SCHENECTADY — When Train No. 74 bound for New York City pulled out of Schenectady’s Union Station on Saturday, June 28, 1969, it was a sad day in the city’s long and rich railroad history.
At 7 p.m. that day, just 15 minutes after the last train headed south, Union Station was closed and slated for demolition. For the next 10 years Schenectady was without a train depot, and when passenger rail service did finally return to the city in 1979 the new hastily-built terminal had none of its predecessor’s beauty and grandeur.
This time around, however, as construction of a new $15 million train station begins next spring to replace the 1979 Amtrak station, city officials are making sure Schenectady residents will have a facility they’ll be proud of.
“The design process was well planned,” said Mayor Gary McCarthy, elected to his second term Tuesday. “The proposal calls for some of the characteristics of the old Union Station to be incorporated into the new one. The old building was considered to be a great piece of architecture and obviously what we’ve had for a while now isn’t. It’s great to know that we’re going to have a first-class rail station for those people coming to Schenectady and for Schenectadians looking to travel.”
Department of Transportation officials expect the work, which will include the laying of another track, to be done sometime early in 2018. The new depot will also be called Union Station to honor the structure which dominated the downtown landscape from 1908 to 1969.
“The new design will evoke memories of the old Union Station,” said Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority Chairman Ray Gillen. “You can’t ever replicate a place like that perfectly. It was a masterpiece. But it’s going to have the clock and the large windows. It will bring back memories to all those older people who remember the old building.”
Foresight Architects of Schenectady, working with the Buffalo-based firm of Wendel WD Architecture, is designing the new station. The entire project is being overseen by the state DOT, which issued the following statement through its director of communications, Gary Holmes.
“The design for the new station takes inspiration from the Schenectady Union Station built in 1908,” wrote Holmes. “We’re anticipating an exterior which resembles the same stacked brick and limestone finish. It’s the same shape, roughly the same size, similar window and door placement and detailing. The new station will also include large arched windows with cornices, and a more substantial canopy.
“Reminiscent of the original station, there will be large and prominent clocks on each side of the building,” continued Holmes. “An interior wall of the new station will feature a large-historic inspired clock over the archway which passengers will see as they head to the platform the catch their train.”
It won’t quite be the same, according to Gillen, but it will still be a very worthwhile addition to downtown.
“Common sense tells you they never should have knocked down that building,” he said. “That’s why we’re making sure we’re getting something nice here. It’s going to be a great new building.”
The station will be the sixth in Schenectady’s history. The first was at the top of Crane Street hill, where the DeWitt Clinton ended its first historic run from Albany to Schenectady in 1831. A second depot was built in 1842 and moved downtown to the east side of the tracks, and in 1882 another station was put up just west of the tracks.
Both were described in various negative terms by various historians, and by the turn of the century the public was clamoring for something new. It didn’t take long.
In 1903, Schenectady and other cities across New York were making plans to eliminate several dangerous grade crossings, and work raising railroads above street level created the need for new and bigger train stations.
“What drove the building of Union Station, and it was true in many places around the state, was to get the tracks off the streets,” said Dave Gould, historian for the ALCO Technology and Historical Society. “Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo and especially in New York City, they all had the same problem. The railroads ran right through the middle of downtown and it was a genuine hazard. People got hit and killed, children got run over. There’d be stories about how the carriage of some prominent person had been hit by a train. They were probably more common than automobile fatalities today, and it seemed as if the newspapers kept a running tally.”
The new depot was called Union Station because it was used by the New York Central and the Delaware and Hudson railroads according to Gould. When it opened on March 1, 1908, passenger and freight train service were at their height of popularity.
‘a real landmark’
“In the 50 years before Union Station was built, the railroads have grown from a curiosity into the major transportation system,” said Gould. “Everybody took the railroad, and the station was an important part of the community. It was the place to meet people and eat at the restaurant, it was the place to see off your relatives, or to welcome soldiers back home.”
Schenectady native Frank Cornicelli says city residents took great pride in the building.
“I thought it was a great place, and I thought it was a darn shame when they knocked it down,” said Cornicelli, who worked at General Electric for 38 years before retiring in 1984. “There were newsstands and stores in there, and I’d go with some friends, get something to eat, sit down on the bench and just spend some time there. It was a real landmark.”
In his book, “Schenectady’s Golden Era: 1180-1930,” author Larry Hart described Union Station this way. “Gleaming marble walls supported by stone columns lent an atmosphere of grandeur,” wrote Hart, a former newspaperman and county historian. “There was every convenience — lounges, newsstands, snack counter, rest rooms and an abundance of windows at the ticket counters. The big clocks at either end of the waiting room gave the time from inside and out.”
When Union Station closed during the summer of 1969, area residents looking for a train ride were forced to travel to a small station in Colonie for most of next decade. When the current downtown station was opened during the second week of August, 1979, finding a train became more convenient for locals, but fewer people were riding the rails.
“Gas was cheap, cars had become much more convenient, and for truly long-distance travel people would fly,” said Gould. “Everybody preferred to drive themselves, and trains were seen as something for commuters or poor people. Amtrak had to compete with all that change in our culture, so it wasn’t a very good time for railroads.”
Rail service, however, is making a comeback according to Gould, especially in upstate New York.
“A second track and this new station should really help increase traffic south to New York and north to Montreal,” said Gould. “With one track there was always a bottleneck between Albany and Schenectady, and some people going south would just drive to Rensselaer to avoid it. Now, things are different. There seems to be, more and more, a continuing drumbeat for more rail service, so things are changing.”