ST. PAUL, Minn. (WCCO) – Step into the grand old neoclassical building in St. Paul’s lowertown and you’re immediately taken back to a time when coal-puffing locomotives carried passengers from the Twin Cities to points far and wide.

Karl Keller stepped off one of the many train platforms at Union Depot back in 1951. He was a young European immigrant from Yugoslavia, coming to his new home in St. Paul.

“We were picked up by our relatives and taken to South St. Paul. That’s where we settled then for good,” Keller said.

Keller was among the thousands of visitors perusing the cavernous building on Saturday after Union Depot reopened to the public as a regional transportation hub.

The last trains rolled from the depot on April 30, 1971 when the Great Northern Empire Builder departed for the last time. When the building closed to the public it fell into disrepair. Through the years it was repurposed for other uses, but was never fully utilized.

In 1974, it was designated on the National Registry of Historic Places. Then, in 2001, the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority formed a task force to explore new uses for the building. A few years later federal funding was secured to begin the planned renovation.

Now, after a $243 million facelift, Union Depot will serve passengers once again as a regional transit hub – connecting commuters with light rail, Metro Transit, Jefferson Bus Lines as well as future daily Amtrak train service.

State, county and local officials unveiled the renovated depot on Saturday during the the grand re-dedication ceremony. Thousands of visitors poured into a building that many had never seen before.

Still, older Minnesotans like Gary Nelson recalled the building with fond memories of times past. Wearing his old Great Northern train conductor’s uniform, Nelson remembers the date that he first was on the job.

“Dec. 13, 1967,” Nelson said.

The former Empire Builder conductor remembers the depot’s cavernous, curved ceilings, fine woodwork and special decor.

To his delight, Union Depot is restored to soon host new modes of transit.

“High-speed…trains to Chicago, and the Central Corridor Light Rail coming in here. St. Paul’s truly going to be a hub again,” he said.

The 27,000 square foot waiting room was for years St. Paul’s community living room. Its important architectural features are once again pressed and polished.

Longtime Great Northern Society member Jim Chinquist couldn’t be happier.

“The concourse – the way they restored it with the windows opened up and everything – we never saw that, so it’s just gorgeous,” Chinquist said.

Preserving transportation’s past, with an eye to its future.

Bill Hudson


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