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Ask Little, Get Much At Union Station Archive

By Charles Trentelman

 

A friend wanted to know how many lines of track Union Station served when it was dealing with the heavy passenger traffic of the 40s and 50s because she does a really fun travel blog that you can read here: (click)

 

“Maybe eight,” was my guess, but in Journalism, as the Micky Mouse Club used to say, we never guess, we look it up so I asked Gene Nopper, who was manning the desk at the Union Station Library Archive Wednesday morning.

 

Now, most places, you ask “how many,” the answer is pretty straightforward: Eight, or ten, or five, or something. What do you expect?

 

Not here.

 

Gene, in his late 70s, squinted, pondered, said he wasn’t sure and turned to a big picture of the rail yards at night taken sometime in the way-past and started to count rails .

 

“I think 11,” he said, but then counted again and got 13, and I pondered, figured maybe 12.

 

Then Gene sat down to a computer and pulled up an aerial view of the yards, taken in the 50s. On that we could see five barns, those V-shaped covers that passengers stand under with a track on each side, “and along here is track 11,” he said, which went by the ice house over on the west side of the tracks. Back when refrigeration on the trains was provided by ice, the trains would go by that house, ice would be poured in through the roof of he refrigerated car and it all stayed cold.

Gene Nopper

 

“They only used the first three or four tracks for passengers, as I recall,” Gene said. “The farther tracks were for freight, or storage,” at least, he said, when he was working there.

 

Oh? An eyewitness.

 

Yes, he said, he worked there from 1950 to 1960. “I was here when it was a station when it was big,” he said, working summers to get through college.

 

The railroad was in his family, he said, and dug out a picture of his father, Cyril Nopper, standing in the burned wreckage of the 2nd Union Station that burned in 1923. His dad worked there, he said.

 

Ogden in his time at Union Station was so different from now it is impossible to describe. He worked in the laundry, in the commissary, on the dining cars, in the baggage cars and on the platform, doing the railroads grunt work, watching the city hum around him.

 

“It was an exciting time. 25th Street was never quiet,” he said. “I could come out of the baggage room at 3 a.m., go up 25th Street, find a restaurant for lunch or breakfast and it was always full,” both with passengers from trains passing through and with locals.

 

He misses the old buildings by Union Station that are now gone: The Railway Express building, which was the UPS of its day; the Commissary building, both south of Union Station.

 

The Laundry Building is still there, derelict, a future extension for the Union Station Railroad Museum if Union Station Foundation ever wins the lottery. In its day it did all the Union Pacific’s laundry and from Sun Valley ski resort.

 

Could the railroad have that much laundry? All it had were the tablecloths from the dining cars, he said, and the bedding the sleeper cars generated.

Cyril Nopper, 1923 (Union Station Archive)

 

But this was the one laundry for the whole railroad. “The laundry processed dirty linen from Sun Valley to Chicago to Los Angeles; it came on the baggage cars,” he said.

 

The laundry building wasn’t built until after World War II. The railroad figured passenger travel would boom and wanted to be ready. Sadly, the 1950s marked the decline of passenger rail.

 

“You could come down here to the depot in the 40s and you could buy a ticket to any city in the United States,” he said, and get there, too. The nation’s rail network was that big.

 

All gone now. What killed it?

 

“Dwight Eisenhower, the automobile and the Interstate Highway System,” he said.

 

President Eisenhower came home from World War II with memories of how quickly Germany could shift whole divisions of troops across the country using the modern Autobahns. He had visions of the United States doing the same thing, which is why the first bills for funding the Interstate Highways were defense acts.

 

Interstates are everywhere,  the automobile is king and Union Station in Ogden doesn’t have any passenger rails any more. It has the memories of them, though, and to hear those all you need to do is go to the station and ask.

(This blog is written by Charles Trentelman, a retired columnist from the Ogden, Utah, “Standard-Examiner” who is volunteering at Union Station. Any opinions in it are his, not those of  the Union Station Foundation or the City of Ogden. You can contact Charlie directly at summicron12000@yahoo.com.)

 

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