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Sidetracked in Saint Louis

Art Deco plasterwork and detailing on the ceiling of St. Louis's Union Station
Balcony and Ceiling, St. Louis Station Hotel, St. Louis, Missouri

I had no intention of stopping in Saint Louis on my drive through the Midwest. It was getting late, and I was feeling a little worn out from the previous day’s trek through Appalachia.

But as I was tooling along Interstate 64 through the Gateway City, I glanced to my left and said something profound along the lines of “Dang, that’s a big train station.”

If you’ve read this newsletter for a while, you might have picked up on the fact that I’m a bit of a train nerd.

When I was a child, there was a period that I would only listen to songs about trains, and I had a small HO-scale model railroad set up in my bedroom.

Once, after a less-than impressive report card from school, my mother scolded me for having a one-track mind. While I didn't have the smarts for straight A's, I did have the common sense to not noticeably chuckle at my mother’s unintentional pun while I was being punished.

I’m glad to say I have a much more broad taste in music these days and the report cards did get better over the years. But I can still sit and watch the trains go by. There’s something about the rumble of railyards and the oiled smell of railroad ties that I find comforting.

I told my trusty traveling companion Space Cat that we were going to take a little detour. Being a stuffed cat toy that Corie and I picked up for our two cats back in Tbilisi, it didn’t really have much to say on the matter.

Now an elegant hotel, the St. Louis Union Station was built in the late 1800s and became one of the largest and busiest passenger stations in the world. As travel changed in the 1960s and 70s, the building was dormant until the mid 1980s when it reopened as a mixed-use space with restaurants and retail stores.

Today, stepping into the building’s main room under and elaborately painted 65-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling, it’s not difficult to imagine the hustle and bustle of the station’s heyday when it served more than 100,000 people per day.

Living in Tbilisi has given me a more profound appreciation for the rich details in old buildings. While I’m not opposed to modern architecture, very little of it can compare with the opulence of historic buildings. I’m glad many cities over the past few decades have begun to embrace their historic districts after the misguided 1970’s rush to replace the old with the new.

Many of these old buildings were saved because dedicated citizen groups understood that losing a place’s past often times meant losing part of its soul. Many historic buildings were saved by indifference or economics. The wrecking ball spared Denver’s historic Market Street because it was the city’s skid row, unworthy of renewal. Evansville Indiana’s Old Vanderburgh County Courthouse avoided demolition because the city couldn’t afford to do so.

Many more historic buildings weren’t so fortunate. The Alvarado Hotel in Albuquerque, one of the flagship Harvey Houses along the Santa Fe Railroad’s Super Chief line from Chicago to Los Angeles, is now just a fond memory after its 1970 destruction.

A team of waiters and waitresses were finalizing the table settings for a large wedding reception in the Saint Louis Union Station Hotel’s dining room when I wandered in. Velvet ropes across the stairs declared it was a private function, but since it hadn’t started, the waitstaff didn’t mind when I snuck in to take photos and admire the grand room.

Outside the hotel, along the station’s passenger platforms, a collection of old railway passenger cars sits in silent reminder of a time gone by when they ferried celebrities, politicians, and everyday people across the country.

I got to my next overnight stop in Colombia, Missouri much later than I had planned to, but that was the whole point of my trip: take my time, stop when I wanted to, and enjoy the trip without a schedule. The next day, I would start my wandering along the approximate route of the Santa Fe Trail and, unbeknownst to me at the time, would discover a secret to happiness.

1950s-style train passenger car with a cloudy sky in the background
Vintage Passenger Car, St. Louis, Missouri


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