America has long had affection for the passenger trains that once used to crisscross the country. They represented a mode of travel that was comfortable and elegant and at the same time harkens back to our pioneer days. Back then, the “iron horse” opened up the American west and gave adventurous men and women the opportunity for a fresh start in a new land.
For a time, our railroad heritage was in danger of disappearing. From the 1950s to the 1990s, Americans had had a love affair with new types of transportation – the car and plane. Railroad tracks were abandoned in favor of roads, highways, and airports, and railroad stations were either demolished or abandoned.
Over the past couple of decades, however, forward-thinking city planners have given their railroad stations new life, which, in turn, has brought increased economic prosperity to the surrounding communities. Nowhere is this more evident than in Denver’s newly-renovated Union Station, located in the heart of LoDo (Lower Downtown) – the city’s original birthplace.
In 1865, right after the end of the Civil War, train tracks were laid across the continental United States to connect the East and West Coasts. Competing companies vied to build lines outward to towns and cities nearby. Passenger stations sprang up in small and large towns alike.
The Union Depot and Railroad Company built Denver’s first Union Station in 1881. In 1894, this station burned down, but a new one was quickly constructed in its place. In 1914, most of that station was replaced by the building that still stands today.
The 1920s and 1930s are acknowledged as the “glory days” of Union Station, as almost 80 trains sped through the city on any given day. Traffic picked up significantly from 1939 to 1945, of course, as our soldiers traveled across country to their boot camps and then to the East or West Coasts where they’d embark on ships to head overseas and to war.
After the end of World War II, America’s obsession with traveling by cars and planes began, and cities embraced this new form of transport that gave citizens more freedom than they’d ever had before. The elegant but relatively slow passenger trains gave way to single-passenger cars and planes that could travel across country in considerably less time.
At the height of rail travel, there were 40,000 train stations in America. By the 1970s, only 20,000 of them remained, and over the next few decades more and more were lost.
Despite the rail-woes of many other cities, Denver’s Union Station continued to serve the country, even as various passenger train companies went out of business until only Amtrak was left. Improvements to the station were made in the late 1980s by the Regional Transportation District (RTD) and its partners. The platforms were upgraded, and an RTD bus lane was built. RTD also began a Light Rail program.
In the 1990s even more improvements and expansions were made to beautify the area surrounding Union Station and to make the Light Rail system serving Denver more accessible. RTD purchased the station (and the site on which it stood) and continued to extend the reach of its Light Rail.
In 2002, the plans to renovate Union Station began in earnest. Perhaps this should be called a “Master Plan,” as the idea was to create a single station that would serve commuter and light rail lines, passenger buses, and, of course, Amtrak.
The process took several years, first for the planning and then to get approval. In 2010, the funding from government agencies came through, and the $54 million renovation of Union Station began, culminating in its grand re-opening in July 2014.
Today, Denver’s Union Station consists of the main terminal building and two lateral wings. Incorporated into the elegant design is the “Great Hall,” or “Denver’s Living Room,” as it was described by preservationist Dana Crawford. Added were retail shops and a host of restaurants and even upscale accommodations. The newly opened luxury Crawford Hotel, occupying the upper floors of the station’s north and south wings, was named in honor of Dana Crawford.
The Crawford Hotel’s philosophy is: “Like no other.” Guests can choose from 112 rooms, each of which has its own distinctive look and is designed to reflect one of the eras in the buildings unique history. These include “classic” from the Victorian era, “contemporary” lofts with exposed wooden timbers, and “Pullman-style” with rooms that evoke the glory days of train travel.
Of course, visitors can enjoy all of the amenities such as mini iPads pre-loaded with music, a 24-hour fitness room, luxury car service (within a 2-mile radius), and free WiFi and internet service. The interiors of both the Crawford and Union Station were designed to be a visual feast for the senses with more than 600 pieces of artwork — everything from 1940’s trading cards to Western art to vintage family photos.
The Great Hall is an architectural wonder with 65-foot high ceilings, large, arched windows, teardrop-shaped chandeliers, terrazzo floors, and plenty of public seating areas. The white color motif gives the entire space a light-airy feeling and the state’s official flower, the Columbine, is incorporated as an accent element along the borders of the archways.
Not only is the Great Hall a popular place for locals to gather to chat or catch up on work, but while travelers are waiting for their own particular transportation (bus, train, or light rail), they can now relax and do some shopping. These retail shops include a Tattered Cover bookstore, a crafts and jewelry store called Five Green Boxes, and Bloom, a lifestyle boutique and flower shop. There are also plenty of places to grab a meal or cocktail at any of the adjacent eateries.
When the time comes visitors need only walk out of the rear of the building to the central transportation hub where their connection awaits. Passengers can now access Amtrak, light rail, and the RTD bus system.
In addition to being a focal point for regional and interstate transportation, this reimagined Union Station is becoming a food destination in its own right. Visitors can choose from simple to fine dining with no less than ten restaurants, bars, and lounges, all contained within a single structure.
Some of these include:
The Cooper Lounge
Located on the upper level overlooking the Great Hall, Cooper Lounge evokes the early days of Hollywood with Prohibition-era cocktails and signature desserts such as Crêpes Suzette which are made from scratch in full view of patrons, right between the seating areas.
Mercantile Dining & Provision
This is a European-inspired restaurant and market featuring “Old World” fresh produce and gourmet items, a private wine library, open-view kitchen, and large dining room.
Milkbox Ice Creamery
Just the thing for a cool treat, Milkbox uses Little Man Ice cream in its Union Station shop. This popular local brand has its iconic 28-foot-tall cream can standing in front of its Highlands neighborhood location. The ice cream is made in small batches, and customers love its creamy consistency. Milkbox also has some unusual flavors, including “boozey shakes” made with butterscotch and bourbon.
Snooze, an A.M. Eatery
A popular early morning eatery, the latest location in Union Station gets filled up quickly for breakfast and lunch. Using quality ingredients, delightful presentation, and excellent service, Snooze was an instant hit in Union Station. I tried a sensational “drunken pumpkin” pancake during my visit, as well as the bacon and eggs with hash browns which were made from scratch and quite tasty. If you like your eggs with hollandaise, there are six benedicts from which to choose.
Stoic & Genuine
Award-winning Chef Jennifer Jasinski and her partner Beth Gruitch have created a seafood sensation, serving freshly flown-in fish and a variety of regional fare. Here, in the middle of Denver, you can order lobster, oysters, and local favorites such as their crispy whole haddock with lemongrass butter.
The designers have repurposed the original ticket windows into this fun and trendy bar and patio on Wynkoop Street. With more than 30 Colorado craft beers to choose from, you won’t be lacking for a good libation.
Union Station is a public facility, and so the building itself never closes and is a hub of activity 24 hours a day. Whether you visit for its historical past, its vibrant future, or even a bit of both, you will find it an unforgettable experience.