Railroad Stations: Their Evolution in Seattle

  • By Heather M. MacIntosh
  • Posted 10/01/1999
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 1697

The history of railroad stations in Seattle reflects comprehensive changes in the overall architectural character of the city. Railroad development closely paralleled Seattle's urban development. It is therefore natural that the city's early wooden frame depots looked very much like other commercial and industrial buildings when they first appeared in the late nineteenth century. Seattle was then a growing town, a terminus of Western expansion highly dependent on the railroads. The rails were tied to population growth, the transportation of freight, and communications.

Seattle's Earliest Railroad Stations

Seattle's first railroad station was little more than a shack located on Elliott Bay's tidelands. This tiny wooden-frame building, obscured by the many sawmills and warehouses occupying the waterfront the late nineteenth century, was a simple unloading point for Northern Pacific trains.

This shed was replaced by a slightly more dignified wooden-frame structure, sometimes called the Columbia Street Depot. The new two-story building resembled many others in developing towns across the country around 1880 when it was built. It was a weatherboarded (sometimes called clapboarded) building with a simple gable roof heated from two sources, probably stoves. Depots like these typically housed a stationmaster who lived above the street-level offices and oversaw railroad operations and the daily maintenance of the station. The scale of the little depot matched its urban surroundings. This was before an enormous fire in 1889 destroyed most of Seattle's downtown.

The building's design looks a lot like the hotels of the period, for good reason. At this time in railroad history, railroad traffic was not the most reliable affair. Telegraph use was quite new in the Puget Sound area, and was directly tied to the coming of the rails. Railroad operations were still coming together, with bits and pieces of lines scattered here and there. Waiting at the station for freight or news required tenacity -- no one knew for sure when either would arrive.

The building's layout suggests that there were a few discrete offices in the lower level, and eventually, by 1884, a few small storage spaces attached to its northside. This was not a passenger-friendly building; its design reflected an emphasis on freight and simple communications rather than on moving people. The "waiting area" consisted of a few benches located on the building's exterior. In the mid-1880s, the Columbia and Puget Sound's "shops," used for railroad maintenance and storage, along with planed lumber, was the primary view from the station's windows on trackside.

Beyond this lay Elliott Bay and the mouth of the Duwamish. Wooden pilings supported the depot. Piers also supported the railroad tracks and surrounding streets, such that the southern portion of town was sketched out by a raised grid of streets with watery blocks between them. Railroad business was distinctly unglamourous. The smell and sounds of saw mills, the clank and whirr of iron works, and soot belching from steam-powered trains formed the industrial environment around the station.

The Northern Pacific bought out the Columbia and Puget Sound Railroad's tracks around 1890, and replaced this station with another, which was much more accommodating to passenger traffic. Replacing the few wooden benches was a great shed roofed structure, reflecting "Stick Style" architecture then popular in train stations and domestic buildings. The Stick Style, closely related to the ornate, gingerbread Queen Anne seen in many houses during this period, is reflected in the supports in the outdoor waiting area. Note the springing brackets in the detail to the right.

As in the earlier station, offices were located in small compartments, many with separate entries. But in the new station, individual comfort and services were considered. Service windows and vendors selling magazines, books, tobacco, and cigarettes helped passengers pass time as they waited by the expansive tracks of Railroad Avenue. Although the station was cleaner and more urbane than its predecessors, passengers still endured the elements and the dirt covered tracks.

Stations Come of Age

Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, stations were coming to represent a golden age in the railroad's history. New, opulent railroad stations such as those rising in New York and Washington, D.C. were what the great Roman baths and public buildings had been to that ancient empire. In the early twentieth century, these national symbols of a cultural renaissance asserted to the rest of the world that America had come of age. Seattle, with its high hopes of being a commercial and population center of the Puget Sound, saw this trend and advocated a more permanent, impressive looking station.

The Great Northern Railroad, which first came to Seattle in 1893, eventually conceded. The railroad's president James J. Hill (1838-1916) had purchased Northern Pacific in 1901. He built King Street Station between 1904 and 1906. This supported both the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railroads. As in the building it replaced, it was fronted by an extended projecting awning covering passengers and the service crew. Behind this, however, rose an impressive structure, designed by Charles Reed and Allen Stem, architects of New York's Grand Central Station. The building's style, sometimes called "Railroad Italianate," incorporated a number of classical details.

