Only history buffs look at the looming Union Station and think about what had to die in order for it to live.
Everyone knows the passenger locomotive was once king in Kansas City. Hundreds of trains a day passed through Union Station, and before that existed, through the oft-flooded Union Depot down in the West Bottoms.
Here’s what most don’t know: When Union Station opened in 1914, it meant the demise and ultimate demolition of not just one, but two handsome, operating train stations.
Its opening meant the closure of Union Depot, as well as the towering, red-brick Grand Central Depot near the river at Third Street and Wyandotte, which was built in 1890.
This project for the Kansas City Suburban Belt Railroad was needed because Union Depot had become maxed out. Originally thought grossly too large when it opened in 1878 — local wags referred to it as the “Jackson County Insane Asylum” — rapid growth soon crippled its functionality.
Grand Central Depot, similarly, was originally intended to serve railroads from Independence but was soon handling passengers of the Chicago Great Western railway. It also took on riders of other railways across the nation, such as the Quincy, Omaha & Kansas City; the St. Louis & San Francisco; the St. Joseph & Grand Island and the Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf (later known as Kansas City Southern).
Even with the new riverfront station, 23 other railroad lines serving the metro area still blew steam outside the mansard-roofed Union Depot.
Like any train station, Grand Depot had its stories. In 1908, The Kansas City Journal told of the arrest of young Willie Davidson, of Gravette, Ark. His offense was scaring the ladies in the women’s waiting room — by picking his teeth with a Bowie knife.
He was in town to get shells, unavailable back home, for the automatic pistol found on him. The Journal transcribed Willie’s protest to the court:
“ ’Tain’t no harm to pick your teeth, is it?”
“Not with a toothpick, no,” replied the court. “But we bar the Bowie knife for that purpose here. I know where you come from. The town is full of rocks. Now you take your automatic and your ‘toothpick’ and catch the first train for home.”
Another incident that year involved an exploding fuse on an electric trolley headed for the station. The car’s front erupted in flames, and its crew jumped or were pushed off by panicked passengers in the back.
A young man, whose dream it was to one day drive these Teslas of their age, leapt to the rescue, first keeping women from jumping from the car that was running wild, then fumbling through the smoke and heat to pull the brake levers.
His burns, we hope, got him the job.