The 1892 Duluth Union Depot

This Month's Grand Old Building

Originally published November 2013
The 1892 Duluth Union Depot, photographed in 2011. (Image: Dennis O’Hara)

When the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad from St. Paul to Duluth was completed in 1870, the LS&M along with the Northern Pacific railroad—both owned by Jay Cooke—built a passenger depot along 5th Avenue below Michigan Street. It was a simple, two-story wood-frame building with just two rooms on the main floor called the Union Depot because it served more than one railroad. It was all Duluth really needed, especially after Cooke ran out of money and his railroads were reorganized by others. The LS&M reemerged as the St. Paul & Duluth. As Duluth slowly pulled itself out of the depression left in the wake of Cooke’s financial disaster, more and more railroads began serving Duluth. Thanks to the grain and lumber trades, Duluth boomed in the 1880s, creating more need for rail service as immigrant laborers poured in by the thousands. By 1889, the original Union Depot was simply not enough to serve Duluth’s need for a larger passenger station.

That’s when a conglomerate of six railroads—the SP&D, the NP, the Duluth South Shore & Atlantic, the Duluth & Iron Range, Wisconsin Central, and the Duluth & Winnipeg—came together to create the Duluth Union Depot Company and build the Zenith City a new depot worthy of a city on the rise. Led by  A. B. Plough and D. A. McKinley, the group chose a sight directly in front of the 1870 Depot and had a crew blasting out the foundation by February, 1890. They also hired Boston architects Peabody & Sterns, who in May 1890 turned in plans for a three-story building 420 feet long and 220 wide with a “Renaissance period” design, which apparently meant several towers, including a central clock tower designed to reach 150 feet into the air. The News Tribune reported that the central tower would be capped with a statue representing “Duluth.” The paper was not impressed: “Just how Duluth in quotation marks looks in statue is something of a conundrum.”

The original Duluth Union Depot sits in front of the newly constructed Spalding Hotel in 1890, just as discussion of the depot’s replacement was at its peak. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

A month later the paper attacked the Depot’s builders for working much too slow to replace the old depot, calling the old building “unbearable and disgraceful” and stated that “the average Duluthian would prefer to receive twenty thousand visitors a few months hence in a circus tent rather than the ridiculous tumble-down shanty that at present serves as a very worrisome policy for a union depot.”

Perhaps the construction had slowed while the architect’s plans were being revised. A new design eliminated the central clock tower and its “Duluth” statue, but the plan remained elaborate, patterned after a French Norman-style chateau: steeped roofs, heavy round towers, and dormers. It was faced with yellow brick, limestone, sandstone, and granite. The three-story building—not including the train shed—was 203 feet long and 70 feet wide, much smaller than the first design.

The Michigan Street level led to the train shed and contained mechanical rooms, baggage storage, and a waiting room for immigrants. The Superior Street level held a large central “general waiting” room, a smoking room, a barber shop, a gentlemen’s toilet, a ladies’ waiting room, a Western Union telegraph office, and a ticket office. A fruit and news stand was established next to the main entrance. The top floor contained offices used by the various railroads. A 16-foot wide granite stairway led from the Superior Street level to the Michigan Street level in a anticipation of the large crowds of people who would be using the terminal. Construction took nearly two years, and cost $615,000.

The original plans for the Duluth Union Depot featured an elaborate clock tower. (Image: Zenith City Press)

The train shed—410 feet long and 120 feet wide—was built over the 1870 Union Depot. After the depot officials moved their offices into the new building on October 15, 1891, the 1870 depot was dismantled and carried away. The same newspaper that called the old depot “disgraceful” wrote that the old depot “gave more joy to the then residents [of Duluth] then does perhaps the magnificent new union depot that is to supersede it,” and noted that “the life of the old house measures the life of Duluth.” Its construction heralded great things for the future of the city. Like the old depot, it added, the new depot is a symbol of growth to come.

Officials promised that that new depot would be open by December. Indeed, the tracks were in place by December 8. But as the year ended, Depot officials reported there was still a lot of work to be done before the railroads could move in and the depot would be open for service. The trains kept running throughout this time, with no depot operating. Although we could find no record of the event, some researchers believe the first “official” train to depart the new Depot did so in March, 1892.

