I’m doing some writing in a volunteer capacity for the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site here in Indy. For the upcoming September edition of its newsletter ("The Statesman"), I wrote an article about Union Station — which was built the same year Harrison was elected. I’m reposting the article here with permission (and please consider visiting or volunteering at the Harrison Home; it’s a wonderful standing tribute to a past president and Indiana resident):
The image and landscape of Indianapolis was changing in 1888. The population had boomed in the middle of the century, and its place in a nation still on the mend – just a quarter of a century after the Civil War – was evolving. The year saw many developments in the city, in fact. U.S. Senator Benjamin Harrison thwarted incumbent President Grover Cleveland’s bid for re-election. Indiana limestone and oak provided the foundation for Indiana’s new Statehouse – and at the heart of it all for residents and visitors alike was a new Union Station. While Harrison traveled out of the old Union Station en route to his posts during the Civil War, as well as his later duties in Washington, D.C., his grand departure to the White House was out of the new station in 1889.
To understand why the new station was necessary, one must turn back the clock even further to 1860. Just a decade after rail first came to Indianapolis, the city’s population had more than doubled in size to 18,611. This is not only when it became the state’s largest city, but when it became the state’s central hub (as Madison and New Albany had been the most critical conduits before that time due to their locations along the Ohio River). Soon, five railroad trunk lines and about 40 smaller operations were running trains through the Hoosier State. Though one of the first belt railroads in America was built for the Union Stockyards in 1877 (and the Indianapolis Union Railway Company leased it for the staggering duration of 999 years), owners of the five main lines knew a new building would soon be in order to accommodate the increased traffic.
The man cited by many as the chief visionary for the new facility was James McCrea, president of the Indianapolis Union Railway Company (and later president of the Pennsylvania Railroad). In an 1886 article, The Indianapolis Journal credited McCrea’s persistence as being the driving force in the development of the new facility. Once legislative approval came in 1885 and the real estate was acquired, the wheels were in motion, so to speak, to erect the new station between Illinois and Meridian Streets – just north of where the existing facility stood.
The new station opened in September 1888. The Indianapolis Journal reported:
The station proper is 150 feet square, three stories high, with basement and attic rooms. The tower is 185 feet high, and besides this structure there are two baggage rooms, one at the west and the other at the east end of the train sheds. The baggage rooms are each 150 feet long by twenty-five feet wide.
The train sheds are 741 feet long by 200 feet wide, constructed of iron with a tin roof. The station proper rests on a granite foundation, the stone coming from Iron Mountain, Missouri. The walls above are constructed of pressed brick, with brown-stone trimmings, which were shipped from Pennsylvania… Under cover of the sheds are ten long tracks, 741 feet long, and two short tracks…
Furthermore, The Indianapolis Sentinel explained:
Ticket-agent [Daniel] Donough is much pleased with his quarters. “It is absolutely,” he says, “the finest ticket office in the United States.” Tom Taggart’s lunchrooms are open this morning, fully prepared for the multitude who are already coming for the fair. The rooms on the upper floors, with the exception of the telegraph room, are not ready for occupancy.”
While most publicity was positive, this admonishing note was published in the September 22 edition of The Indianapolis Journal, although it likely seems comical to today’s reader:
There is a good deal of complaint among the male population who are not admitted to the ladies’ [waiting] room in the new Union Station. This is a rule at all large railway stations in this country and will doubtless be enforced until men have better habits. There should be one room at a large railway station, in fact, at a small one as well, where a lady can move about without her skirts dragging in tobacco spit.
As it pertains to Harrison, the station played a major role in his campaign. Oddly enough, it wasn’t because he travelled a great deal – but because he opted not to. In choosing to run a locally-based – or “front porch” – campaign from his home in Indianapolis, reporters, delegates and celebrities instead came to the city to see him, thus bringing more traffic through Union Station. His exposure proved to be just enough as he lost the popular vote, but was victorious in the all-important Electoral College.
Though he triumphantly left the station en route to his new accommodations in the White House in 1889, he would soon make a very forlorn return to the facility, coming back for his wife Caroline’s funeral in October 1892. (She died in the White House following a yearlong battle with tuberculosis.) Her death occurred just two weeks before the 1892 election, which he lost to Cleveland.
For more on the history of Union Station, read Indianapolis Union Station: Trains, Travelers and Changing Times, by James R. Hetherington.
BONUS FUN FACT: An energetic, inquisitive 17-year-old Thomas Edison worked at the old Union Station as a Western Union telegraph operator for a few months in 1864.