The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

rolling hills

with 7 comments


– photo by Mitch Waxman

Union Station in Washington D.C. is where Amtrak is headquartered, and is their second busiest train station with just under 5 million riders passing through it every year. It’s the southern terminus for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, and also handles several commuter rail lines as well as municipal Streetcar and Bus operations for the City of Washington D.C. (local, as opposed to the Federal side of things).

In the late 19th century, Washington was a real mess. Separate rail yards, including ones on the site of what’s now the National Mall, were operated by the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. In 1901, Penn RR and B&O RR announced that they had arrived at an agreement to partner up and build what would become Union Station. As part of their agreement, they would abandon and remove the tracks and depots which they had piecemeal installed over the last 50-70 years in Washington. The abandoned land became the National Mall which was partially described in last week’s postings here at Newtown Pentacle.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Union Station was built under the supervision of Chicago architect Daniel Burnham. Congress got involved, and “S. 4825 (58th-1st session) entitled “An Act to provide a union railroad station in the District of Columbia” which was signed into law by 26th President Theodore Roosevelt on February 28, 1903. The Act created a Washington Terminal Company (jointly owned by the B&O and the PRR-controlled Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington Railroad) to construct a railroad station “monumental in character.” The budget was $4 million (roughly $98.3 million in modern valuation) but Washington is no different now than it was then, so in the end it cost $5.9 million to build the thing. Grade crossings in the City were also eliminated, which cost the taxpayers about $3 million additional smackeroos.

A bit of trivia encountered while reading up for this post is that the neighborhood that Union Station was built in used to be called Swampoodle, and it was a “lawless shanty town populated by Irish, Italians, and Negroes” where public drunkenness and other licentious behavior was common. There were livestock pens, and a collection of shops that housed tin smiths. By October 27, 1907, Swampoodle was gone, as that’s when Union Station opened for business and the B&O’s Pittsburgh Express first arrived, to much fanfare.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I’m told that there are 32 station tracks at Union Station. 20 of them enter from the Northeast, with the remaining 12 entering the facility via a tunnel under Capitol Hill. I’m sure there’s a lot of nuanced commentary that could offered by a rail historian or dedicated rail fan, but one prefers not to dwell too deeply on such matters unless he’s forced into it. Unlike Sunnyside Yards, I do not want to be in a position to tell you who the field engineer for the Pennsylvania Rail Road was.

It’s during the time period that this station was built that the America we know in modernity was being created. Petroleum was replacing coal, cities were enacting sanitary and health codes, foreign military adventures had become normal, and the idea that a non European country might be able to single-handily dominate and control an entire hemisphere of the planet had emerged. It was during the interval of Union Station’s construction – in 1903, specifically – that the Wright Brothers began flying. The Civil War was a bad memory that fathers and grandfathers told their children about.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

In 1971, the private capital version of rail road companies in the United States collapsed into bankruptcy, and President Richard Nixon nationalized the assets. Conrail was created to handle freight, Amtrak to handle inter city passenger travel, and the inner city and commuter rail businesses were allotted to a number of regional authorities – MTA, SEPTA, and so on. In the case of Union Station, the Federal Department of the Interior was put in charge of the place. Badly maintained, by 1983, it became apparent that a change was required if Union Station was to be saved. The Reagan administration transferred joint ownership of Union Station to Amtrak and the Federal Department of Transportation.

Far more renovations and rethinkings of the space occurred for me to pass on, but suffice to say that a significant and very expensive amount of work occurred here, resulting in gorgeous public areas like the grand hall – pictured above – being returned to their (somewhat) original glory. Union Station as you see it above reopened in 1988. There’s still work to be done, in both operational capability and the historic preservation spheres, and Amtrak keeps on talking about a fairly expensive vision for the future.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Great Hall/entrance is meant to be a waiting room, and when it’s time to start moving towards your train, you enter the concourse. That’s where the Amtrak counters are, as well as a series of shops and restaurants.

On a personal note, man oh man was I tired at this stage of the game. It was about three in the afternoon, and I had left HQ in Astoria at 2:30 in the morning for a 3:30 a.m. train to D.C. I had wandered out into the National Mall at just after 7 a.m. and began shooting with the characteristically brutal “hot” of Washington oppressing me. I got pics of several interesting POV’s while engaging in a frustrating Covid era search for something to drink and a place to… ahem… use the toilet. I made it all the way down to the Potomac and then had to meet up with an old friend for lunch. Sleep deprived doesn’t begin to describe my state.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

A humble narrator was thereby pretty loopy by the time this shot was taken. Honestly, I almost forgot to take it. The next leg of my September travels would involve a 7 hour and 40 minute Amtrak ride, and I’d be getting off the train at 11:44 p.m. Before boarding, I had slurped down a huge cup of coffee at Union Station, and my intention was to use the travel time to offload the Washington shots from my camera onto the very heavy laptop I was carrying with me. There’s a whole process to this – focus check, is it worth keeping, horizon straightening, cropping, key wording – before I even start to address what the color and tonality of the final shot will be. About one out of ten shots makes it through this process, and maybe one out of five of those makes it here.

Truth is that I fell asleep about a half hour after boarding the train, and remained passed out for about six hours. Sleeping in public is so outside of my ordinary mindset that I’m still shocked about it.

Human, all too human.

“follow” me on Twitter- @newtownpentacle

Buy a book!

In the Shadows at Newtown Creek,” an 88 page softcover 8.5×11 magazine format photo book by Mitch Waxman, is now on sale at for $30.

Written by Mitch Waxman

October 18, 2021 at 11:00 am

Posted in AMTRAK, railroad

Tagged with , ,

7 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Having grown up in DC there is one tidbit of Union Station history I can add: In the 1970’s, with rail travel declining and Union Station underutilized, Congress – in it’s infinite wisdom – spent millions of dollars of someone’s money…oh, wait…that was our money….converting Union Station into what was known as The National Visitors Center, where visitors to Washington could learn about the things they could see if they just walked out the front door of the visitors center. The National Visitors Center opened in 1976, just in time for the Bicentennial, to the acclaim of absolutely nobody. The actual train station was moved to a building in the rear that was amazingly reminiscent of a Greyhound bus station.

    Alas, very few visitors visited the visitors center and by 1978 much of the staff had been laid off. In 1981, the visitors center having been closed entirely, the ceiling in the main concourse collapsed. This prompted Congress to spend millions of dollars restoring Union Station to its former glory and then turning it back into a train station.

    Lawrence Lambert

    October 18, 2021 at 12:57 pm

  2. Can I use your piece on Union Station in an upcoming issue of FROM THE ARCHIVES?  I loved it!!

    Judith BerdyPresident Roosevelt Island Historical Society531 Main St. #1704New York, NY 10044212 688 4836917 744 3721


    October 18, 2021 at 6:21 pm

  3. Why schlepp the laptop? Couldn’t you wait to download the photos until you arrived home?

    • File management is a lot simpler when you treat the folders of images like rolls of film. Can’t do that efficiently without downloading at least once a day

      Mitch Waxman

      October 18, 2021 at 11:49 pm

  4. […] 7 hours in Washington D.C. saw me boarding a train and heading to the Capitol in swelled alarmingly, arrived at the National Mall and explored a bit in slackened speed, hovered about, whereupon a look at Union Station was offered in rolling hills. […]

  5. Very interesting travelogue. Like commenter Lambert above, I witnessed the transformation of Union Station’s magnificent waiting room into an awful sunken video wall viewing area that no one paid any attention to. I was traveling to/from CT at the time.


    August 17, 2022 at 8:31 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: