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Great Railroad Stations - Portland, OR

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Great Railroad Stations 

by John C. Dahl

Portland, Oregon

Over 100 years ago, the grand new union station in Portland, Oregon opened its doors to the public. Three railroads entered the city, the Northern Pacific, the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company, and the Oregon & California. Henry Villard, the entrepreneur who fostered the development of the Northern Pacific was primarily responsible for arranging the consolidationís that led to the building of Portland Union Station. 

Railroads in the Pacific Northwest were often extensions of the water based transportation companies that abounded during the late 19th century. The Columbia, itís many tributaries and the coastal areas of the northwest were ideally suited to river steamers. The coming of railroads from the east and south would connect the Northwest territories to California and the rest of the nation. 

Portlandís station was built on a site once occupied by a lake, and as such was (and is) subject to flooding by the nearby Willamette River.  More than 5300 wood pilings had to be driven into the marshy ground to support the structure. Architects from the Kansas firm of Van Brunt & Howe prepared plans for a large red brick station which features a prominent high slender clock tower.  Six tracks served the station, and a roundhouse for locomotives was also built nearby.  Portland continued to grow, and the station was expanded several times, adding additional passenger sheds trackside, and a mail handling facility in 1915. The present brick interlocking tower was completed in 1914, replacing a wooden structure. This interlocking is the sole remaining active tower in the Northwest. 

By the 1920ís, the railroads had assumed the names we most often associate with the station; Northern Pacific, Southern Pacific, and Union Pacific. During World War I, services of the Spokane, Portland & Seattle and Great Northern were consolidated at Union Station. A major remodeling of the station occurred in 1927-1930. This gave the station its present lavish classical marble interior, which remains today very well maintained. During the post World War II era, the Streamliner Era ushered in perhaps the golden age of the station. The classic ďGo By TrainĒ and ďUnion StationĒ neon signs were added to the clock tower in 1948. SPís and UPís beautiful and colorful consists graced the arrival and departure tracks in a never to be duplicated pageant of the rails. I have been fortunate to have departed and arrived at this station behind steam (and in a dome car, no less) on excursions sponsored using UPís Challenger #3985 and SPís streamlined Daylight #4449. The sound of a steam whistle and a dusting of coal or oil smoke still occasionally touch this grand dame.

 Portland is fortunate that itís grand Union Station has remained, and is still home to Amtrak services. (Note: Amtrakís Pioneer [Denver-Portland] was discontinued in the last round of budget cuts.)  Forward thinking by the city of Portland has preserved itís railroad station gateway, and today the site is the centerpiece for the North Downtown redevelopment effort.


Portland, Oregon. Rose bushes adorn the lawn area in front of Union Station,
October 1, 1995.  The following day, a Union Pacific steam excursion headed by Challenger #3985 would depart from this stationís historic platforms.
JCD photo



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This page was last updated Thursday, December 06, 2001

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