Learn‎ > ‎

Union Station

A Brief History of Union Station

Washington, D.C.'s Union Station was built jointly by the Pennsylvania (PRR) and Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroads on an area of swampland near the U.S. Capitol Building. The station, designed by architect Daniel Burnham, opened with the arrival of a B&O Railroad passenger train from Pittsburgh on October 27, 1907. A magnificent gateway to our nation's capital, the station has served the needs of the traveling public continuously since that year. 

Besides the B&O and PRR, the station also served the Chesapeake & Ohio, Southern, Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac (RF & P), Atlantic Coast Line, and Seaboard Railroads. During World War II as many as 200,000 passengers a day passed through the station.

During the 1980s the station underwent a major renovation, costing over $160 Million Dollars.  Completed in 1988, the effort restored the station's grandeur and remade it into a transportation, shopping, and dining megaplex.
The station is now served by Amtrak, VRE, MARC, and Metro (red line).

 Amtrak Photo by Alex Mayes/Teresa Renner

Two Generations at Union Station Acela and Pullman - Photo by J. Lilly

Have you ever wondered nostalgically what it was like to take a train out of Washington, D.C. Union Station in its hey day? Most of us have probably only seen a glimpse through photos or through stories told by friends second-hand. We've found a wonderful new video on youtube which gives you a real peek at the experience and traveling by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. There are scenes from inside the train and also of the train from trackside. The video also talks about the locomotive, many different jobs required to keep the train running and the passengers and happy, comfortable, and safe. Running time is 10 minutes for this black and white video.
And after this video has whet your appetite, be sure to join us this year for a journey aboard our classic Pullman, Dover Harbor and experience the golden age of rail travel first-hand for yourself. So stay tuned to our web site or sign-up for our e-mail list. Trip announcements are made on the main page of www.dcnrhs.org

Riding a Train from Union Station


Timeline of Key Dates in the History of Union Station
Lithograph Image of Union Station from the Air
From a postcard - Lithograph Image of the front of UnionStation - from the Collection of J. Lilly

1901: The McMillan Commission determined that further development of the L’Enfant Plan necessitated removing existing railroad facilities from the National Mall.

1903: Congress approved the union terminal site on the north side of Massachusetts Avenue, with D.H. Burnham & Co. as the building’s architects. Burnham and chief designer Peirce Anderson employed the elegant Beaux-Arts style and drew on Rome’s Baths of Diocletian and Triumph arches for the building’s inspiration. The glorious result helped set the tone for Washington’s monumental architecture for the next forty years.

1907: Union Station opened with the arrival of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s Pittsburgh Express on October 27th. The rail station went into full service the following year.

1917-8: The station became a center of American efforts during World War I, moving deploying soldiers to ships bound for Europe and civilians to the capital to manage tremendous logistical demands.

1939: President Franklin Roosevelt welcomed King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to Washington in the station’s State Reception Room.

Union Station During World War II - Photo from Library of Congress Collection
1942 – 1945: The all-out effort for World War II meant the station handled as many as 200,000 people in twenty-four hours. Parade magazine said that the building held the “pulse of a nation at war.”

1953 – on January 15th a runaway train (with failed brakes) called the Federal Express from Boston pulled by GG-1 No. 4876  crashed through the platform area and into the baggage room (today’s food court).  Miraculously no one was killed. As this was 5 days before the Eisenhower Inaugural, the hole in the floor was boarded over.  After the inauguration, the GG-1 was cut into 3 pieces and sent back to Altoona where it was reassembled and put back in service.

1945 – 1965: Non-commuter train travel declined by 84 percent.

1964: The Beatles arrived at Union Station from New York City to perform their first North American concert at Uline Arena, just east of the station.

1976: Union Station became the National Visitor Center, an attempt to create a central place for tourists to orient themselves to the capital. It closed in 1981 after failing to draw sufficient crowds.   See below (demise & rebirth) for more on 70’s and NVC days.

1981: Congress passed legislation to convert the station into a festival mall and transportation center, including the addition of a new railroad terminal to the north of the original concourse. The nonprofit Union Station Redevelopment Corporation oversaw the restoration of Union Station, ensured its return as a functioning rail station, and created a retail/entertainment destination.

1988: Union Station reopened its doors with a gala celebration. A public-private partnership funded the $160 million effort to preserve the station as a national treasure. It was one of the largest, most complex public-private restoration projects ever attempted in the United States.

2011: On August 23 a 5.8 Magnitude earthquake does major damage to station.  Year plus long project commences shortly afterwards to stabilize and repair damage.

From a postcard - Lithograph Image of Columbus Circle in front of UnionStation - from the Collection of J. Lilly

There is an excellent book on the station called "Union Station A History of Washington's Grand Terminal" by Carol M. Highsmith and Ted Landphair.


Take the a Tour of Union Station with your Phone.  Get the App here.

icture of the original restaurant from Union Station circa the 1910s.  Savarins, as the restaurant was known, billed itself as Washington's Best Restaurant. It was located in what is known now as the East Hall of Union Station.  At the time it was one of the few places in Washington, D.C. where an African-American could get a meal at a table in a restaurant. Sadly though, it is our understanding is that the proprietors would seat African-American diners behind a screen in one corner of the room. Photo courtesy of J. Lilly

* Interior Photo by J. Lilly
* Exterior Photo by Mary Ries 
* Acela picture by Ray Pallesch
* WW II Photo from Library of Congess Collection. 
Thanks to Mr. John Hankey & Mr. William Wright for their assistance with developing the information for this page.

Washington, D.C. Union Station Web Site

The station is managed by a not-for-profit called the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation.  Their web site is www.usrcdc.com.