fact it makes me rather jolly. In fact, the joyful experiences of yesterday can inspire both hope and vision for the future, if we but allow it. To permit memories of the past to die, through cynical neglect and lack of hope -- truly, only then will the sterility of the desert triumph.

A man without a past, yet advanced to middle-age, is surely a man without a vision. Let's not allow ourselves to be reduced to mere dry husks of resentment and lost opportunity. As long as beauty lives in the mind and soul there is hope for the future: for these are the eternal springs by which the sterility of the desert is watered and made capable of supporting the gardens of the future.

Such beautiful prose Mr. Pulsifer. Thank you for the inspiration.

Emil, that was poetry! It is so tempting to join the "Ain't it Awful" society, but the cost of membership can be corrosive cynicism.

When I worked for Phoenix FD, I inspected the new generators installed at the Phoenix Union Station. It is a really interesting building with some very unique architecture. I always wondered why the City didn't purchase the building and use it as part of the city's history.

Your history information was very helpful. Thank you for sharing it.

I am 28 years old and have lived in Phoenix for 23 years. Jon's writing is the only place I have ever seen Phoenix's Union Station even mentioned. How sad is that?

Being a product of the 1950s and 60s post-WWII U.S. migration west, our family moved to Scottsdale from St. Louis in 1960. My dad received his Ph.d from Washington U. but took a teaching position at ASU.

As a 6 year old I remember the Phoenix train station-- we would pick up St. Louis friends who had taken the train to visit. It was a cool place. I remember the benches and windows with smoky shafts of sunlight coming in and the hustle and bustle of the passenger lobby. Not long after, Sky Harbor became the hub to travel from, although I have fond memories of the old terminal building there as well.

It is sad to see the station in its present form, tucked behind the 4th Ave. jail, buried among the new buildings. It screams to be restored, if only as a train museum, or something of the like.

Such vivid memories of Union Station. It really comes alive with you painting the picture. It's also interesting to read about all the former passenger lines. I recall writing about the Verde Mix train -- passengers and freight -- that run from Clarkdale to Drake starting in 1926. The last train to Clarkdale of that era ended Saturday, April 22,1950 with 35 passengers aboard. The Verde Canyon Railroad, launched in 1996, runs on the same track up to Perkinsville. In 1895, the United Verde Mining Co. brought the first train to Jerome on a 26-mile narrow gauge line that ran to Chino Valley and connected with the Santa Fe, Prescott and Phoenix Railroad. I was fortunate to ride the Southwest Chief twice from Flagstaff to Chicago around 1980 and as a young kid rode what I'm guessing was the Union Pacific trains from Omaha to Chicago and Milwaukee. I hear that Omaha has restored its station. The Kansas City station was a magnificent building, even though it was in disrepair, while the St. Louis depot was falling down. In Columbus, my destination on those Amtrak trips, they tore down Union Station quickly overnight to thwart any opposition. They saved one archway that adorns a downtown plaza now...Thanks for the memories, Jon

A wonderful post, Jon--your memories of Phoenix Union Station are similar to mine in many ways.

I have to admit some embarrassment at the many wonderful Union Station photos Jon uncovered in ASU's McCulloch Bros. collection. When I was working with Jon on photos for his book, I think we were both disappointed in what we were able to find for Union Station photos in McLaughlin. Jon selected one for his book cover but there should have been much more. Meanwhile Elizabeth Dunham was cranking on loading and describing the McCulloch photos, many of which were scanned this summer from nitrate or acetate negatives. The greatly improved descriptions enable all of us to find so many things we had not seen before! Now back to the other 1 million photos...

Possible new route for a Phoenix - Las Vegas passenger train:
Due to the current lack of passenger train service between Phoenix, AZ and Las Vegas, NV, I'd like to propose that new train tracks be constructed in two segments, which would therefore enable a direct train path connecting the two cities. One segment of about 63.5 miles would begin with a new connection at Nipton, CA (located along Amtrak's old Desert Wind route south of Las Vegas, and continuing via Laughlin, NV and then to Needles, CA. From there, follow existing tracks some 12 miles along the route of Amtrak's Southwest Chief to a point just past the existing rail bridge over the Colorado River near Topock, AZ. The second segment of required new rail tracks of about 58 miles would continue from Topock to Lake Havasu City and then Parker, AZ. Existing tracks at Parker continue to Wickenburg and then on south to Glendale or Phoenix. Total estimated new track mileage: ~121.5 miles.

I have lots of memories of Union Station - it's where we went to pick up grandma when she came to visit us from NY. I remember the popcorn machine near the little gift shop. Popcorn came in a paper bag for 5 cents.

My paternal grandfather used to work for the Rock Island Railway, starting in Iowa, then Denver. I’ve always loved trains....hearing the train whistle from my dorm room while at NAU was comforting.

I live close enough now to hear the light rail horn, but it’s not the same. Thank you for your words and especially the photos!!

Thank you for a wonderful article with many facts that I did not know. I was born in Phoenix and first visited the station in early 60s to see my grandmother off on her annual trips to San Francisco to see friends. I continued to visit the station throughout the 60s for the start of her trips. I do have a memory...probably late 60s?, of seeing where the news stand was located...I remember the old wooden and glass display counters for various sundries that were sold there for travelers and the wooden racks for the newspapers and magazines. At the time, these were in a room being stored. My last trip to the station was in '76 to pick up Amtrak tickets on a trip I was taking for the Bicentennial to Chicago-Philadelphia, New York, and D.C. That train would leave from Flagstaff but I had to pick up the tickets at the station in Phoenix. I'm very glad that Phoenix hasn't (yet) bulldozed the station, as they have most of Phoenix's history. I really hope that this station can be given back to the city and restored to the way it was in the 1920s. What a great legacy that would be for the city. For once, let's hope that greed doesn't, once again, win out.

I was an Extra in the remake of The Getaway with Alec Baldwin and then-wife Kim Bassinger for scenes shot in Union Station. I’m not sure how long the the crew was there filming but I spent a few days, (mostly waiting) while enjoying the excitement of being involved in a motion picture production and also spending time inside this temporarily revived artifact from an era of dignified travel and evoking the childlike wonderment of being so near things that were bigger in real life than imagined.

I would like to propose a new possible route from Phoenix to Las Vegas, it would awesome & fun.

I remember riding a train from that station to Los Angeles for the yearly summer visit to my grandparents who lived in Long Beach. We usually drove, so I don't why we didn't that year. The train was less expensive than flying. I couldn't of been more than 6 or 7 years old so this was the late '60's. But I vividly remember that train trip everytime I go by the station now. My one and only time I went anywhere by train.

Wow, what a history, perfect for the doctors waiting room. Thanks

My grandfather, Wayland Brown, was the ticket agent for 30 years at the station, from 1923, when it opened, to 1953, when he retired. Hollywood celebrities and bigwigs from back east came through the station in the 1930s and 1940s to vacation at the Biltmore Hotel and other destinations in Arizona.


I am a Phoenix-area-based writer working on a story about Union Station for azf, the former Arizona Foothills magazine.

May I send some questions about the station to you? If so, what is your email?


David M. Brown

I am a member of the Thunderbird Model Railroad Club, which is the oldest continuouly operating RR club in Arizona. Founded in 1949, our club had its first model RR layout on the second floor of Union Station from 1952 to 1968. We moved the entire operation to the AZ State Fairgrounds in 1968, and remain there to this day. You may read more about us on our website.

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