The Union Depot was built for passenger service; the railroads had freight depots all over town. So the depot brought together people from all walks of life, from wealthy lumber barons and mining executives (some with private cars) to average working stiff to newly arrived immigrants, most of whom could not read, write, or speak English—the union must have sounded like the proverbial Tower of Babel. Many of these immigrants had been recruited in their homelands to to operate commercial fishing boats on Lake Superior or to mine or on the Mesabi or Vermilion Range; many more came to better their lives and began life in America working as unskilled laborers in Duluth’s mills and on its coal and ore docks.

The Duluth Union Depot photographed shortly after its construction in 1892. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

By 1900 26 trains a day passed through the depot. At its peak the Duluth Union Depot handled sixty trains every day. But as automobiles became more popular and highways were built, train travel began to decline. It was further affected after the second world war, with the birth of passenger airplane service. By the 1960s, passenger service had all but disappeared throughout the country. According to the North Shore Scenic Railway, “In the winter of 1969 a lone BUDD Rail Diesel Car with less than ten people on board departed Duluth’s Union Depot on its final run to meet the Northern Pacific’s North Coast Limited in Staples, Minnesota, for the latter’s run to the West Coast. None of the people on board that train would continue on, they just wanted to say they were the last to ride a passenger train out of Duluth.

Five years later, the Depot was once again offering passenger service. The federal government had created the National Railroad Passenger Corporation—better known as Amtrak—in 1971 to provide intercity passenger service that railroads once offered. In 1974 Amtrak started passenger service to and from Duluth’s Union Depot, offering daily trains to St. Paul. While the service was popular, accordion to the North Shore Scenic railway, “political restructuring and other cutbacks in service ended Amtrak’s 10 year stay in [Duluth]. The last Amtrak passenger train left Duluth on Easter Sunday, 1985.”

Duluth’s 1910 Soo Line Depot photographed some time in the 1960s. (Image: Lake Superior railroad Museum)

Before Amtrak temporarily returned rail passenger service in 1974, there was a local movement to create a cultural center for St. Louis County, a place that would house art, cultural, and historic organizations rent free under one roof—the St. Louis County Heritage & Arts Center. But where to house it? Duluth had two empty passenger depots—both slated for demolition—that seemed like likely candidates: the Union Depot and the 1910 Soo Line Depot just a block west on Superior Street. The Soo Line’s neoclassical depot was chosen for the center, but upon further inspection it was discovered that the building’s lower level was flooded with water and the integrity of its structure was severely compromised.

Instead, the 1892 Union Depot was saved. In 1971 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and in 1974 it was converted to the St. Louis County Heritage & Arts Center through a $4.7 million renovation and restoration. The building houses the Duluth Art Institute, the Lake Superior Railroad Museum, the North Shore Scenic Railroad, the Duluth Playhouse, the St. Louis County Historical Society, and other culture-related groups as well as the Duluth Depot Foundation, the center’s governing board.

And chances are the Union Depot will once again serve as a passenger train terminal if current plans go through for the Northern Lights Express, a “higher-speed” rail service planned between Duluth/Superior and Minneapolis/St. Paul.

This Month's Grand Old Building

5 Responses to The 1892 Duluth Union Depot

  1. I enjoy all your wonderful articles of the different buildings in Duluth. I was born and raised in northeast Pennsylvania, but lived in Duluth from 1953 until 1958 and then moved back to Pa. I read all your articles and find them so fascinating. I saw many of the buildings you have articles on and really wish I was still living in Duluth. I visit Duluth about every 5 years, it has changed so much since the 1950s. I am so glad we have computers now, I check the canal and aerial bridge every day and love watching the ships. I remember the bowery but was sorry I never went into the Lyceum theater. I worked at the City National Bank, Duluth Transit, and the St. Louis County Courthouse, and shopped at the Glass Block, Freimuths, Orecks, and loved the First Street store,they had wonderful sales. Thank you so much for your articles. Anella Fry

  2. Thank you, David, for adding even more to our brief history of the Depot. Fantastic stuff here!

  3. I enjoyed this article on the history of the Duluth Union Depot to go along with a 1981 stencil sketch of this depot by John Cartwright that I got this last week to hang on my office wall.

