Union Station, trains are links to our past

Monday, May 17, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:58 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

Kansas City’s Union Station is one of my favorite Missouri places. During the days when railroads were a major form of transportation, I spent many Sunday afternoons there, sitting with my notebook, watching passengers depart and arrive. I’d make up my own stories about the people, making them residents in my own little fantasy world. I’d have them visiting relatives, going off on honeymoons, taking their first trip to Chicago or New York. Because I was a small person and never intrusive, people came and went and never seemed to notice me.

Because I was a longtime train rider, I was able to provide my characters with authentic, detailed adventures. I almost always had them aboard the Rock Island lines because that was the best connection between Kansas City and Minneapolis, where I spent most of my summers. My trips back and forth provided me with enough information to write a book because I always spent a lot of time visiting with the train porters and listening to their stories.

Five years ago, Union Station’s leaders succeeded in getting a special tax passed that allowed the station’s doors to open once more as a renovated facility featuring shops, theaters, restaurants and a museum of science. For a variety of reasons, including loss of valuable expertise and poor financial planning, the station is once again in a financial crisis. Unless two new tax initiatives get a place on the ballot and win approval, the station’s future looks bleak.

Preserving history is an ominous task. As I often say, those of us who remember the glory days of the railroad would have a difficult time trying to convey those exciting times to young people today. What appealed to a generation of people eager to grab hold of the wheels of progress hardly raises a brow to a generation of spectators who are content to sit and watch the action happen. I suppose the reason why the station’s leaders didn’t install an interactive railroad museum in this magnificent space was because they felt it would not be something this generation would support.

One of the things that frustrates me the most about the way we do things in America is that we never seem to coordinate interests. I will never understand, for example, why the miles and miles of railroad tracks were not put in service to haul the millions of pounds of freight across the country, which would go a long way toward helping our energy problem and spare our highways the constant need for maintenance and repair. The stations could serve as freight centers from which goods could be transported from one part of the country to the other.

The plight of Union Station reminds me of how difficult it sometimes is to convert a building designed for one purpose to another. So often people who try to transform stores and manufacturing facilities into private residences find themselves in the throes of disaster. But truly, I don’t believe it’s nearly as hard to renovate buildings as it is to change the thinking of people who have set their minds in a certain direction and closed it to all other possibilities. This, to me, is probably the greatest example of the difficulties of trying to put “new wine in old flasks.” Everyday I’m more convinced that the demise of the railroad has left a void in our society that has never been filled.

Railroads ran directly through towns, and railroad stations were easily accessed. The amount of time, energy and stress involved in accessing an airport is, as far I’m concerned, hardly worth the effort. It seems somehow the people in charge of our state highways and the people who own the railroads could work together and find someway to relieve the problems that cause the overcrowding of the highways. The fact that there are continuous railroad tracks from the east side of the state to the west side should suggest some major ways in which the highways be could spared the ravages of a never-ending flow of traffic. A mass transportation system will obviously not come into existence while our transportation leaders keep thinking in terms of continued widening and expansion of interstate .

Union Station in Kansas City is an elegant, magnificent facility. As its future hangs in the balance, I think we need to take a moment and think about why it is that we no longer seem to appreciate architectural treasures and are so willing to trade them in for tacky, poorly constructed metal edifices. If the cost of maintaining the things we love has become so prohibitive, maybe it’s time to take a fresh look at our value system and not be so willing to hurry off to sacrifice those things that nurture our spirits.

In these days of trouble, when dark clouds hover along the horizon, a little time out to “think on those things which are lovely” is in order. For me, Kansas City’s Union Station is one of these.

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at

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