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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Union Station served rail passengers from 1914-1979

By Beccy Tanner
The Wichita Eagle

When trains began rolling into Wichita in 1872, city leaders were quick to seize on the new industry and merge it with their own commercial interests.

The city’s first railroad was the Wichita and Southwestern Railway Co., which later became the Santa Fe. Its depot was where the north end of the Douglas Avenue overpass stands today.

Early Wichitans wanted trains because they brought towns growth, industry and, best of all, money.

“All is joy," Marshall Murdock, founding editor of The Wichita Eagle, wrote on May 17, 1872, the day after the first train arrived in Wichita. "One can now take the cars at Wichita one morning and be in St. Louis the next morning and in Chicago the evening following. We are now within the bounds of civilization."

By the turn of the century, most Kansas towns had one or two railroads through their city limits; Wichita had five.

But with the growth came hardships. Travel on Douglas from the Arkansas River east was almost impossible during certain times of the day. That much rail traffic, combined with automobile and horse-and-buggy traffic, created huge traffic jams.

What was needed was an overpass for all the trains.

In 1909, three depots stood in a one-block area on Douglas. There was the Rock Island, which still stands, as Prudential-Bache Securities at 711 E. Douglas; the Santa Fe, where Multimedia Cablevision and Cox Communications used to be housed, at 701 E. Douglas; and the Frisco, where The Wichita Eagle is, at 825 E. Douglas.

That year, Charles Davidson ran a successful campaign for mayor by promising to start negotiations between the city and the railroads to see whether an overpass could be built that would allow trains to pass over Douglas and traffic to pass underneath. In 1910, the three railroads agreed to elevate their tracks from Kellogg past Second Street and construct an impressive station.

Construction started in 1913, and the project was completed a year later. The result was Union Station.

It featured a Fred Harvey Dining Room – considered state-of-the-art dining at the beginning of the 20th century. Harvey, a Kansan, developed a string of dining rooms in depots all along the Santa Fe railroad.

Wichita’s Fred Harvey Dining Room in Union Station featured a semicircular, marble lunch counter and marble-topped tables. The morning sun shone through blue stained-glass windows.

Union Station was a place for World War I and World War II troops to pass through, for friends and family to bid goodbyes and hearty hellos.

By the 1960s, when the popularity of air traffic had increased, Wichita’s passenger service began to wane.

On Oct. 6, 1979, the last passenger train, Train No. 16 of the Lone Star Amtrak, left Wichita.

Contact Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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