    My dad, a Railway Post Office mail clerk foreman, entered and left the Duluth Union Depot working on the Duluth & Minneapolis RPO car of the NP “Skalley” passenger train to the Twin Cities and also on the Great Northern RR Gopher and Badger trains to the Twin Cities on the Duluth & St. Paul RPO in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. I remember often meeting my dad’s trains as they arrived in the Duluth Union Depot after “running the mail” between the Twin Cities and the Twin Ports.

    My dad also ran on the CStPM&O’s (“Omaha” Railroad) Duluth & Altoona RPO on the CStPM&O’s “Chicago Limited” and “Duluth/Superior Limited” passenger trains between the Twin Ports and Chicago out of Duluth’s “Omaha Depot” (not mentioned in this article) from 1945-1959, when it was discontinued.

    I recently told the story of the Railway Post Office in Minnesota, including service to the Twin Ports in the Spring 2015 issue of the Minnesota Historical Society’s “Minnesota History Magazine” in an article entitled ” The Mail is Coming: 100 Years of the Railway Post Office in Minnesota.”

    At the height of the Railway Mail Service in MN, 91% of all communication was by mail, handled through RPO cars and delivered to train platforms of passenger train depots like the Union Depot in Duluth for delivery to Post Offices for distribution.

    What few people realized is that most of the bank to bank, bank to business, business to business money transactions for close to 100 years in MN was also transferred from town to town as registered mail on RPO cars at the head end of each passenger train. Carrying large sums of money in RPO cars triggered a number of train robbery attempts. It was the reason spectators, watching arriving trains with RPO cars, saw all the RPO clerks who were in the doorway of mail cars were armed with pistols to guard the mail. As one mail clerk told me, “we weren’t armed to guard Mother’s Day cards.”

    The first three RPO’s out of Duluth, according to the 1882 10th Railway Mail Service Division Schedule were the following: (1) The Duluth & St. Paul RPO on the Duluth & St. Paul RR (later the Northern Pacific), connecting the Twin Ports with the Twin Cities, (2) the Duluth & Brainerd RPO on the Northern Pacific and (3) the Duluth & Eau Claire RPO on the CStPM& O (Omaha) RR with mail connections from the Twin Ports to Chicago via connections at Eau Claire with the St. Paul & Elroy RPO that connected with the Chicago & Winona RPO taking the mail to Chicago.

    By August 1897, five years after the Union Depot was built, the following RPO’s served Duluth: (1) The CStPM&O RPO’s on the Chicago & Duluth RPO (consolidating all C &NW and CStPM& O RPO’s to Chicago into one RPO, wrapping the Duluth & Eau Claire RPO into it) cleanly linking the Twin Ports with Chicago… and the Duluth, Spooner & St. Paul RPO linking the Twin Ports with a second route (competing with the NP) to the Twin Cities via western Wisconsin.
    (2) The Northern Pacific RPO’s out of the Twin Ports were the Duluth & St. Paul RPO, Duluth & Staples RPO, and the Duluth & Abbotsford RPO.
    (3) The Duluth & Iron Range RR ran one RPO to Ely, MN: The Ely & Duluth RPO and another RPO ran to Virginia, MN as the Virginia & Duluth RPO.
    (4) The Duluth South Shore & Atlantic (for-runner of the Soo Line) RPO serving the Twin Ports was the Marquette & Duluth RPO.
    (5) The Duluth, Milaca & St. Paul RPO on the Eastern MN RR (later became the Great Northern RR), another mail link from the Twin Ports to the Twin Cities.

    If the walls could talk in the Duluth Union Depot, they would tell thousands of stories of great interest, as trains, some 60 a day at its height, with its passengers and mail arrived and departed from this marvelous structure. Today, the Duluth Union Depot has been transformed into a wonderful historical center in the Twin Ports.

    This is a great story to be told to the next generation who hasn’t rode a train or seen the morning mail trains with passengers arriving behind steam driven locomotives from far away and exciting places with news from around the world. Depots, like the Duluth Union Depot, were “happening places” back in the day, the very center of the life of the Zenith City in the first half of the 20th Century. Thanks for telling this story.

  4. The Depot is where my husband & I met (during our internships), where we fell in love, where he proposed, and where we had our rehearsal dinner. Such a special building in our eyes 🙂

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