Baltimore's reconstructed railroad station opened 100 years ago this week

The doors of Baltimore's new Union Station, now Pennsylvania Station, swung open a century ago this week to welcome enthusiastic crowds of Baltimoreans, travelers and gawkers alike.

Its completion was considered a great civic triumph after years of agitation from Baltimoreans, both prominent and humble, and newspapers calling for a new station that was worthy of the city.

The present station, the third on the site, was constructed of granite, terra cotta and built on a structural steel frame. It replaced a drafty, antiquated and lugubrious brick Victorian pile that squatted below street level between North Charles and St. Paul streets.

Travelers, hansom carriages and express wagons traversed a sloping driveway to reach the entrances to the station and train shed, which was then known as the Charles Street Union Station. The 1886 station replaced a board-and-batten one that was constructed by the Northern Central Railway between 1872 and 1873.

Its chief features were a large train shed that measured 76 feet by 360 feet on the eastern end, while a three-story building on the west end contained Baltimore Division offices, stationmaster's office, waiting rooms, ticketing facilities and other railroad amenities.

An inherent danger lurked in the interior of the train shed, where travelers risked their lives crossing busy tracks on foot at the signal of conductors to catch their trains. Many, unaware of approaching trains, were either killed or maimed when struck by locomotives.

"It is probable that no city in the United States of the size of Baltimore or anywhere near its size and importance, is so poorly provided with railroad terminals as is this city," proffered a 1907 editorial in The Sun.

"The passenger stations of the Pennsylvania Railroad here are most discreditable to the company and most uncomfortable, not to say dangerous to passengers who travel on that road. The company has been promising a new station for many years, but the fulfillment of that promise is apparently as far away now as it was years ago," according to the editorial.

A news item in The Sun on Dec. 16, 1908, was the Christmas present the city was waiting for.

"The report that the Pennsylvania Railroad Company will shortly build a new passenger station in Baltimore is most pleasing to the traveling public. The principal passenger terminal of the Pennsylvania system has long been the subject of complaint," reported the newspaper.

"It is inconvenient, inadequate and of unattractive appearance and the approach to the cars is across tracks where trains are moving. Union Station is a most accessible and advantageous one for the railroad," observed The Sun. "It is hoped the improvement will be speedily made."

By the spring of 1909, press reports began circulating that the PRR was allocating $1 million toward the new Baltimore station.

"Sound business considerations, the advancement of the material interests of the company, the perpetuation of relations of mutual good will between a great public-service corporation and the Baltimore public, should impel the Pennsylvania Railroad Company to give Baltimore a Union Station commensurate in size, appointments generally with a city of Baltimore's magnitude," reported The Sun.

The newspaper hoped the new station while providing "comfortable accommodations while waiting for trains," should also "afford them shelter from snow or rain when they are boarding trains. There should be ample safeguards for the protection of passengers from moving trains."

It was in early November 1909 that Baltimoreans Henry Walters, Michael Jenkins and Norman James, traveled to Philadelphia to attend a meeting at PRR headquarters with railroad president James McCrea and vice presidents Samuel Rea and W.W. Atterbury [who would later become presidents of the line].

It was at this meeting that the trio of Baltimoreans got their first look at what architect Kenneth MacKenzie Murchison, of the New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White, had in mind for Baltimore.

Murchinson's Beaux Arts classicism design was a slight variation of a strikingly similar station that he had designed for the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad that opened in Scranton, Pa., in 1908.

The architect eliminated the barrel-vaulted ceiling from the Baltimore project but did install three massive 23-foot diameter skylights of leaded glass, which allowed light to enter the structure.

Iron balconies, bronze candelabra, whimsical sconces, terrazzo floors and Rookwood ceramic tiles added to the building's majesty, which has been called "Pennsy's Acropolis" because of its physical cantilevered setting rising above Charles Street.

Adding to this were soaring Doric columns that supported the entablature above the main entrance and an impressive clock. Just under the roofline were metal letters affixed to the granite reading "Union Station."

At the time the Baltimore project got under way, the PRR was engaged in building its massive Pennsylvania Station in New York City and Union Station in Washington.

Demolition of the old station began in January 1910, with construction of the new terminal under the direction of Gamble Latrobe, who was general superintendent of the PRR in Baltimore, and builder the J. Henry Miller Co.

By April, the foundation work was nearly completed, with crowds of sidewalk superintendents watching the building rise from Charles and St. Paul streets.

"A gang of Italian laborers and horses and mules are making away rapidly with the mud and rock which still remain, and this chapter of the building of the new Union Station will soon be closed," reported The Sun, adding, "neither has another jewelry mine been discovered."

A news article in The Sun announced that the station would be completed by Sept. 1, 1911, and that there is "nothing cheap about this structure."

"With an enameled base and a granite superstructure no building in Baltimore will have a cleaner or more imposing appearance than the new station," observed the newspaper.

Additional work related to the station included relocating track work and layover yards as well as building a new bridge for Maryland Avenue partially reconstructing the Charles Street bridge. A sweeping concrete wall was built alongside the Jones Falls.

"During the progress of this great work there has been no discomfort to the patrons of the road and business has been uninterrupted," reported The Sun.

Starting at 8 p.m. on Sept. 14, 1911, more than 5,000 Baltimoreans toured the station, and at 1:35 a.m. the next morning, the New York Express from Washington was the first train to enter the station, as passengers walked down the stairways to the track level for the first time.

"Admiration was frank of its beauty and safety to passengers," reported The Sun. "Apart from the main waiting room on the first floor, are the ladies' parlor, the men's smoking room, telegraph and telephone booths, ticket offices, news booth, lunch counter and dining room and baggage room."

"There is not a better railroad station in Philadelphia, in New York or in the country than this, and it all belongs to Baltimore," trumpeted Latrobe.

When a new proposed union station that would have hosted trains of the Pennsy and Baltimore & Ohio was suggested in the 1920s was rejected by both roads, the station's name was dropped.

In 1928, the station shed its former name and became "Pennsylvania Station." At the time, 175 trains passed through it daily, boarded by 150,000 passengers.

Today, the station, Amtrak's eighth-busiest, hosts more than 150 trains a day, including MARC trains, and 2 million passengers per year.

Amtrak officials will celebrate the station's 100th birthday Wednesday at an invitation-only event at the station. The public is invited to come after noon to view a special collection of artifacts and photos that will be on display for a month.