Before Sky Harbor and before the Interstate Highway system, people traveled to Arizona by train. Sure, miners and trappers and ranchers came to the Salt River Valley first with horses and wagons, but it was the arrival of the railroad that made it possible for people to head out west in big numbers. For many travelers, the gateway to the city was Phoenix Union Station.
The first transcontinental line to cross Arizona was built by Southern Pacific Railroad in the 1880s. At first, Phoenix was served by a small section of track that came up from "Phoenix Junction" which is present day Maricopa, Arizona. The first train arrived in Phoenix on July 4th, 1887.
In 1900, the population of Phoenix was approximately 5,500 people. By 1920, Phoenix had grown to over 29,000! As the city expanded, a permanent train station was needed. Construction began on a new station at the corner of 4th Avenue and Harrison on September 16, 1922. Just a year later, the station was dedicated on September 30, 1923.
The completed Phoenix Union Station was a beautiful building. Architect W.H. Mohr had designed the station in Mission Revival style, complete with arcades, curvilinear parapets at the entrance, and a signature red tile roof.
The station was ready and waiting for service, which came three years later in 1926. Southern Pacific decided to build a main line through Phoenix with the Californian making its inaugural stop in Phoenix on November 15, 1926. A year later, Phoenix was added as a regular stop Southern Pacific's Sunset Limited and Golden State lines.
Rail travel continued to be the gateway to Phoenix for the next 30 years, bringing thousands of tourists and passengers and countless dollars worth of goods to the local economy.
The peak of its popularity was during the mid 1940s, when Phoenix Union Station saw as many as 18 passenger trains a day. By the time the 1950s rolled around, things had started taking off at Sky Harbor Airport (pun intended). Planes were quickly becoming the fast, exciting way to travel, and train ridership began to decline.
One by one, the routes were combined or simply discontinued throughout the 1960s. With the formation of Amtrak in 1971, many of the routes were consolidated as ridership continued to decline. The last time a passenger train stopped in Phoenix was in June of 1996.
I was fortunate have been a passenger at Phoenix Union Station before it was closed. In 1995, my dad and brother and I boarded the Sunset Limited for New Orleans, and then continued on to Atlanta aboard the Crescent. It was a very memorable trip for me. I can still remember the vast atrium of the Phoenix station with its natural sunlight, wooden floors and benches, and a massive picture of an old locomotive in the main lobby/waiting area.
You can still ride an Amtrak train out of Arizona, but you must take a bus up to Flagstaff or down to Maricopa, Arizona. Phoenix is the largest city in America without a passenger rail service.
The old Union Station still remains to this day, hidden in the shadows of newer buildings. It is now owned by Sprint and is used to house telecommunications equipment.
It is sad that this building which was so very important to Phoenix's history and growth now sits forgotten and unused, save for the racks of electronics inside. On the bright side, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, so it won't ever be torn down. That may not sound like much, but in the city that continually tears down and rebuilds itself, for this building to be preserved is really something.