Completed in 1923, the neoclassical Union Depot is a Lowertown landmark and bustling intermodal center served by Amtrak, intercity and local buses and light rail service.
St. Paul-Minneapolis, Minnesota
240 Kellogg Boulevard East Suite 70 Union Depot in St. Paul St. Paul, MN 55101
- Annual Station Revenue (2014)
- Annual Station Ridership (2014)
|Facility Ownership||Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority|
|Parking Lot Ownership||Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority|
|Platform Ownership||Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority|
|Track Ownership||Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority|
|1000 Long Term Parking Spaces||12 Short Term Parking Spaces||ATM|
|Accessible Payphones||Accessible Platform||Accessible Restrooms|
|Accessible Ticket Office||Accessible Waiting Room||Accessible Water Fountain|
|Baggage Storage||Bike Boxes||Checked Baggage|
|Dedicated Parking||Elevator||Elevator Accessible|
|Enclosed Waiting Area||Lounge||Pay Phones|
|Quik Trak Kiosk||Restrooms||Shipping Boxes|
|Ski Bags||Ticket Office||Wheelchair|
- Empire Builder
For information about Amtrak fares and schedules, please call 1-800-USA-RAIL (1-800-872-7245).
Local Community Links:
- Union Depot
- City of St. Paul
- Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority
- Metro Transit
- Minnesota Valley Transit Authority
- Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary
- Union Depot Case Study: Historic Preservation and Sustainable Design
Amtrak relocated service in the Twin Cities from the Midway Station to historic St. Paul Union Depot on May 7, 2014, starting with the evening arrival of the westbound Empire Builder. Earlier that day, Amtrak President and CEO Joseph Boardman joined Karen Hedlund, Deputy Administrator, Federal Railroad Administration; Charlie Zell, Commissioner, Minnesota Department of Transportation; Chris Coleman, Mayor, City of Saint Paul; and Rafael Ortega, Chair, Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority, for a ribbon cutting ceremony in the restored waiting room.
Before Amtrak took over the nation’s intercity passenger rail service on May 1, 1971, passenger trains to Minnesota’s capital city served Union Depot, located in the Lowertown area along the Mississippi River. Amtrak initially shifted all passenger operations in the Twin Cities to the Great Northern depot in Minneapolis before finally settling on the new Midway Station located halfway between the two cities. Composed of variegated buff concrete block interspersed with large expanses of glass, the two-story Midway Station was built in 1978 to a standardized Amtrak design; the same model was also used in Miami.
In the early 2000s, St. Paul officials began to contemplate a restoration of service to Union Depot, which had been separated into two parts and sold to different owners following the termination of passenger service. The grand neoclassical headhouse facing 4th Street was purchased by a developer who intended to install commercial and office space; the upper office levels were eventually converted into condos. The remainder of the building—the concourse and the bridge structure over Kellogg Boulevard—went to the United States Postal Service and were used for storage and mail handling. On the ground, tracks were removed and the area paved over to accommodate Postal Service trucks.
Erected between 1917 and 1923, with a delay in construction due to World War I, Union Depot rose on the approximate site of a previous union station, which had opened in 1881 to consolidate the passenger needs of almost one dozen railroads then serving the city. They created and owned shares in the St. Paul Union Depot Company that oversaw construction and maintenance of the building, tracks, platforms and other infrastructure.
In 1884 the depot was damaged in a fire, but was rebuilt and remained in operation until 1913 when a more serious conflagration reduced it to rubble and ashes. Although it served into the early 20th century, the first union station quickly became overcrowded. James J. Hill, head of the Great Northern Railway and known as the “Empire Builder,” was a strong proponent for a new, larger station. He is given credit for shepherding the other six railroads, including the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy and the St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie, into agreeing to finance the $15 million St. Paul Union Depot.
Union Depot follows in the footsteps of earlier Beaux-Arts stations through the use of a monumental scale and an imposing 150 foot long Doric colonnade, but it lacks the lavish ornamentation often found on those structures. It was designed by noted Chicago architect Charles Sumner Frost, whose other railroad-related works included Omaha Union Station and Chicago’s La Salle Street Station and Northwestern Terminal. Frost gave Union Depot a restrained neoclassical façade faced in tan Bedford limestone that hides a modern steel frame. The colonnade facing 4th Street supports a plain frieze with prominent dentil molding at the cornice; a parapet rises above to hide the skylight that allows sunlight to stream into the interior. Through the main doors, passengers entered into the Great Hall, dressed in light pink Tennessee marble and local Mankato-Kasota stone and lined with Ionic columns on the sides. It served as the principal waiting room, but included ticketing offices for the partner railroads, a restaurant, barbershop, soda fountain and other conveniences.
To reach the trains, passengers continued through an inclined bridge over Kellogg Blvd. Although a rather utilitarian space, it is marked by the use of Guastavino tile vaults, whose application was somewhat rare in the St. Paul area. Developed by Spanish architect Rafael Guastavino, the interlocking, self-supporting tiles created strong, robust vaults that were employed in numerous monumental Beaux-Arts structures such as New York’s Grand Central Terminal.
