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Denver’s Union Station


July 31, 2015 by Pamela Nowak

Denver’s Union Station has been a major city landmark since it opened in 1881 and plays a small role in the opening chapter of ESCAPING YESTERDAY.

Union Station was not the first railroad depot in Denver, though. The first station was for the Denver Pacific Railway (which connected Denver with the Union Pacific Railroad at Cheyenne) and was built in 1868. Other railroads soon ran through Denver, most with their own depots. The Colorado Central, Kansas Pacific, and Denver Pacific shared the depot at 21st and Wazee—located at about second base of today’s Coors Field. I used this depot as the workplace setting for Sarah, my female telegraph operator in CHANCES. Over the next few years, there were other depots at sixth and Larimer, 19th and Wynkoop, 16th and Delgany, 16th and Wynkoop, and 19th and Chestnut.

In 1875, the Union Pacific Railroad proposed building one station to serve four of the railroads then operating—the Union Pacific, the Denver & Rio Grande, the Colorado Central, and the Denver, South Park & Pacific. Competitor Denver, Northwestern & Pacific was not included and built its own depot at 15th and Bassett.

The new station was designed by William E. Taylor. The 500 x 65 foot structure was built of stone quarried in Colorado and included a 180-foot tower with electric lights. Construction costs totaled $525,000.

Union Station opened in 1881, construction having begun the previous year. Initially, operations were simple. Announcers shouted out departures and arrivals from the center of the waiting room. Tracks were at ground level and there were no platforms; passengers had to cross other tracks to get to the building. Some sixty trains per day were soon traveled through the depot and it didn’t take long for Denver to develop a streetcar system. The streetcars were electric and the system opened in 1886.

The depot was initially located on the edge of Denver but business quickly built around it. Stockyards and livestock marshalling areas soon appeared. Hotels, restaurants, and saloons sprang up to serve travelers. Seeing the growth, Union Pacific was soon eyeing nearby land for expansion. Saloon keeper George Schwenke, though, wasn’t interested in selling. In an effort to force him out, the railroad built a fence around his bar. After Schwenke cut a hole in the fence, the case went to court, and he spent $16,000 in legal fees only to have the Colorado Supreme Court rule in favor of the railroad in 1888.

Other local establishments flourished. The Union Depot Dining Hall, located across Wynkoop Street, systematically prepared its food so that it was hot and ready for passengers on each arriving train. Barkalow Brothers ran food concessions within the station from 1881 to 1920. Gunn’s Restaurant and the Union Station Restaurant were located within the building at various times.

In 1894, a fire ignited in the women’s restaurant and destroyed the center of the building. Union Pacific replaced the depot within two months with a new Romanesque Revival style station designed by Van Brunt & Howe. Like the original station, the 1994 depot included a central clock tower with four faces. This time, the clock tower was made of stone rather than wood.

In 1906, Denver’s famous Welcome Arch was constructed in front of Union Station, at the corner of 17th and Wynkoop. (I merged history a bit, combining 1905 and 1906 events so I could include it in ESCAPING YESTERDAY.) The 70 ton steel arch was dedicated on Independence Day. Intended to provide a physical symbol of welcome to the city, the arch featured the word “Welcome” inscribed on both sides. It was built at a cost of $22,500 and was lit with more than 2000 light bulbs. The “Welcome” on the side of the arch facing downtown Denver was changed in 1908 to “Mizpah”, a Hebrew word referring to a Biblical passage often quoted as a good-bye wish: “The Lord watch between me and thee when we are apart from one another.” The arch, originally meant to stand forever, was demolished in 1931 and sold for scrap metal after being declared a traffic hazard.

At the turn of the twentieth century, around 110 trains per day traveled through the station, sometimes crowding the platforms so heavily that in 1902, management posted signs to discourage goodbye kissing because it slowed the trains. Paring kisses were allowed only on the sidewalk in front of the depot or at the gates; it was forbidden on platforms.

The original Union Depot partnership dissolved in 1912 and reformed as the Denver Terminal Railway Company, representing six railroads. The new company realized the high passenger traffic was an issue and the more space was needed. The central portion of the station was thus demolished and rebuilt in a Beaux-Arts style. The project was designed by the Denver architectural firm of (Aaron) Gove & (Thomas) Walsh and opened in 1914. The Romanesque Revival style building wings (original to 1881) were incorporated into the design.