Its most outstanding feature was a tall tower, or campanile, on which a prominent clock faced a quickly evolving Seattle. The station's operations were bound to the development of the town, much like a heart pumping life, in the form of new residents and freight, into the growing city. From the expansive drive fronting King Street, horse drawn carriages -- eventually replaced by motor cars -- whisked newcomers away to local hotels and boarding houses.

The waiting areas of this new King Street Station were focal points of the building. The interior was grand, with coffered ceilings and other highly ornate details. Although still compartmentalized like the earlier stations, these spaces suggested that passengers and their experience was extremely important to the railroad. Rather than a place for loading and unloading cargo, this new station was a distinctive civic portal through which visitors and newcomers passed into a great Western city.

Sanitary Elegance

The Union Pacific soon produced a station of its own next to the new Great Northern and Northern Pacific's King Street Station. Called the Oregon and Washington Station, after the Union Pacific line that ran through Seattle, the building was considered an architectural masterpiece, "the handsomest on Harriman's lines." Also called Union Station, it was completed in 1911, and opened on May 20 amidst great fanfare.

A high water mark of railroad architecture in Seattle, Union Station's design employed classical details as did King Street Station, but with a more grand effect. Its interior, dominated by a central barrel-vaulted waiting space, had tiled floors, engaged classical pilasters, tall oak benches, and a series of archways separating the compartmentalized offices and service spaces. Lit by a semicircular window facing trackside, the building's design is a distillation of Beaux Arts style common in larger railroad stations of the early twentieth century.

In the Beaux Arts tradition, the classical details decorated an expansive building, with massive spaces. These enormous volumes were made possible by metal-frame roofing systems and structural frames. In the case of Union Station, the vaulted ceiling is suspended by trusses. This construction method was common in warehouses, factories, and other industrial buildings of the period.

In contrast to the smelly, somewhat abject conditions of the earlier stations in Seattle, the Oregon and Washington Station was highly service oriented. A small hospital at concourse level, a restaurant, ladies' waiting areas, and other amenities made the station resemble today's airports. Efficiency and cleanliness were extremely important, and the operations of the station were mechanized and systematic, a far cry from the early station's random schedule.

Once and Future Glory

Soon after their construction, the stations saw a number of changes which foresaw the steady decline of railroad travel in Seattle and in the nation at large. Although World War II buoyed the use of the stations, it soon became clear that Seattle preferred automobile to train travel. Before long, airline travel created even more competition.

It is fitting that the renovation of Union Station in the 1990s was achieved by the efforts of transportation interests. Reopening in October 1999, Union Station houses Sound Transit's offices, and is the nexus of an intermodal transportation effort.

The evolution of railroad stations in Seattle directly reflects the city's growth, urban ideals, and the city's view of itself within a regional and national context. The earliest stations were ad hoc, purely functional secondary buildings, more warehouse than public space. In contrast, King Street Station and Union Station were civic spaces as much as they were transportation points. In the 1990s, the revised Union Station with its expansive administrative office spaces, and its role within regional public transportation, is a response to growing problems created by the area's recent population explosion and by decades of reliance upon automobiles.


Edwin P. Alexander, Down at the Depot: American Railroad Stations from 1831 to 1920 (New York: C. N. Potter; distributed by Crown Publishers, 1970); Ralph D. Anderson & Partners, Daniel Mann Johnson & Mendenhall, Union Station Intermodal Terminal Interim Report (Seattle: Port of Seattle, 1975); Margaret A. Corley, "National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form," Washington State Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, 1969; John Albert Droege, 1861-1961 Passenger Terminals and Trains, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1916); Harold D. Eberlein, "Recent Railway Stations in American Cities," Architectural Record, Vol. 36, No. 2, August 1914; Alfred Fellheimer, "Railroad Stations," in Forms and Functions of Twentieth Century Architecture, Vol. IV, Building Types, 1952 Edition ed. by Talbot Hamlin; H. Roger Grant, Living in the Depot: the Two-Story Railroad Station (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993); Carroll L. Meeks, The Railroad Station: An Architectural History (New York: Dover Publications, 1995); Janet Greenstein Potter, Great American Railroad Stations (New York: Wiley, 1996); "Union Station Redevelopment," Progressive Architecture January 1986, pp. 125-127; Walter Willard. "Evolution of the Passenger Station: Story of the Model Terminal at Seattle," Sunset Magazine, July 1912, pp. 105-107.

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