The concourse, which had stairways leading to nine platforms, is dominated by a barrel vaulted ceiling interspersed with skylights. Decorative plasterwork with rosettes is used to highlight the ribs and visually break the ceiling into smaller components. Along its bottom edge, a repeating frieze runs around the entire room. Made of creamy brown terracotta, it depicts transportation over time, such as a covered wagon drawn by oxen, an early locomotive pulling carriages and a powerful, modern steam locomotive racing into the distance. Accenting the frieze are beaded, rope and dentil moldings, as well as a profusion of classically-inspired acanthus leaves. The room is faced in cream colored brick, but terracotta also makes an appearance in the columns between the bridge and concourse; their capitals include egg and dart molding.
Most people probably think of Union Depot as simply the headhouse and concourse, but the original construction project also encompassed extensive track work, and more specifically, the construction of a large concrete platform that raised the tracks 17 feet above the level of the Mississippi River to protect against seasonal floods.
To plan for the future transit needs of the St. Paul area, the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority (RCRRA) assembled a task force in 2002 that included representatives of business and civic groups, as well as stakeholders from the transportation industry. Part of the group’s mandate was to discuss the siting of a potential multimodal center to serve the capital city. Of the handful of facilities studied, Union Depot was considered the best choice due to proximity to existing rail lines, good highway access, downtown location and the potential for mixed-use, transit-oriented development around the site. As envisioned, the rehabilitated facility would include Amtrak, the Central Corridor light rail line, local and regional buses and amenities for those arriving by bike or on foot.
In order to reinvigorate Union Depot as a transportation center, it was necessary to relocate the postal facility so that the concourse and bridge could be reused. Luckily, in 2005 the Postal Service announced that it intended to shift its mail handling and sorting functions to another locale. Two years later, the RCRRA purchased the concourse, bridge and 9 acres south of the station for $49.6 million. This was followed in 2009 by the purchase of the headhouse (excluding the condos) for $8.1 million, thus uniting the entire station complex for the first time since the 1970s.
Before any work could proceed, the RCRRA had to wait for the Postal Service to vacate the premises in 2010. In the meantime, it chose Minneapolis-based Mortenson Construction as the project manager to coordinate efforts between HGA Architects, engineering firm URS and other contractors. Amid much fanfare, ground was broken on January 18, 2011, with the demolition of the former Postal Service loading bays. The project included many components: installation of light rail tracks along 4th Street; reconstruction of the plaza in front of the headhouse; restoration of historic features in the Great Hall and concourse; construction of new staircases, elevators and escalators from the concourse to ground level; and installation of platforms with tactile edges and canopies. The light rail runs along 4th Street, and the train platforms and bus bays are located south of Kellogg Blvd with access from the concourse as well as new entrances from the street.
Through the selection and use of environmentally friendly materials and design solutions, the building was awarded Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification. Part of this sustainability goal was met by maximizing energy efficiency and reusing existing building features. Completed in late 2013, Union Depot was initially served by Metro Transit buses and had amenities for cyclists. The Central Corridor light rail—an 11 mile line connecting downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis via the University of Minnesota, the Midway district and the Capitol complex—went into operation in June, 2014. The complex can also accommodate proposed commuter rail lines and high-speed service to Chicago.
Funding for the $243 million project was obtained from a diverse mix of federal, state and local agencies. One of the largest grants was $45.3 million allocated under Section 1301 of SAFETEA-LU, the federal transportation bill for fiscal years 2005-2009. These funds were specifically distributed to large-scale projects of national or regional significance. In early 2010, the RCRRA was awarded a $35 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Forty million dollars came through the Federal Railroad Administration’s High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program, while $4 million from the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) Bus and Bus Facilities Program helped finance the new bus terminal. Other funds used in the project were obtained from state bonds and a tax levy imposed by the RCRRA.
Work on Union Depot was subject to review by the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office since the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the project was funded with federal and state monies. Important restoration work included cleaning of the marble columns in the Great Hall; microscopic paint analysis to determine, and reinstate, the original 1920s paint scheme; repair of decorative plaster and terracotta in the concourse; cleaning and repointing of the brick and stone on the interior and exterior; and restoration of terrazzo flooring. Historic preservation efforts at Union Depot were recognized in 2011 with a Preservation Alliance of Minnesota Honor Award.
During the work, various artifacts—shoes, coffee cans, a conductor’s log book—were uncovered and have been put on display along with historic photographs. The FTA encourages public art as a component of its funded projects; therefore, the RCRRA set aside approximately $1.25 million for 10 works at Union Depot that include a photographic mural tracing the history of the site and suspended sculptures in the Great Hall and at the new Kellogg Blvd. entrance.
