May 2nd, 2009

carole lombard 06
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Training in L.A. for 70 years

When it comes to Los Angeles, what method of transportation do you associate with the city? The car, perhaps; after all, didn't Hal David write (for Burt Bacharach) "L.A. is a great big freeway"? Or maybe you think of airplanes -- not just for LAX and the several other area airports, but for the aerospace industry that's been an integral part of the southern California economy for a number of decades.

But the train has also played a major role in the growth of Los Angeles, dating all the way back to the 1880s, when railroads engaged in a price-cutting war to lure people to this orange-blossomed paradise. (In 1885, one could travel from Kansas City to L.A. for just a dollar!). Trains were the dominant mode of transportation before commercial air travel grew and a capable road system was developed.

Downtown L.A. had several terminals, each operated by various railroads. The facilities weren't very good, and many felt they weren't worthy of the notable city Los Angeles was becoming. So a call came out to build a first-class terminal, the western equivalent of eastern rail palaces such as Pennsylvania or Grand Central Station in New York, 30th Street Station in Philadelphia or Union Station in Washington.

Seventy years ago this week, the dreams of many southern Californians came true, as its super-terminal -- also called Union Station -- opened for business. It would be the last of the deluxe major rail stations to be built and cost $11 million, a three-way effort among the Santa Fe, Southern Pacific and Union Pacific railroads.

What did Union Station replace? Well, the Santa Fe station was located at East Second Street and South Santa Fe Avenue. Here it is on Jan. 26, 1939, in its waning days of operation:

The Southern Pacific terminal was on Central Avenue between 4th and 5th streets; in 1924, it also housed Union Pacific trains after the UP depot was damaged by fire. Here is a colorized 1915 postcard illustration of the Southern Pacific's waiting room:

The Los Angeles Times, the city's dominant newspaper, was among the major drumbeaters for a new, larger rail station. A site was chosen not far from City Hall (and the Times building), and in December 1935, the paper ran photos of the site as construction was beginning. Note City Hall's colossal shadow in the bottom picture:

Nearly 3 1/2 years after those photos were taken, Union Station was ready to open, and the Times -- as well as the rest of the city -- celebrated the occasion. This ran on April 30:

The following day, the Timest ran a full-page guide to the city's latest attraction:

And here's the Times from May 2, about a special VIP inspection given of the station before the general public got their chance:

The grand opening drew hundreds of thousands to check out this new palace for rail passengers:

That last picture might seem offensive, or at least patronizing, by 2009 standards, as it supposedly commemorates the work of the Chinese in building America's railroads. (Ironically, Union Station was built on the site of L.A.'s original Chinatown; a new one was built nearby.)

Here's a Times pictorial of the ceremonies from its May 4 issue:

With Carole Lombard's sense of curiosity, it wouldn't be surprising if she had dropped by sometime during 1939 just to check out the place. (When she and Clark Gable headed east in late 1940, they boarded at Pasadena, where many celebrities preferred to start their train journeys.) However, we do know of one time Lombard entered Union Station -- on Monday, Jan. 12, 1942 to board a train to Chicago, where she would get instructions for her upcoming war bond rally in Indianapolis. As we all sadly know, Carole, her mother Bess Peters, and MGM publicist/chaperone Otto Winkler would never return to L.A. (The alleged biopic "Gable And Lombard" filmed a scene at Union Station, one of many movies and TV programs to do so.)

Union Station remains a gem -- architecturally blending the classic southern California mission style with 1930s streamline moderne -- and after a period of decline is now used more than ever. Amtrak still runs trains, both long-distance and short hops, but Metrolink commuter trains have become increasingly popular. Union Station has also become a venue for local mass transit, serving three Metro rail lines and a number of buses at an adjacent terminal. It's well worth dropping by the next time you're in L.A. -- even if you aren't planning to board a train.

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