A hundred years ago, the United States moved around happily on a relatively maturing and most-modern form of transportation … on railroads. They were the fastest and most comfortable way to travel. Especially in the relatively close-by cities of the Northeast, and to a lesser extent in the rest of the country, the rails were the best way to travel. After all, good roads were unheard of, since automobiles were just coming into their own.

Atlanta’s Union Station

All major cities had rail tracks converging on them, and were centers of transportation. Some were major centers: New York, Boston, Chicago, Buffalo, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Dallas, Omaha, Kansas City, Denver … and even Atlanta, Memphis and Birmingham in the South.

Earlier, the major cities of the country were located mainly along the coast or major rivers, as ships were the main thrust of transportation. But the rails could go inland, and soon ships were no longer necessary to move people quickly.

Eventually, the rails were displaced by the auto. After World War II, the big push in highway construction came from the Federal government, with its Interstate program modeled after Germany’s autobahns and pushed by President Dwight Eisenhower.

Yet though good, modern roads are a major source of today’s movement of its people, now for longer trips, the airways have opened up new vistas for our nation. Who would have thought earlier of routine trips to see distant parents at Thanksgiving, Christmas and family birthdays?  Who would have even considered those of us in the South buying skis to venture to Park City or even Switzerland? The airplane has changed all that.

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With the demise in passenger rail transportation, the main terminals soon fell into disrepair after World War II. Smart cities eventually either kept using their rail centers for local rail service, or converted them to other uses. Visit Omaha, or Dallas, and you’ll find their rail stations in good order. In Dallas, the lower part is still a central train station for Amtrak, and for commuter service, while the upstairs is now sumptuous banquet space.

Visit Omaha and you’ll find a museum, complete with full-size trains on display on the bottom floor. It’s the Durham Western Heritage Museum, housed in Omaha’s former Union Station. Upstairs the spacious Great Hall is not full of travelers as before, but a place for museum visitors, sprinkled with full-sized bronze statues of people as they once passed through this station. You’ll see servicemen in uniform, or a guy with a travel trunk peering at a timetable. The fascinating part of these art pieces: When you approach them, you set off a switch, and all of a sudden, you hear the statues “talking.” Even in an almost-empty station, if you walk around fast enough, and set all switches off, it sounds like a big crowd as the voices reverberate around the Great Hall. That’s fun!

Atlanta’s Terminal Station

Many other cities haven’t saved their stately and attractive main stations as rail service declined. Atlanta has the distinction of razing not one train station, but two. It pulled down its Union Station, built in 1930, in 1970, to replace it with a parking lot. Its stately 1905 Terminal Station was destroyed in 1972, now space for a modern, glassed government building. And now what does Atlanta need?  A modern central station to serve commuters. Earlier Atlanta leaders had insight, they would never have allowed the stations to be razed.

Check out this site to see other cities that demolished their former classic rail stations: Jalopnik.com.

It’s a sad story.




Elliott Brack

Elliott Brack

Elliott Brack is a native Georgian and veteran newspaperman. He published the weekly Wayne County Press for 12 years; was for 13 years the vice president and general manager of Gwinnett Daily News, and for 13 years was associate publisher of the Gwinnett section of The Atlanta Journal and Constitution. He now publishes, in retirement, Web sites on Gwinnett County, http://www.gwinnettforum.com, and Georgia news, http://www.georgiaclips.com.