Union Station and the Dream of Flying Buses

Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal. From the Metro Transportation Library and Archive / James Rojas Collection.

Built in the final days before the era of long-distance passenger rail gave way to the Jet Age, L.A.'s Union Station is known as the "Last of the Great Railway Stations."

With the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority's agreement last week to purchase the facility, and its announced intention to "retain the historic nature of Union Station and prepare it to serve as a world-class 21st century transportation hub," interest has been renewed in the future and the history of L.A.'s 71-year-old passenger terminal. While the future is now in Metro's hands, we can turn to Southern California's archives for a glimpse of the station's past.

Originally known as the Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal, the station's name reflected the fact that it united passenger services for all three major railroads then serving Los Angeles: the Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe; the Southern Pacific; and the Union Pacific.

Before Union Station, major passenger service was split between two separate terminals in downtown Los Angeles. Central Station serviced both Southern Pacific and Union Pacific passengers at 5th St. and Central Ave. To the east, near 2nd St. and Santa Fe Ave, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe operated out of Moorish-style La Grande Station. Both terminals are pictured below circa 1915 in postcards from Loyola Marymount University Library's Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection.

Central Station circa 1915. Loyola Marymount University Library / Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection La Grande Station. Loyola Marymount University Library / Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection

In the 1920s, the population of Los Angeles more than doubled. Demand for passenger service downtown swelled, and with trains sharing the streets with automobiles, pedestrians, and streetcars, a new, consolidated passenger terminal became necessary. Old Chinatown shortly before it was demolished. USC Libraries / California Historical Society Collection I've often noticed that many environmentally inclined people dislike deserts. Sometimes it's as benign as a matter of personal preference for where to spend time: there are mountain people and forest people and ocean people, and they sometimes ask us desert people what we could possibly see in our favorite arid haunts. Sometimes that disregard is stronger than just a vacation preference. Sometimes it's an actual dismissal of the land's value, as for instance saying that thousand-year-old yuccas and threatened tortoise habitat aren't worth as much as a few megawatts of solar power or a convenient spot for trash. Allan Savory takes it further than that: He wants to eradicate deserts just because they exist. In 1926, L.A. voters rejected a proposal to keep the station downtown by using elevated tracks and instead opted for a site in what was then Chinatown. That decision resulted in the controversial razing of much of L.A.'s original Chinatown and the displacement of its residents northwest to present-day Chinatown.

Construction on the station began in 1933 and cost $11 million. On May 3, 1939, Union Station opened with a lavish celebration attended by a half million Angeleños. In the photograph below, from UCLA's Young Research Library, a fully-dressed Santa Fe locomotive arrives as part of the opening day parade.

Union Station opening day parade. UCLA Young Research Library / Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive

Partially designed by L.A. architects John B. and Donald D. Parkinson, Union Station combined Spanish Colonial Revival and Streamline Moderne styles, reflecting both the city's Spanish heritage and its modern urban aspirations. Traces of La Grande's Moorish influences are also evident in the station's arches and clocktower. The photo below from the Pomona Public Library's Frasher Foto Postcard Collection shows the station's waiting room as it appeared shortly after opening.

Union Station Waiting Room, 1939. Pomona Public Library / Frasher Foto Postcard Collection

With soldiers moving between Southern California and other destinations across the county, the station received heavy use through World War II. It soon declined, however, with the ascent of air travel and freeways as viable alternatives to traveling by train. Transportation officials proposed several plans to adapt Union Station to the times. Some proposals focused on linking Union Station with LAX. Monorails were considered, but in 1965 the city floated the idea of "flying buses" (pictured below). As blogger Eric Richardson explained on blogdowntown, jet-powered heavy lift helicopters would have transported passengers between the two transportation nodes in detachable pods, carried by jet-powered heavy lift helicopters.

Model of a "flying bus" considered for transporting passengers between Union Station and LAX. UCLA Young Research Library / Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive

Other ideas centered on transforming Union Station into a multi-modal hub. In 1959, the city recommended an expanding the facility to accommodate not only passenger trains but also buses, rapid transit, and helicopters. A 1958 plan for Union Station. USC Libraries / Los Angeles Examiner CollectionArchitect J. Edward Martin's plan (left) included direct connections to the adjacent Santa Ana Freeway as well as a heliport atop a large, six-story circular building. The long rectangular structure adjacent to the heliport would have served a new rapid transit line, meant to replace Southern California's dying streetcar services.

In the 1990s, that long-planned rapid transit system became a reality with the arrival at Union Station of Metro Rail's Red Line (in 1993) and Gold Line (in 2000). The Metro Red Line arrived at Union Station in 1993. Metro Transporation Library & ArchiveThese developments, along with the addition of the Patsaouras bus plaza, finally transformed Union Station into the multi-modal hub dreamt of by the Jet Age planners. Today, the station serves roughly 80,000 passengers per month, including transit riders, Metrolink commuters, and passengers on the five lines operated by Amtrak, which assumed passenger rail operations nationwide in 1971.

Southern California's archives provide a wealth of information for researchers who wish to further explore Union Station's history. Views of L.A's original Chinatown, which was demolished to make way for Union Station, are preserved through the photographic holdings of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. The USC Libraries' extensive Los Angeles Union Station Collection documents the station's planning and construction, preserving correspondence, blueprints, maps, and legal files. The Getty Research Institute preserves the Parkinsons' original architectural drawings of the station. Finally, nearly 7,500 photos related to L.A. transportation history, including many of Union Station, are available through the Metro Library's Flickr photostream.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here will provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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Great article! Wonderful images! Thanks!

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Agreed Steven! The dream of the flying car (or bus, in this case) is an honorable and venerable one. I'd be curious to see the interior on that thing, though.