Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.
The Union Station clock tower came down in a rumble of dusty thunder in August 1961. Its once magnificent face, reaching 138 feet toward the sky, lay in heap on the ground. Demolition crews then moved in to haul the twisted carcass of granite blocks away.
They replaced the train station with a low-slung strip mall not long afterward. That’s what they called progress back in the bleak days of urban renewal.
Union Station Plaza, at the corner of St. John and Congress Streets, still stands today. It’s still unspeakably ugly, too, a wasteland of uneven parking spaces and generic storefronts. It’s a black hole of charmless commerce, a far cry from the elegant, 19th century station that proceeded it.
That station — Portland’s Union Station — opened it’s doors for the first time 129 years ago this week, on June 25, 1888.
Union Station was home to three railroads: Maine Central Railroad, the Boston and Maine Railroad and the Ogdensburg Railroad. Designed by Boston architects Baradlee, Winslow and Wetherill, its walls were pink, New England granite. White granite was used for the trim.
The Union Station clock was a landmark. Its timepiece had a reputation for accuracy and everybody set their watches by it.
The station sported a waiting room with a checkerboard floor of white marble and gray slate. There were huge fireplaces at each end to keep folks toasty. Decorative paintings adorned the ceiling. There was a cafe, stained glass windows and oak benches to sit on.
Imagine all the happy homecomings and tear-filled farewells that took place there. Young people kissed their mothers goodbye as they left to find their fortune. Sweethearts separated, reunited and separated again. Boys waved goodbye, leaving for two world wars — some never to return.
In July 1930, 2,000 people greeted Maine native, and national singing star, Rudy Vallee as he stepped off a train.
But it’s gone, never to return.
Cars and highways like the Maine Turnpike killed passenger rail service. Union Station closed its doors in 1960. By the end of the next year, they’d carted it away in pieces.
These were the days before any local, state or national preservation rules. There was no Greater Portland Landmarks, or historic districts or National Register of Historic Places. In fact, the federal government actually demanded the demolition of old buildings to get redevelopment funds.
Imagine how they’d redevelop that grand old station today. I see a four season, covered indoor market like Faneuil Hall in Boston or the Saint John City Market in New Brunswick. It would be fantastic.
At least the preservation movement itself was born in the aftermath of tragedies like these. It’s too bad it took something really awful happening before people woke up and realized what kind of cultural terrorism they were visiting upon this city.
There’s still two remnants of Union Station you can see in Portland today. Part of the train shed made its was to Thompson’s Point. It’s housing outdoor concerts these days. What’s left of the old clock sits in a glass case in Congress Square. I hear it keeps lousy time, though.
Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.