For the residents of the Lowertown neighborhood, Union Depot is more than a transportation hub. The depot and 33 acre site figure prominently in the 2012 Greater Lowertown Master Plan. Put together by residents and other stakeholders, it will guide the future development of the area. The plan imagines the front plaza as a flexible festive space that could accommodate art installations, live performances or food service, thereby encouraging residents and visitors to interact with the depot. Surface parking lots adjacent to Union Depot could be redeveloped as mixed-use properties to include housing and commercial and office space that will increase pedestrian activity.
Lowertown has strong connections to the origins of St. Paul and railroading in Minnesota. Prior to the arrival of European-American settlers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the land along the banks of the Mississippi was visited by bands of Dakota American Indians. Located between three tribes, the area was a natural meeting point for trade. To the east of Union Depot, in what is now the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, the Dakota were drawn to a cave they called Wakan Tipi, or “spirit house,” that was considered sacred. Early visitors recall that the walls of the cave were incised with images while water flowed from deep within. In the warm months, the Mdewakanton Dakota maintained a village downstream of Wakan Tipi that they used as a base for fishing and hunting.
As American settlement pushed westward over the Appalachian Mountains following the Revolutionary War, American Indian tribes in the Midwest were often forced to give up their lands or exchange them for other parcels. By 1837, the Dakota had ceded their lands east of the Mississippi River, and in 1851, under the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, they did the same for territories on the far bank. This process opened up the upper Mississippi River Valley to new settlement, especially in what is now southern Minnesota.
Much of the river is lined with steep and rugged limestone and sandstone bluffs that can reach up to 80 feet in height; thus, early settlers were keen to spot natural breaks for use as landing points. One of those was at Lowertown, where Phelan Creek and Trout Brook join the larger watercourse and create a gentle path to the uplands. The location was also valuable since falls and rapids further upriver (at Minneapolis) prevented easy travel to the north and west. In 1840, Father Lucien Galtier established a church near the landing. Dedicated to St. Paul, it eventually gave its name to the community that supplied newly-arrived settlers with basic provisions.
St. Paul received various honors in 1849: it was incorporated as a town, became a county seat, and was chosen as the capital of the Minnesota Territory. Steamboat traffic gives testimony to the fast growth of the town: in 1854, the Lower Landing saw 256 steamboat arrivals, but only four years later, that number had increased to 1,068. Between 1849 and 1860, the population rose from 910 to more than 10,000.
Although steamboats dominated the early trade, the railroads were not far behind. The first rail line in the territory, ten miles owned by the St. Paul and Pacific Railroad Company, was completed between St. Paul and Minneapolis in 1862. It set off a railroad boom centered on St. Paul that by 1872 gave Minnesota more than 2,000 miles of track operated by 15 railroads. As they did in most cases, the railroads followed the path of least resistance—meaning they laid their tracks in the valley formed by Phelan Creek and Trout Brook.
Marshy areas were filled in and the blocks north of the river were eventually dominated by office/warehouse complexes. They contained wholesalers, distributors and manufacturers that took advantage of proximity to the rails to import and export goods. Between 1881 and 1890, the value of manufactured goods rose from $5.5 million to $61.3 million. Much of the visual unity of Lowertown lies in these industrial buildings, which were constructed with locally made red and buff brick as well as pink granite, sandstone and limestone quarried at sites along the river.
Lowertown flourished as a business center into the mid-20th century. As federal transportation funding priorities shifted towards highways and air passenger infrastructure, freight traffic increasingly moved towards trucks and intercity passenger railroading went into decline. New warehouses and distribution centers were constructed in the Midway area between the Twin Cities and closer to the new highways. The neighborhood around Union Depot lost many tenants in those decades, but by the late 1960s and early 1970s, artists and others began to move into the abandoned warehouses and lofts.
A few buildings were rehabilitated for adaptive reuse, and in 1978 the Lowertown Redevelopment Corporation was established to guide the revitalization of the district and infuse it with renewed vitality. Historic preservation was an important part of the organization’s redevelopment strategy, as the neighborhood’s history and distinct industrial structures set Lowertown apart from other downtown areas. To further demonstrate their commitment to preservation, residents supported listing of the neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, which opened up the possibility of using federal historic preservation tax credits to rehabilitate many of the older buildings.
Today, Lowertown is noted for its vibrant arts community, including more than 600 artists who produce works in many mediums. Extensive arts programming attracts attendees from across the greater Twin Cities. One of the most popular events is the biannual spring and fall Art Crawl when studio doors are flung open to the public. On weekends, more than 20,000 shoppers and foodies flock to the St. Paul Farmers’ Market where one can find just about any foodstuff—especially locally grown produce and dairy items.
Those in search of a more contemplative environment head east of Lowertown where the 29 acre Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary abuts the Mississippi River. Once used by breweries and the railroads, the land was rehabilitated to remove contaminants and allow it to support a variety of plants and more than 2,000 trees. Landscapes include picturesque ponds, floodplain forest, oak savanna and rolling prairie covered in native wildflowers. Patient observers might spot turkey vultures, bald eagles or redtail hawks, among other wildlife. Although not accessible, Wakan Tipi is visible across one of the ponds.
Amtrak provides both ticketing and baggage services at this facility, which is served by two daily trains.