by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The first railroad in greater Los Angeles was the Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad, built by local capitalists and which opened in 1869, the year the transcontinental line was finished to Oakland from the east. Three years later, as part of a vote to bring the Southern Pacific railroad to the city and which included a substantial cash subsidy, the Los Angeles and San Pedro was handed over to the SP, giving it a monopoly on local lines.
That changed in 1885, when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe built the first direct transcontinental link to Los Angeles and this was a central reason for the Boom of the 1880s that followed in subsequent years. As an architectural symbol of the importance of the Santa Fe to the city and region, an architecturally eclectic depot was built in 1893 on the west bank of the Los Angeles River on the appropriately named Santa Fe Avenue near 1st Street. Because fires frequently destroyed wooden stations, this one was built out of brick. It also featured a fine garden for the enjoyment of passengers and other visitors.
Known as “La Grande Station” the distinctive structure with its Moorish onion-shaped dome served passengers for nearly a half century. The opening day was 29 July 1893 “with addresses by several distinguished men and a collation,” the latter a term for a light, informal meal.
The station’s general manager was sure to note that “all friends and patrons of the road are invited to be present, whether they have received formal invitations or not.” Notably, it was also reported that “the old depot was picked up by a lusty railroad man” placed on a flatcar and relocated “to serve as a storeroom somewhere in the yard.”
Nearby was the Arcade Station operated by the rival Southern Pacific and which was opened during the peak of the great boom in 1888 at Fourth and Alameda. The site was previously the famed orange orchard of William Wolfskill, the first commercial grove in California when he began planting the fruit in 1841 at the end of the Mexican era.
By the boom, the land was too valuable to remain agricultural, so Wolfskill’s son, John, subdivided the tract. A very large wooden structure, the Arcade Station was a decided contrast to the La Grande depot and, as Los Angeles grew, the two main depots did a tremendous business in passenger and freight traffic.
By the 1910s, however, a movement was launched to create a unified depot for all of the city’s railroad traffic, but the project went through many contortions as controversy raged about location, cost and other issues. One of the key figures involved in the effort was Boyle Workman, great-nephew of William and Nicolasa Workman and whose father, William H., was mayor during the Boom of the 1880s and city treasurer from 1901 to 1907.
Boyle Workman was a member of the city council through most of the 1920s, serving as president of the body for several years, and lost the 1929 race for mayor to John C. Porter (a loss that actually saved Workman from presiding over the city during the early years of the Great Depression.) In his capacity as council member and president of the body, he had a direct role in the development of the new railroad depot.
The area just east of the Plaza had long been the city’s Chinatown, but the area was condemned and the appropriated as the site for the station, though construction dragged on for many years. Finally, in May 1939, the richly appointed Union Station opened as the Depression was winding down. Restrictions on the use of automobiles due to rationing of gasoline and rubber kept train travel viable for longer than would likely have otherwise been if World War II had not broken out. After the war, however, Union Station experienced a long decline. Meantime, the La Grande Station was razed in 1946.
In recent years, however, Amtrak service has been joined by public transit expansion, including the Metrolink train system, the Metro subway, and bus lines, so that the station has seen increased activity. Just this morning, I took a Metrolink train from the City of Industry station and the subway leading out to Bunker Hill to do some presentations for Road Scholar/Elderhostel and then made the return trip in the afternoon. It’s something I do some seven to ten times a year and it’s always fun to walk through the station, particularly if someone is playing the upright piano recently placed there!