Ghosts will appear at Union Station on this Halloween — and they will stay.
The specters of a woman and her son forever sit on a hardwood bench in the North Waiting Room, his swinging feet helping to create those swales in the marble floor.
Doughboys glance over the shoulder with a wisp of a smile as they eternally descend the stairway to the trains and a faraway war.
Out front, mobsters confront federal agents with a blast of bullets — over and over and over again.
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The indelible history of Kansas City’s Union Station re-emerges in digital detail as the rail depot celebrates its centennial this weekend with 21st century technology. A free app for smartphones allows people today to conjure those and other episodes from the past.
It superimposes them onto the present.
That’s today’s sunlight through the windows behind Walt Disney filming dancers over there. That’s present-day background noise as Harry Truman engages the press. And Ernest Hemingway lending a helping hand to a fallen man. Is that Fats Waller? Didn’t he die of the flu on a train at Union Station?
The app makes it seem as if you could shake hands with history. You can’t, of course, but you can take a picture of your child or spouse in the middle of those scenes and post them online or send them to a friend.
The living history project is part of permanent new exhibits being unveiled at 10 a.m. Friday.
“There’s nothing like this in Kansas City,” said Eric Pfeifer of VML, the Kansas City-based global marketing company behind the app. “I would venture to say there’s nothing like this in the world.”
The “augmented reality” app is half of a new history experience introduced for Union Station’s centennial. The other is a more traditional exhibit that occupies the mezzanines above the Grand Hall. Together, the free displays are valued at about $1 million.
“When this building was renovated, Kansas City wanted a lasting piece to tell the history of the station,” said Union Station Chief Executive Officer George Guastello. “We promised ourselves that once we got on stable ground and could tell the story appropriately, then we would deliver on that.”
Union Station officially opened Oct. 30, 1914, to a crowd loosely estimated at 100,000. There were two parades down Main Street that day, one in the morning and another in the afternoon. The first train did not pull in until shortly after midnight. It was the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Flyer, known as the KATY. The station’s opening was the biggest thing that had happened here since the completion of the Hannibal railroad bridge in 1869 provided a north-south connection over the Missouri River and secured this town’s future.
Union Station kicked off its centennial party on Sept. 5 with a 3D digital projection that covered the facade of the building before an estimated 15,000 people.
On Thursday, the station held a gala dinner for about 1,300 high-ticket guests. This weekend, the station offers a variety of family activities and free, live entertainment.
But the new history exhibit and app will remain after the party is over.
The app uses electronic beacons at Union Station to alert a smartphone when it is in proximity of a living history story. That prompts the user to turn on the camera feature of the phone to activate the video. There is also text and an audio function to listen to the story:
“While thousands of soldiers passed through Union Station during World War I, many never returned. … Rail traffic at Union Station peaked in 1917 with 79,368 trains. …”
Other stories involve the time a bull got loose inside the station, the years when immigrants were restricted to the area at the north end of the waiting room and the reunion of a wife and her soldier husband under the clock during World War II.
The app allows you to watch a stylized depiction of the 1933 Union Station Massacre from the vantage of the law and that of the shooters who were attempting, unsuccessfully, to free prisoner Frank Nash.
The app relies on the Metaio augmented reality platform as well as Google Indoor Maps and the Gimbal platform. Local producers and actors were used to create the video content for the living history.
There are 11 stories that are activated at certain points within the station. A map on the app tells the visitor where they are.
The free app is available in the Apple App Store and at Google Play. It is available now for smartphones and will be soon for tablets, according to VML.
The company donated its services for the living history project to Union Station because it also showcases its capabilities for potential clients, Pfeifer said.
The more traditional history exhibit that occupies 5,000 square feet on the mezzanines was created by Eisterhold Associates and was financed with money raised by Union Station for its centennial celebration.
Those displays on the second, third and fourth floors include photos, text, touch screens and physical objects, such as a Santa Fe conductor’s uniform, to tell Union Station’s story. The material about the building’s restoration is augmented by actual bat guano, pigeon droppings and PCB oils that someone had the foresight to preserve during the cleanup.
The exhibit also includes an authentic photograph of Union Station architect Jarvis Hunt, verified by his granddaughter. (Insiders say that when the station reopened the granddaughter informed officials the photo they had been displaying was not actually of Hunt.)
Jerry Eisterhold said his company has worked on many projects but Union Station officials were more engaged in the creation and content of this exhibit than some other clients. He said the extra attention was fitting for such a symbolic building.
“People are just attached to this place,” Eisterholdt said. “It’s the kind of place in Kansas City that is the focus of civic attachment.”
Saturday: Celebration in front of the station at 10 a.m. followed by entertainment and activities until 4 p.m.; swing dance with live music from 6-10 p.m.
Sunday: Costumed actors tell Union Station story; various activities from noon to 4 p.m.
Some key dates in Union Station’s history:
▪ 1903: Flood in West Bottoms convinces railroads to build a new depot on higher ground.
▪ 1914: Union Station opens.
▪ 1933: Union Station Massacre.
▪ 1945: Passenger traffic peaks at 678,363 travelers for the year.
▪ 1968: Fred Harvey Co. operations close.
▪ 1983: Union Station closes except for Amtrak bubble.
▪ 1996: Voters in Jackson, Clay, Platte and Johnson counties approve bistate tax to renovate station.
▪ 1999: Union Station reopens.
▪ 2010: Union Station emphasizes leasing office space, begins period of yearly surpluses instead of deficits.