Denver Union Station Turns 138 Years Old This Month
Picking someone up from Denver Union Station can be a bit of a production. Are you meeting on the Wynkoop or Wewatta side? Are you meeting closer to 16th Street, closer to 20th Street, or right in front where 17th Street ends? But if you were a Denverite in 1875, you’d also have to make sure you knew which station to meet at. That’s because, in 1875, Denver had four—yes, four—different train stations: The Denver Pacific Railroad at 21st and Wazee, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad station at 19th and Wynkoop, the Colorado Central Station at 16th and Delgany and, about a mile away on the other side of the Cherry Creek, the Denver, South Park & Pacific Railroad at 6th and Walnut streets. Try sorting out that potential mix-up in an age before cell phones.
And it could get pretty mixed up. Only an informal network of dirt paths connected the various stations, making it difficult and sometimes dangerous to transfer people and freight from one rail line to another. By 1879, it was clear that Denver needed to get the many rail lines that served the city under one roof. Officials of the different railroads joined together to form the Union Depot and Railroad Company (UDR), elected prominent Denver businessman Walter S. Cheesman as their president, and purchased land at 17th and Wynkoop, where, in 1880, they began construction on a new train station for all of Denver’s rail lines. In May of 1881, the Union Depot (as it was then called) opened for business. Built in the Italian Romanesque style, the new depot featured a 128-foot-tall clock tower and was one of the largest train stations in the West.
Photos from the early 20th century show the station framed by the “Mizpah Arch,” a towering metal gateway illuminated by thousands of light bulbs. Dedicated in 1906, the arch greeted arriving travelers with the word “Welcome” on the side facing the station. On the side facing Wynkoop, the arch bid departing travelers goodbye with the word “Mizpah,” a Hebrew salutation from Genesis which translates to “the Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent from one another.”
By 1914, Denver was a major rail travel hub in the West. To accommodate the increasing passenger traffic, the central section of the station was remodeled and expanded. The clocktower was torn down and replaced with the Great Hall and Beaux Arts-style façade Denverites know today, and the Union Depot was renamed Union Station.
Traffic at Union Station continued to increase throughout the 1930s, so much so that the Mizpah Arch was deemed a traffic hazard and torn down in 1931. During World War II, sixty to eighty trains arrived and departed every day, and one million passengers per year passed through Union Station’s doors. But by the 1950s, air and auto travel had quickly overtaken train travel: in 1958, passenger traffic at Stapleton International Airport exceeded that of Union Station for the first time ever, and by 1974, Union Station saw only a href=https://coloradoencyclopedia.org/article/union-station-0>five trains on a daily basis.
Luckily, Union Station was added to the National Register of Historic Places that same year, which may have helped save the station as urban renewal demolished many of downtown Denver’s historic structures throughout the 1960s and 70s. Still, it would be another 40 years before Union Station would again see the hustle and bustle it had known during the golden age of train travel. Tune in next week to read about Union Station’s next chapter!