Union Station

September 4, 2020

This past spring in April 2020, New Haven’s Union Station celebrated its 100th anniversary. This week we’re going to look back at highlights of all three Union Stations that have served the Elm City since the 1840s.

New Haven’s current Union Station was completed and opened in 1920. The building was designed by the renowned architect Cass Gilbert, whose other prominent works included the Woolworth Building in New York City (the tallest building in the world from 1913 to 1930), and the United States Supreme Court Building in Washington D.C. This station is the third Union Station in New Haven, and the second in its current location on Union Avenue. The name, Union Station, is actually literal. The station is a union point of different rail services and companies. During the heyday of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad, the station was designed as a physical symbol of the railroad company’s conglomerated size and strength as the largest railroad company east of the Mississippi.

In 1848, the first union station, a depot building designed by prominent local architect Henry Austin, opened to the public. The Italianate inspired building sat above the railroad cut on the old Farmington Canal, located on State Street next to Custom House Square (today located approximately between the Knights of Columbus Museum and the current State Street Station). This building inspired a famous quote featuring a father and son disembarking a train on the crowded platform that was located below the station. The son asks his father “Is this hell?” and his father replies “No son, it is only New Haven.” The statement is clearly humorous and sums up the deficiencies in the station’s design, as thick smoke, soot and flames were omnipresent on the platforms as passengers got on and off the trains.

In 1879, the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad opened a new station one mile from the New Haven Green on the filled-in marshlands of Union Avenue. This lead to a new life for the Austin designed landmark. The building was converted to a bustling city market. Its size and proximity to rail and Long Wharf, along with being in the heart of New Haven’s growing dry goods district made this a popular local shopping destination. In 1894, fire consumed the old depot burning it down to the ground.

The new station on Union Avenue was both celebrated and derided in its time. Its appearance was grand, meant to evoke a regal hotel and the luxurious efficiencies of railroad travel. Its location though was inconvenient and being built on filled-in wetlands not necessarily stable, or even fully complete at the time. The coastline came right up to the station which was both and costly in constant necessary repairs. In May 1918, during World War I, the station burned down, and was replaced two years later on an adjacent lot by the current station.

The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad gradually collapsed after World War II due to the prevalence and direct federal support of auto and air travel.  By the 1970s, Union Station was closed and threatened with demolition. Local citizens successfully rallied to add the building to National Register of Historic Places in 1975. Faced with the growing costs of the 1970s energy crisis, the federal government developed the Northeast Corridor Improvement Project. In 1985, a newly rehabilitated Union Station once again opened for business and continues to run on a daily basis today.

Jason Bischoff-Wurstle
Director of Photo Archives, New Haven Museum

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