Union Station is the last remaining passenger terminal for intercity trains in Chicago. The station building occupies a full city block just west of the downtown area, and is bordered by Clinton, Canal and Adams streets on the west, east and north respectively, and by Jackson Boulevard on the south. The photo at right was taken from the corner of Canal and Jackson.
The station is a busy place. All Amtrak trains use it, as well as commuter trains operated by Metra, the Chicago area's commuter train authority. Metra trains using the station travel on BNSF's ex-CB&Q "racetrack" to Aurora, and on the ex-Milwaukee Road lines--now owned by Metra--to Elgin and Fox Lake. Limited service is also provided on CN/IC's ex-GM&O line to Joliet, the Metra/Norfolk Southern route to Orland Park and CN/WC's ex-Soo main line to Antioch, Illinois. The station's main waiting room is a cavernous place that has been beautifully restored. Amtrak owns the station, and a few years ago attempted to raise some cash by selling "air rights" to a developer who wanted to add another eight or ten stories to the building. The project was foiled when preservationists took the issue to court and won. Recently, however, another plan that would add 18 stories has emerged. So the battle to keep the station looking as it does here continues.
ROOSEVELT ROAD OVERPASS. If you walk south from the station on Canal Street about three-quarters of a mile, you'll come to Roosevelt Road which passes over the trackage south of the station. In the photo below, you are looking south. The Amtrak coach yards are on your left, the empty Metra coach yards on your right (empty because the photo was taken on a weekend when most trains were at their outlying terminals awaiting the Monday morning rush). In the distance the viaducts of the St. Charles Air Line and a now abandoned B&OCT route can be seen crossing the yards. The Air Line is a former Chicago & Northwestern connecting route now owned jointly by Union Pacific and Canadian National. Transfers from UP yards west of here use it to access the ex-Rock Island tracks at 16th Street and CN's ex-Illinois Central main line. At the left, beyond the Amtrak yard, are the moveable bridges carrying the Air Line and B&OCT across the south branch of the Chicago River (the B&OCT bridge is permanently in the raised position). In the far distance toward the right is the lift bridge just north of 21st Street Crossing.
The Roosevelt overpass also offers a view to the north. It is not as panoramic, but makes for nice photos of trains arriving and departing the station. During rush hours on weekdays, an almost constant two-way parade of Amtrak and Metra trains can be observed.
In the old days, you could walk east on Roosevelt from this spot, cross the river, and see plenty more rail activity. First, you would cross over the tracks bringing trains of the B&O, Soo, Pere Marquette (later C&O) and Chicago Great Western to Grand Central Station. Walking further east, you would cross tracks coming south from LaSalle Street Station carrying trains of the New York Central, Rock Island and Nickel Plate. Walking east still further, you would pass over the Chicago & Western Indiana tracks coming south out of Dearborn Station. Passenger trains of the Santa Fe, Wabash, Erie, GTW, C&EI and Monon used these tracks. Walking east yet another few blocks, you would come to Illinois Central's Central Station at Roosevelt and Michigan Avenue.
Now, however, it is a much different scene. The tracks to Grand Central are gone (as is the station), and the C&WI tracks have been taken up as well. Central Station has also disappeared and only commuter platforms remain. Some of the LaSalle Street tracks are still in place, and are used by Metra's ex-Rock Island commuter trains to Joliet.
LUMBER STREET AREA. . If you walk further south on Canal from Roosevelt, you'll walk underneath the St. Charles Air Line, and at 16th Street you will have a nice bird's eye view of the Canal Street Wye (for more, see the Union Avenue / Canal St. Wye page). To reach a ground level view of the wye, head east at 17th Street and then north a half block.
If all that is too much walking for you, take any westbound street in downtown Chicago to Canal, or from the Dan Ryan expressway, exit at Roosevelt Road and head east to Canal. In either case, drive south on Canal and turn left at 17th Street to reach the viewing area. If you're coming west on 18th Street, it can be reached by turning right at Stewart Avenue.
