Destination: United States
Book: America’s Great Railroad Stations. (NEW Oct. 2011)Photos by Roger Straus III and text by Ed Breslin and Hugh Van Dusen.
Toward the end of the year, we can count on some blockbuster books emerging to tempt us as we do holiday shopping. I already told you about one of my favorites, in the Ten Perfect Gifts for Travelers Who Read post. Here’s another one.
At first I thought that America’s Great Railroad Stations would appeal to the narrow range of railroad “nuts”–those people who gobble up everything that has to do with choo-choos. But as I paged through the book, I realized that even though I don’t count myself as one of that crew, I thoroughly enjoyed the trip across America. My interest lies in the amazing story the railroad architecture tells us about the power of the railroads in the 19th and early 20th century, about the way that the country’s economy and general sense of well-being affected architectural creations, and how these stations tell more about our country’s history–a subject I’m always interested in.
My interest in railroad history was piqued when I read and reviewed Appetite for America, the biography of Fred Harvey who worked with the railroads to “civilize the west”. There I learned the meaning of “union” station. In the early days of railroading, each railroad had its own terminal, so you’d be faced with several in one city. It was more practical for the railroad companies to pool their resources and operate out of a “union” station.
One more thing that sets the wheels of my brain turning in Great Railroad Stations is the story of preservation. In these pages you will see plenty of examples of where it has been done well (D.C. ‘s Union Station) and some very sad examples (New York’s Penn Station) when it failed. I also like the stories of creative measures taken by communities to save their stations.
The writers, however, apply a rather heavy hand in their appeal for preservation. While the photography is magnificent (and tempts me to look up at least one other travel-inspiring book by the photographer, Roger Straus ,
[amazon_link id=”1579652751″ target=”_blank” ] Houses of the Founding Fathers[/amazon_link]) I found the writing awkward and over done. The photographs and their captions say nearly everything you need to know.
Although this book necessarily is limited to some of the grander examples of stations, with a few smaller ones of particular interest included (like Garrison Station- above), it made me think of all those small towns across the country that have rescued their stations to turn them into a tourism center or store. But others (not all in the book) have become art colleges, sprawling restaurants (San Antonio Sunset Station–above), hotels (Nashville Tennessee houses a Wyndham), or the home of excursion trains. Don’t you love the creativity that emerges when communities pull together? And how many times have the railroad stations served as that magnet that pulled the community together?
My earliest imaginary travels included listening to the radio show, Grand Central Station. Part of the fascination of railroad stations are the stories they hint at. Think of all the literary uses of railroad stations– those movies where the chugging of wheels denotes the passage of time and movement through space. OR all the tearful farewells, with one person on the train and the other following them down the walkway getting one last glimpse. Makes me teary just to think of it.
I should mention that my hometown station, the Tucson Southern Pacific is one of the choices in the book. It is still used as an Amtrak station, but has more business as a trendy restaurant, Maynard’s and a small railroad museum. My personal favorite railroad stations for travelers, both of which are included in America’s Great Railroad Stations, are Union Station in Washington, D.C., where you can still take trains, but also shop and dine; and Cincinnati Union Terminal, now a museum center, which was one of my absolute favorite visits in Cincinnati. The building is sleek Art Deco, the murals inside show midwestern history, and every inch of the vast space is crammed with delights.
Although I avoid traveling by Amtrak in most parts of the country, I was rather surprised when I stated recalling how many railroad stations (or former stations) I had visited in my travels. Of the ones in the book, I’ve visited Grand Central, Washington Union, Tucson, Santa Fe Sunset, Cincinnati, Sacramento, and Chicago Union, plus many others which did not make the book. Which, I guess, makes rail travel still an important part of the American travel experience, even if you’re not on the choo-choo itself.
Have you visited railroad stations in your travels–or former railroad stations? Tell us about your favorite.
Disclaimers: Amazon links included here are for your convenience. Although it costs you no more to use them to get to Amazon, each purchase provides a few cents to help A Traveler’s Library operate. All photos are supplied by the publisher, who also supplied a review copy of the book.