By Maribel Montes, Albert Romero, Michael Garcia and Ruth Vise. Updated in 2018
It is said that Pancho Villa used the bell tower of Union Depot as a lookout during an attack on Juárez during the Mexican Revolution. Today that tower reminds us that the railroad made El Paso into a city. Once a lively social center of El Paso, the historic Union Depot stands as a quiet sentinel over downtown.
With the arrival of the railroads in 1881, the small town of El Paso blossomed. The Southern Pacific arrived first, followed closely by the Santa Fe, and the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio, the Mexico Central and the Texas and Pacific.
Bankers, merchants, real estate dealers, cattlemen, miners, gamblers, saloon keepers, railroad men and the “undesirables” of society all flocked to El Paso. In May 1880, the town had between 700 to 1,000 citizens. In June 1881, there were 1,500 locals, and by 1890, this number had grown to 10,338.
Image caption: This shot of the Union's Depot's interior shows the second floor balustrade, a feature architect D. H. Burnham favored. Photo by Maribel Montes
The first train station built in El Paso was the Southern Pacific Depot, sometimes called the Stanton Street Depot because of its location on Main Street halfway between North Kansas and North Stanton streets. The El Paso and Northern used a shed near Ange Street, and the El Paso and Southwestern built a depot on the southwest corner of Franklin and Stanton streets.
By 1902, seven railroads each had different stations, all of them in appalling condition. People who had to change railroad lines had a difficult time going from one station to another. Many El Pasoans believed El Paso needed one central depot, although some businessmen opposed the idea. They believed that the multiple depots allowed passengers waiting to change trains time to shop and to see the city.
Historian Leon Metz wrote that “cross-country touring groups realized they would perhaps be stranded briefly between trains so they would book acts locally in advance.”
In 1899, C. B. Rogers started a building fund for a new station with a cash donation of $500. In 1901, the Terminal Association was formed to create the Union Depot Corporation. Ernst Kohlberg, C. R. Morehead, Frank Powers, Richard Caples and J. T. Dieter were among the first directors. B. F. Hammett Jr. and J. A. Eddy proposed constructing the Union Depot to the City Council.
On Feb. 7, 1903, architect Daniel H. Burnham of Chicago and contractor Frank Powers of El Paso were awarded the contract for building the Union Depot. D. H. Burnham is known for designing the elegant and still bustling Union Station in Washington, D. C., as well as Chicago’s master plan for downtown.
In November 1905, the Union Depot was completed, built in a neo-classical style in red brick. Its most outstanding feature was a bell tower with a spire standing six stories high located on the building’s northeast corner. Inside the depot, several smooth-surfaced center columns offered contrast to the scored effect of the corner columns. A gallery with a simple balustrade encircled the second floor space. The cost of the new train station was approximately $260,000.
On Feb. 6, 1906, the El Paso Herald ran this headline: “NEW BUILDING TO BE OPENED WITH A BIG RECEPTION.” Nearly 10,000 people passed through the doors that night to inspect the marvel. The Douglas (Arizona) Band and Concha’s Orchestra provided music for the evening.
The depot opened for business on March 1, 1906, welcoming 22 trains per day during its first year of operation. El Paso historian Leon Metz wrote, “Up to the early 1940’s it was said that the Depot remained one of the busiest places in El Paso as thousands of travelers arrived and went.”
One attraction of the depot was the establishment of the Harvey House restaurant operated by Annie Burns on the second floor. An entrepreneur from Kansas named Fred Harvey, having worked for both restaurants and railroads, observed the dearth of good food available to train passengers. With just a handshake, Harvey negotiated a deal with the Santa Fe Railroad in 1876 whereby the Santa Fe would provide the buildings and carry the supplies while Harvey would hire, train and supervise the workers and provide for food and service.
The waitresses, recruited from the Midwest and East, became known as the “Harvey Girls.” Newspaper ads called for “young women of good character, attractive and intelligent, 18 to 30.” The servers provided travelers with excellent food on fine china and linen with courtesy and promptness.
Harvey paid each girl up to $17.50 per month with free room, board and uniforms, consisting of a long-sleeved black dress with a stiff collar, black shoes and stockings and a white wrap-around apron.
Will Rogers said that Harvey “kept the West in food and wives,” as many a Harvey Girl married locals. Although the girls were asked not to marry during their first year of work, some historians estimate that more than 5,000 Harvey Girls married and settled in the West.
Besides railroad restaurants, Harvey branched out to include newsrooms, lunch counters, railroad dining cars and hotels throughout the Southwest, Kansas, Oklahoma and wherever else the Santa Fe had major terminals, including Chicago. Harvey’s sons maintained their father’s company after he died and kept family control through the 1930s.
El Paso’s Harvey House was considered one of the city’s finer restaurants. Old-timers remembered the Harvey House as the best place for a young man to take his girl for dinner. The restaurant was known for serving dishes like raw oysters, artichokes and lobster.
The construction of the depot brought a great deal of economic growth to the city by way of new hotels, restaurants, warehouses and rooming houses. Ten major hotels catered to railroad passengers, including the Alberta, the Carlyle, the Raymond, the Bristol, the Greentree, the Krahmer, the Chicago, the Phoenix, the Knox and the Gale, seven of which were on San Francisco Street.
The Union Depot also helped establish trade between the United States and Mexico since it was the first international train station in the United States. By 1929, three well-known banks had located to the vicinity. More than 30 trains arrived and departed daily, with the depot serving thousands of travelers.
In 1940, the Women’s Department of the Chamber of Commerce began a campaign to remodel the exterior of the depot to give it a more Southwestern look, hiring contractor R. E. McKee. Many pioneer El Pasoans opposed the remodeling, feeling that the building should remain as original as possible.
In the end, the great steeple and the canopy over the entrance on the train side were removed, and a small clock tower installed. The red brick was covered with stucco and cream-colored paint, and the iron fence was replaced with an adobe wall.
The depot welcomed dignitaries and presidents, celebrities and artists for many years, even Elvis Presley, the King of Rock and Roll, in 1958. But since the end of World War II, railroads around the nation had been losing passengers.
Travelers began depending on automobiles and airplanes. Union Depot was seeing fewer and fewer trains and passengers pass its way. According to an article by Addie Jo Sharp in Password, the journal for the El Paso Historical Society, “the pigeons were more numerous than the passengers.”
In 1969, the Greyhound Company leased a space for its facilities while its own building was being completed. In 1971, the Union Depot was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
By the early 1970s, traffic had declined drastically, and so had the upkeep of the building. The El Paso Union Passenger Depot ceased operations on Feb. 18, 1974. Even though Amtrak was still operating under lease to the owners of the depot, the building went up for sale in 1975.
Eventually, the city of El Paso came to an agreement with the current owners to purchase the depot for $925,000. The city needed a large area to service its local transit system, Sun Metro. The old depot would once again become useful.
In 1982, with the help of Garland and Hilles, Architects, and R. D. Lowman, General Contractor, renovations began on the depot to restore it to its former glory. The light paint was removed to reveal the original red brick, and marble was even imported from Italy to adorn the columns just as before. The steeple was reconstructed and returned to its rightful place. Today, Sun Metro leases space to Amtrak which provides passengers with three destinations: Los Angeles, San Antonio and New Orleans. Community groups occasionally rent space for concerts, art and craft fairs and other events. Union Depot is open to visitors during Amtrak hours.
As the 100th anniversary of Union Depot approaches, this impressive train station proudly stands over a lively city, just to the south of the freeway that helped bring about its demise. It is an impressive part of El Paso’s past, well worth an effort by interested parties to once again make it an active component of downtown.