At the bottom of historic 25th Street, Ogden’s Union Station is a stunning historic building to the casual passerby. Spanish Colonial arches, tile mosaics, and a sunset-colored, brick façade— all hints of another era. Massive, retired locomotives and colorful freight cars haunt its borders, quiet shadows of their former glory.
The Union Station accommodates a limited amount of freight by rail these days, but it has truly become the heart of the community of Ogden. Home to the Utah State Railroad Museum, John M. Browning Firearms Museum , and the The Browning – Kimball Classic Car Museum, the building offers a wealth of fascinating history to both tourists and locals.
Ogden Union Station is also home to Warrens Model Train shop and The Union Grill, one of Ogden’s most popular upscale restaurants. The building also serves as a venue for weddings, banquets, and some of Ogden’s most lively festivals.
But look beyond its stately façade, venture inside the heavy wooden doors and spend some time wandering through its historic hallways. Linger in the grand lobby, beneath 56-foot ceilings graced with handcrafted, wood beams. Close your eyes and listen for the millions of passengers that passed through this space in its bounty of days. Stand on the tracks below an ancient, resting locomotive and feel the pulse of Ogden’s history at your feet.
Union Station was originally established in 1869 after Ogden was chosen as a place for the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads to connect. This was of huge significance for the city, which was, at the time a quiet Mormon pioneer town. This junction would literally connect the Southwest and the Pacific to the rest of the United States by rail. Because of its central location in the West, Ogden became a shipping point for Utah, Idaho, Nevada and Montana. Between the late 1800’s and the 1940’s, Ogden also became a major passenger railroad junction of the West, accommodating both major east-west and north-south routes. During this era, Ogden’s Chamber of Commerce is said to have used the catch-phrase, “You can’t go anywhere without coming to Ogden.”
The stately Spanish Colonial beauty we see today is actually the third structure built on the property. The first building was a simple two story clapboard building built shortly after the site was designated, and the second building was a beautiful Romanesque cathedral-style station, which was destroyed by fire in 1923. A new Spanish Colonial building was erected in 1924. Immediately loved by citizens and visitors alike, it was to become an icon of the city’s growth over the the next 60 years.
Becoming the Pacific’s gateway to the Intermountain West was an economic gold mine for Ogden, bringing passengers and freight from the rest of the country and all over the world. Hotels, clubs and restaurants emerged along 25th Street, drawing revenue from railroad passengers. The Broom Hotel became known as the most luxurious hotel west of the Mississippi and accommodated businessmen, heads-of-state, actors, and ambassadors. During the height of segregation in the United States, the likes of Marvin Gaye, B.B. King, and Fats Domino came to perform at Porters and Waiters, one of the state’s first nightclubs owned and operated by Blacks. In the words of Lee Witten, Archivist at Union Station Library, “Ogden was a very cosmopolitan city in a very conservative state. Union Station was, in a way the catalyst of that.”
The effects of WWII brought more passengers through Union Station’s doors, and even more revenue for the city. At the height of the War, more than 100 passenger trains filled with soldiers left the depot every day. Thousands of servicemen passing through looked to Ogden for solace, comfort and entertainment. Young men drank to freedom in the bars and restaurants on 25th street as they headed off to war. Wounded soldiers on their way home received aid from the Red Cross as they stepped off the train. As the war raged, bodies of soldiers arrived at Union Station, and were identified in what is now the Browning Theater. Union Station also served as a mail sorting station in a building north of the main depot. Bags full of messages laced with loss and war, hope and home were tossed from train cars, sorted and sent on to their destinations.
“People don’t realize that during those years, Ogden played a major part in the War,” said Witten. “We helped transport men and freight, and weapons made by John Browning himself. Ogden and Union Station were key in helping to win the War.”
As WWII ended in the lat 1940’s, air traffic would quickly become a more economical and preferred mode of shipping freight. Automobiles and the development of the interstate system rendered passenger trains nearly obsolete. Between 1949 and 1967 railroad travel was cut in half. Families grieving and recovering from war wanted to move into suburbs, start families and forget the dark days of war. Once a hub of activity and commerce, Ogden’s Union station became a ghost of its former self, a silent and forgotten piece of history.
“In the 1960’s and ‘70s, there seemed to be a general attitude that history and historic buildings didn’t need to be preserved,” said Witten. “Union Station was abandoned and 25th street reflected that. Downtown Ogden became run-down and was quite dangerous.”
Thankfully, by the late 1970’s a general vision of learning from the past eclipsed the painful memories of war, and the idea of historic preservation had made its way to Utah. Union Station was saved from demolition and dedicated to Ogden City as a community center in 1978. Union Station’s once bustling corridors were restored and designated for museums, restaurants, and private events.
Today, even as Union Station is a relic treasured by the community of Ogden, it receives little support from the city or the state. Since 2004, the critical state of the economy has meant that the only funding needed to maintain and preserve the buildings as well as the trains and railways comes solely from private donations, weddings and banquets, and community events like the annual Ogden Arts Festival.
Ogden’s Union Station was once a crossroads that connected the West to the rest of our country. Left to its people to preserve and protect, Union Station now serves as a junction between Ogden’s past and its future.
Resources and References:
Goeceritz, I. (Filmmaker). (2007). Ogden: Junction City of the West [Documentary]. United States: Utah.
Langsdon, Sarah & Sillito, John Images of America: Ogden (2008) Arcadia Publishing.
Theunionstation.org: The History of Union Station
Special Thanks to:
Lee Witten- Librarian Archivist, Union Station
Historic Photos provided by Union Station Library