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Exhibit showcases Union Station construction

Updated: 2013-11-02T01:12:10Z

By MATT CAMPBELL

The Kansas City Star

The carpenters who built Union Station earned 60 cents an hour, and that was twice as much as the unskilled laborers got.

But then, that was 99 years ago.

Union Station is marking the approach of its centennial with a new exhibit of photos documenting the historic rail depot’s construction. The display, which includes copies of architect Jarvis Hunt’s meticulous drawings of the station from all four sides, occupies the walkway between Union Station and The Link to Crown Center.

A wall-length reproduction of a photo, circa 1928, allows visitors to appreciate the changes they can see looking out the windows of the walkway today.

Where Crown Center sits now used to be known as Signboard Hill, which once had a huge Phillips 66 sign overlooking the intersection of Pershing Road and Main Street.

In the photo, two tall ornamental pillars — which have since disappeared — flank Main Street on the east side of Union Station.

A web of overhead power lines for the old streetcars anticipates the new streetcar that is scheduled to run down Main Street by 2015.

A street on the north side of Washington Square Park used to connect Grand Avenue to Union Station, and the statue of George Washington used to be closer to the center of the park than it is today.

Other photos make clear what a gargantuan task building the station was when work commenced on Aug. 27, 1910.

“Sixty cents an hour,” marveled Union Station director George Guastello. “Five hundred workers. Five people lost their lives. They moved a creek. I can’t comprehend this.”

The OK Creek, which flowed eastward across the site of the future station north of 23rd Street and between Broadway and Grand Avenue, was literally redirected to the south and channeled through a tunnel said to have been large enough to drive a truck through.

The depot, at the time the third-largest in the nation after New York’s Grand Central and Pennsylvania stations, was built by a consortium of 12 railroad lines called Kansas City Terminal Railway Co.

They collaborated on what would become a $48 million project after the flood of 1903 made it clear the old Union Depot in the West Bottoms had to be replaced by a new station on higher ground.

The project required a complete reorientation of how rail lines entered Kansas City.

Construction took three years, and Union Station opened on Oct. 30, 1914. The first train, however, did not pull in until just after midnight Nov. 1.

On the 99th anniversary this week, station officials announced preparations for a centennial gala next year. They unveiled a logo and a fundraising campaign, and will offer donors of $100 a certificate and framable print of one of Hunt’s drawings.

The 2,200-square-foot permanent exhibit of construction photos occupies a space that was once part of the Westport Room restaurant. After the station was renovated in the 1990s, that space was used as a food court.

Now visitors passing from Crown Center to Union Station can view the building’s progression. One photo, a double exposure dated March 9, 1914, appears to capture a ghost in overalls working in the Grand Hall.

“This one always gets people,” said Denise Morrison, director of collections at Union Station. “A lot of people stop for this one.”

To reach Matt Campbell, call 816-234-4902 or send email to mcampbell@kcstar.com

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