Union Station Turns 120

We visit our iconic train station’s past and predict its future.

By Katie Vaughan January 25, 2016 Published in the February 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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A model of Union Station at the Columbia Gorge Model Railroad Club’s headquarters

Image: Michael Novak


561,596 Train passengers who traveled through Union Station in 2015 (Trips to and from Portland account for 69 percent of train travel in Oregon.)

8 National rank of the Cascades line among heavily traveled commuter corridors

10% Decrease in ridership in Portland between 2013 and 2014, after nearly a decade of rising numbers

16 to 1 Ratio of federal funding invested in the highway system versus in rail travel between 1956 and 2006

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Image: Cleanfotos


“We forget the strong emotional connection that people had to train stations. It was where they met loved ones or said goodbye to them. Local soldiers in World War I and World War II all left from and returned to Union Station. It’s a form of time travel in a way; it looks and sounds and smells pretty much the same way it did 50 years ago.” —Chet Orloff, director emeritus of the Oregon Historical Society


Picture our own little version of San Francisco’s Ferry Building Marketplace, with restaurants and food stalls. That, at least, is one vision of the Portland Development Commission, which hopes to reintegrate Union Station into the surrounding neighborhood. “There are around 4,000 new employees moving into the area,” says Sarah Harpole, a senior project manager at PDC. “It gives even more impetus to taking care of Union Station.”

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Union Station in 1913


Union Station houses 19 (and counting) local businesses, from architects to a nonprofit poetry publisher to a magazine for lady guitarists. Jeff Mandel owns Exit Shoes, a custom handmade shoe shop; his unusual workspace is beautiful and affordable but has its kinks. “The station itself is fantastic,” he says. “But the air quality is a bit of a problem; the trains idle while they’re in the station, and they use diesel to run their generators instead of just using electricity. And the neighborhood is sad. It seems like the city treats this area as an afterthought.”


1883 - Transcontinental rail lines reach Portland.

1888 - Captain John Couch donates land for what will become Union Station.

1896 - Eight years and $400,000 later, Portland’s “Grand Central Passenger Station” opens on Oregon’s 37th birthday.

1898 - The Seth Thomas clock is added to the station’s central tower. (The clock still has to be wound every seven days.)

1927 - Storied Portland architect Pietro Belluschi (just 28 and not yet storied) begins work on a major redesign of the station’s interior, including the still-present rose ceiling tiles and marble floors shipped from Italy.

1948 - Iconic "Go By Train" neon sign is added to the clock tower.

1975 - Union Station is added to the National Register of Historic Places.

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