Union Terminal opened in March of 1933, nine months ahead of schedule. Described as a "Temple to Transportation" by the local and national press, Union Terminal was in many ways a dream come true for Cincinnati. For 50 years, various plans had been put forward for a unified rail station in Cincinnati. Finally it had arrived, and it was undoubtedly one of the finest stations ever built.
It was nearly a city within a city. The main concourse offered shops for everything: A bookstore, toy store, men’s store, women’s clothing store, food service, newsstands and even an air-conditioned movie theater. Large lounges with large connecting restrooms were available for men and women, along with a boot black and barber shop. There were even bathtubs available in the restrooms for passengers on long trips. Practically everything but a bed to sleep on was available and all was decorated in the stunning Art Deco style.
Organizationally the building was a marvel. Incoming vehicle traffic was split into three ramps. The first ramp served taxis and cars, the second buses, and the last was for streetcars. While the streetcar line was never connected, the other two dropped passengers off on the north side ramps then proceeded under the rotunda and came up on the south side where ramps brought passengers down to the vehicles to depart. Thus all arriving and departing traffic was split between the two sides of the rotunda and wouldn’t get in each other’s way. When it opened in 1933, the Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper declared "An enormous throng can be handled in the great rotunda without annoying a single passenger." Today the north side ramps are a part of the Museum of Natural History & Science and the south side ramps are a part of the Cincinnati History Museum.
The massive 180-foot-wide and 106-foot-tall rotunda, today the second largest half dome in the world (after the Sydney Opera House), is the primary space. When the building opened in 1933, it connected to another important space, the train concourse, a 450-foot-long structure that sat over the tracks below. Here 16 train gates connected to the platforms where passengers and baggage would be loaded or unloaded from the train. Baggage was checked by passengers in the Checking Lobby, today the area in front of the OMNIMAX® Theater, where it was then taken by elevator to the lower level for sorting. A tunnel ran out from the baggage room under the tracks and ramps lead up from this tunnel to the platforms above. This allowed baggage to be handled out of the way of passengers so that the two would not get in the way of each other.
The reality that Union Terminal was born into was far different than her builders had dreamed of six years before. The Depression had hit the railroads hard, and the number of people travelling by train was declining. Some wondered whether building such a massive structure had in fact been wise and some even labeled the building a white elephant. Despite a great deal of fanfare over its opening, Union Terminal was decidedly quiet during the first few years.
Higher than average rainfall along the Ohio River and its tributaries in January 1937 set the stage for Cincinnati’s highest and most disastrous flood. By January 26, the river crested at an incredible 80 feet, leaving some 45 square miles of Hamilton County underwater, and more than 61,000 of its residents without homes.
Efforts had been made from the very start of the terminal project to make the facility safe from Millcreek Valley flooding by raising the tracks and other facilities above the level of the highest previous recorded flood. The 1937 flood left the terminal a virtual island. Hopkins Street, Kenner Street and Freeman Avenue, as well as the entire approach to the terminal plaza were submerged at the peak of the flood. But even at 80 feet, the terminal itself was basically high and dry. Flooding on the lower levels of the building did not affect the tracks and platforms and other passenger facilities in the building.
At the peak of the flood, Union Terminal still handled the trains of the Southern Railroad, although electricity for lights and switches had to be provided by portable generators. Three of the railroads (Pennsylvania, B&O, and New York Central) continued their operations from suburban stations during the flood, while the C&O, L&N, and the Norfolk & Western eventually were forced to stop all trains. Passengers coming into the station by Southern Railroad had to be taken to the Fourth Street Station by a C&O shuttle train.
Union Terminal had quickly earned a place as one of the jewels of the Queen City. Everything from post cards to advertisements used Union Terminal’s iconic architecture as a backdrop. But Union Terminal would not be relegated to the role of scenic background for advertisers. As war loomed in Europe, the United States began preparing for the possibility of war. In June of 1941, the first Troops in Transit Lounge of the United Service Organizations (USO) opened in Union Terminal to care for the increasing number of troops travelling by rail. After the United States entered WWII, the number of troops moving through the Union Terminal complex exploded, reaching a war time peak of 34,000 people per day in 1944. By war’s end, the facility had served millions of troops, service personnel and their families.
Following the end of WWII, passenger train travel went into a steep decline. As airlines and highways took over as the primary means of travel in the United States, fewer and fewer trains passed through Union Terminal. By 1972, when Union Terminal closed as a train station, only two trains per day were passing through a station designed to handle 216 trains per day.
Image Captiops: 1 Krotty/Thorp Collection SC#20 This is Union Terminal’s Barber Shop just before the building opened in 1933. It featured 10 chairs and could be accessed from the Men’s Lounge and the Checking Lobby. 2 Krotty/Thorp Collection SC#20 The Women’s Lounge featured hand cut wall paper and hand cut, hand painted linoleum murals by Pierre Bourdelle. 3 Krotty/Thorp Collection SC#20 This is the restroom connected to the Men’s Lounge, and featured carrara glass, marble, and chrome. 4 Krotty/Thorp Collection SC#20 North side taxis ramp, showing the vehicular drive sloping down to pass under the rotunda, and the pedestrian ramps ascending to the rotunda. This picture was taken from where Nature’s Trading Post in the Natural History Museum is located today. Historic American Building Survey 5 Fellheimer and Wagner Architectural Drawings for Cincinnati Union Terminal MSS Micro 124 This image is taken from one of Union Terminal’s blue prints and shows how the vehicle ramps passed under the rotunda and came up the other side. 6 Cincinnati Union Terminal Company Records MSS 1031 Picture showing the south side of the facility while several trains wait along the passenger platforms as flood waters have them trapped. 7 Cincinnati Union Terminal Company Records MSS 1031 View from across Freeman Ave showing the station plaza partially under water. Union Terminal was effectively an island during the peak of the flood. 8 Cincinnati Union Terminal Company Records MSS 1031 View from the fountain looking toward Freeman Ave. 9 Betz-Marsh Collection SC#309 This shows the ‘porch’, just outside of the main USO room in Union Terminal, the Rookwood Tea Room. During World War II, this USO Troops in Transit Lounge, the first to open in the entire country, served men and women service personnel traveling by train. 10 Betz-Marsh Collection SC#309 This shot of the Conductors Visa in the train concourse of Union Terminal shows a terminal employee talking to several service men. 11 Betz-Marsh Collection SC#309 This interior shot of the Rookwood Room shows the facilities available to troops passing through. This space had cookies and coffee available, as well as music, and reading material for the troops. They could also get stationary to write home. 12 Union Terminal Color Slide Collection By 1971 there were only two trains per day passing through Union Terminal. Here we see one of them, operated by B&O, sitting beside one of the crumbling passenger platforms. 13 Union Terminal Color Slide Collection An aerial view of Union Terminal, circa 1970. 14 Union Terminal Color Slide Collection A train leaves Union Terminal in the early 1970s, one of the last passenger trains to leave the station.