Digging Union Station: 90 years of dust, no ghosts

Union Station’s business manager Tracy Ehrig said a chunk of one of the original beams holding up Union Station’s roof is still down in the basement.

Would I like to see that? Lead on.

Union Station’s current building was built 90 years ago. The massive beams holding up the roof were hoisted into place by a crane and pulley system. Apparently they had a chunk of one left over that they just left under the floor of the grand hall.


Tracy Ehrig examines the old beam. Note brick pillar.

After the previous Union Station burned in 1923 it was demolished, the site cleared and the new station built on the foundations of the old. There is a partial basement on the north end with a row of safes used by the various railroad companies, but the rest is just dirt floor that varies from three to six feet below the ceiling.

The area was used to run utility pipes, the crude air conditioning system, sewer and electric and the like. Steam pipes run all over (the station is heated by a boiler), intertwined with telephone, computer and electrical wires, conduit, and who knows what.

The hunk of beam, of course, is way deep in this mess. “Bring a flashlight,” said Tracy. “Some areas, you’ll need it.”

So in we went, hunched over, stepping under and through wires, crabbing on hands and knees, bumping heads on things I tried not to think about. We stooped and crept and crawled, avoiding hot pipes, hoping that dangling wire wasn’t attached to anything horribly electrical.

The beam is about 18 inches square and perhaps 12 feet long. I put my cell phone next to it for scale, who knows why it’s there. Too hard to remove once they installed the floor of the great hall, would be my best guess.

Old station’s foundation stones, repurposed.

I found the pillars holding the interior walls and floors of the station interesting. There seemed to be two types: Older pillars made of large stones around a concrete core, and newer brick pillars.

The older ones, of course, are from the original station that burned. They look as if they were designed to look good as well as do structural duty, so I wondered if, before 1923, they weren’t on the exterior of the building somehow. You can see where the top is cut off square and newer concrete (reinforced?) put in the core to hold the new floor up.

The brick pillars are more functional and ugly.

Running down the center of the space is the original air conditioning ducts — a metal tube four feet tall, with branches connecting to the floor of the grand hall.


Tracy found a piece of grating

The idea was to take cool air out of the basement of the station, pump it through the floor and into the hall. As it warmed it would rise and go out the rose windows on either end of the hall, which were open to the outside air. The fan is a lovely example of 1920s engineering, complete with original maker’s plate

You are wondering: Did we find any ghosts? Tunnels? Neat stuff?


Tiles laid out as if on display

We did find some cool old hexagonal tiles, laid out neat as you please on one of the foundation pillars. No clue where they are from or why.

We found some bits of the grates that used to be in the grand hall’s floor to let the cool air through.

We found a lot of junk — 90 years is a long time for crud to accumulate.

Tunnel advocates will have to look elsewhere. The east wall, facing Wall Avenue, has no opening through which a tunnel could emerge, as ghostly as any long wandering spirits who, if they are still there, kept their distance.

Ancient air conditioning ducts, now disconnected.