A block or two south of the Canal/18th intersecton, you will arrive at Lumber Street. Head east on Lumber and cross the Amtrak main. The road curves north, and before passing underneath the 18th Street overpass you'll find a nice spot for observing trains to and from Union Station, as well as freight movements off the Canal Street Wye. You can park alongside the tracks between the crossing and the 18th Street overpass. Just south of this location is the Amtrak lift bridge, and beyond it is 21st Street Crossing.
The photo at right looks north toward the downtown area. Shown here are the Amtrak engine servicing facilities, the St. Charles Air Line viaduct and, to the left, the south leg of the Canal Street Wye.
For more on passenger operations, see 21st Street Crossing and Union Avenue / Canal St. Wye. See also 16th Street Crossing at Other South Side Junctions.
Before Amtrak was created, there were six terminals in downtown Chicago serving the Class 1 railroads. Only two of the terminal buildings remain standing, but passenger service can still be found at four of the locations. Listed in roughly east-to-west order.
Illinois CentralIn addition to intercity trains, the Illinois Central operated electric commuter trains on three routes. Trains to Florida also used the station, running on IC tracks as far as Birmingham, Alabama. Illinois Central owned the station.
New York Central - Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis (Big Four)
New York Central - Michigan Central (until 1956)
Chicago, South Shore & South Bend
Atchison, Topeka & Santa FeThe C&WI was the station's terminal line. The C&WI officially owned the station, but it in turn was jointly owned by the Wabash, Erie, Grand Trunk, C&EI and Monon. The Santa Fe, who scheduled the greatest number of trains here, was a tenant. The C&EI operated several Florida trains in conjunction with southern railroads.
Chicago & Eastern Illinois
Chicago & Western Indiana
New York Central - Lake Shore & Michigan SouthernThe Rock Island offered commuter service through Blue Island to Joliet. Together with Southern Pacific, the Rock Island also operated trains to the west coast. New York Central and Rock Island jointly owned the station. The Nickel Plate was a tenant.
New York Central - Michigan Central (after 1956)
Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific
New York, Chicago & St.Louis (Nickel Plate)
Baltimore & OhioBaltimore & Ohio owned the station. The abandoned B&OCT route that paralleled the St. Charles Air Line was used to access the station. Soo Line trains were moved to Central Station in the mid 1960's.
Pere Marquette (Chesapeake & Ohio after 1947)
Chicago Great Western
Chicago & North WesternFor many years, C&NW jointly operated west coast trains with Union Pacific and Southern Pacific. In addition to intercity trains, C&NW operated an extensive commuter service on its North, Northwest and West lines. Trains that had used Grand Central Station were moved here in 1969 and lasted until Amtrak began operation. C&NW owned the station.
PennsylvaniaThe Burlington handled trains of the Northern Pacific and Great Northern, and operated their famous Zephyr to the Bay Area in conjunction with Rio Grande and Western Pacific. It also had an extensive commuter operation, as did the Milwaukee. The Pennsy and the Alton operated limited commuter service. Together with southern roads, the Pennsy also offered service to Florida. The station was owned by the Union Station Company, in which Pennsy, Burlington and Milwaukee each had an interest.
Chicago, Burlington & Quincy
Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific (Milwaukee Road)
Chicago & Alton (Alton Road, Gulf, Mobile & Ohio after 1945)
In addition to the commuter platforms at Roosevelt Road (the Central Station site), Metra Electric's ex-IC trains and the South Shore use two stations to the north: Van Buren Street Station (at Michigan Avenue), and the Randolph Street terminal (now known as "Millennium Station") at Michigan and Randolph.
Two interurban lines also had stations in the downtown area. The Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee used the elevated rapid transit tracks to reach their terminal at Roosevelt Road, and the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin had a terminal on Wells Street. The CNS&M ended service in 1963, and the CA&E was abandoned in the late 1950s.
Central Station: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Buildings Survey,
ILL, 16-CHIG, 99A-1.
Dearborn Station: University of Illinois-Chicago Image Base. Photo courtesy of Carroll W. Westfall.
LaSalle Street Station: Photo courtesy of Dan Minkus.
Grand Central Station: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Buildings Survey, ILL, 16-CHIG, 18-1.
North Western Station: Photo by Bob Baker, reprinted with his permission.
Union Station: Photo courtesy of Robert Surman of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White Corporation.