The granite façade featured grand arches and the large clock tower was gone. The design was the same on both street and platform sides. Inside was a new Train Room or Great Hall with high ceilings and abundant light which allowed a more open function in a space that formerly had separate vestibules, hallways, and the waiting room. Support offices surrounded the single large room, which was capped by a wrought iron canopy. The larger building also extended closer to Wynkoop Street. A tramway loop was located to the south and a parking area was created to the north. In addition, tunnels were created to allow passengers and baggage transporters underground access to all platforms. The platforms were raised, enlarged, and provided with canopies.

The depot has had a busy history. From 1881 through the 1950s, thousands of men and women passed through the station during four wars. Babe Ruth and Thomas Edison were among a host of renowned persons who passed through the station. Presidents came, too: Teddy Roosevelt, Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Mamie Eisenhower, a Denver native, continued to travel by train even after air travel became more popular. Famous entertainers en route to Denver’s theatre district and the Elitch Gardens Theatre (including Sarah Bernhardt, Mary Pickford, and Oscar Wilde among others) came as well. Wilde, visiting Denver in 1882, was victim to a prank. A newspaperman, dressed as Wilde, arrived two hours before the star and drew the crowds waiting for Wilde. When Wilde actually arrived, no one met him, leaving the star dismayed.

Eventually, though, train travel began to slow. During the 1920s and 1930s, some 80 trains per day came through Denver. By 1950, that number had decreased to 37 trains per day. Automobile travel was part of the reason for the decline. Then, in 1958, Stapleton International Airport was built and air travel began to have a major impact.

Train travel decreased in the last half of the twentieth century and the rail yards at Denver’s Union Station disappeared. In the 1970s, plans to demolish the station and replace it with a multi-use depot (serving Amtrak, RTD busses, the ski train, airport shuttle, and a front-range speed train) were discussed but not acted upon. Amtrak, running two trains per day (connecting Chicago and the San Francisco Bay area), and the Ski Train (to Winter Park) became the only major passenger services with special services to Cheyenne, Wyoming during its annual Frontier Days. Over the years, the grassy park in front of the station was replaced by parking lots. The passenger platforms were shortened to allow bike and pedestrian traffic to cross the Platte River. Twentieth Street was relocated to run under the tracks.

Since 2001, the depot area has been part of a new multi-use development. In 2004, voters approved the new FasTracks program. Since that time, changes have been made to allow the site to accommodate serve RTD busses, the 16th Street shuttle, Amtrak, the Ski Train, special trains, and light rail services. Federal funding allowed construction of three light rail tracks and eight heavy rail tracks for current and future services. The light rail station was opened in 2011 and the MallRide’s westernmost stop was relocated so it was adjacent to the new light rail station. A new underground 22-gate bus concourse opened in 2014 and all RTD bus service transferred to the new hub. A commuter rail line to Denver International Airport will open in 2016.

The recent renovations at Denver’s Union Station restored the central Great Hall to much of its original magnificence. Designed in the Beaux-Arts style, it has tall arched windows, several stories tall, and bays. There are two exterior clocks and a metal canopy along the front. Inside, the terrazzo floors are capped by a long barrel vault ceiling which spans the entire width of the Hall. Compared to other train stations of the same era, the Great Hall is simple in design, lacking the grand ornamentation common to the time. It has a simple color scheme (changed from the original brown and tan to a neutral white in 2012) and some marble paneling. Metal light sconces adorn some of the walls and a Columbine motif is used on the window borders. Three chandeliers were removed at some point in the past 100 years; they were replaced during renovation with lighting similar to the original.

The old ticket counters and offices were converted into the Terminal Bar and retail space and restaurants surround the central open area. Building wings now house restaurants and guestrooms for the Crawford Hotel.


Next week, I’ll continue a focus on Denver history with tidbits about the early years. Each Friday, I will blog about some aspect of Elitch Gardens, early Denver, or other topics related to my next novel, Escaping Yesterday. In between, I will post small factoids on my Facebook page. You can join me there and I love new friends (

Due for release in September 2015, Escaping Yesterday is set in Elitch’s Gardens, in 1905, and follows the story of Lottie Chase. Lottie is willing to take any risk to save her daughter from their abusive uncle. Stranded in Denver, Lottie meets Caleb Hudson, manager at Elitch’s Gardens amusement park, who sees her as a manipulative huckster. Caleb, a veteran suffering from PTSD, craves the tranquility of the park’s gardens. Lottie brings anything but peace as she seeks to convince the owners to add thrill rides so she can collect the sales commission and support her daughter. Neither anticipates their growing passion, common demons, or the dangers they will face as they confront their pasts and free their love


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