Portal to the World: Cincinnati Celebrates Its New Railroad Terminal

Author: Scott Gampfer

Cincinnati Union Terminal, c.1933.

On March 31, 1933, a turn of a ceremonial gold key unlocked the doors of Cincinnati’s brand new Union Terminal. The newspaper declared that a portal to the world had swung open. H. A. Worcester, President of the Cincinnati Union Terminal Company, then presented the key to Mayor Russell Wilson. The mayor accepted the key and declared to the assembled crowd and dignitaries that the terminal was “a temple of civic hospitality, welcoming the traveler through gorgeous gates to the city we love and bidding with architectural beauty the departing to return.” During his remarks, the mayor made reference to the fact that Ohio River flooding had caused the terminal to start train service earlier than planned. He said “The disaster of flood befell us, and like a faithful friend the terminal came to our rescue, and for almost two weeks has functioned in prophecy of what it will accomplish in future decades.”

Union Terminal ceremonial key and plaque presented to Mayor Russell Wilson at the grand opening of the new facility. From the collection of Cincinnati Museum Center.

Construction of the new terminal and its related facilities had begun in August of 1929 and was completed in March 1933. The complete terminal facility included 22 separate buildings, 94 miles of track, almost six million cubic yards of fill, 224,500 cubic yards of concrete, over 45,000 tons of steel, and 8,250,000 bricks. The total cost for the project was $41,000,000.

The terminal was built to serve seven railroads; Baltimore & Ohio, New York Central Lines, Louisville & Nashville, Pennsylvania, Chesapeake & Ohio, Norfolk & Western, and Southern Railway. It replaced in a single consolidated facility, the five previous old passenger depots in the Cincinnati downtown basin area, plus the many scattered freight facilities.

The construction of the terminal and related facilities was a massive undertaking, and Cincinnatians were justifiably proud. An enormous crowd gathered on the terminal plaza for the ceremonies. The excitement of the crowd was palpable, many attendees from the area making Friday essentially an informal “Cincinnati Day.”

While waiting for the speakers and the official ceremonies, those in attendance were entertained by a musical performance from the 45-piece Armco Band under the leadership of Frank Simon. The speakers stand was crowded with dignitaries including, Mayor Russell Wilson, City Manager C. A. Dykstra, Ohio Governor George White, C.U.T. Company President H.A. Worcester, Col. Henry Waite, Chief Engineer for C.U.T. Company, George Dent Crabbs, Vice President of C.U.T. Company, Alfred Fellheimer, chief architect for the project, and former Cincinnati Mayor Murray Seasongood, who held office at the start of the project.

Other notables in attendance were the mayors and officials of neighboring cities and towns, the entire engineering staff of the Cincinnati Union Terminal Company, prominent Cincinnati area businessmen, as well as Irwin Krohn, President of the Park Board and his fellow park commissioners.

Following remarks by various dignitaries, the handover of the key to Mayor Wilson, and a flag presentation ceremony by the American Legion, the doors to the new terminal were thrown open at 3 p.m. for public inspection.

The Times-Star observed that “A note of newness prevailed at the Terminal exercise. Everything from beginning to end was spick and span. All of the accommodations in and about the terminal were fresh. The Cincinnati Street Railway Company operated new special busses on the terminal service. Taxicabs were all ‘dressed up’ and the spirit of newness grew upon the observer.”

The Chamber of Commerce produced an 88-page booklet containing photographic views of the interior and exterior of the new Union Terminal which was available at the ceremonies and which “attracted widespread attention.”

Union Terminal Dedication Booklet

In the forward to its booklet, the Chamber called the new facility a great temple of transportation and wrote that “The Cincinnati Union Terminal has come into being, a perfectly coordinated instrument for the swift dispatch and acceleration of passenger, freight, express and postal traffic. The long, tortuous course of its progress from inception to completion constitutes one of the finest epics in American industrial achievement.” The forward also noted that although dedicated to public use and the promotion of the general welfare, the terminal also was a monument to the idealism, artistry, and courage of the people who made it a reality.

That evening, after the crowds had gone, a celebration banquet was held at the Netherland Plaza, Mayor Wilson serving as the master of ceremonies. One of the speakers, former Governor of West Virginia, John J. Cornwell, congratulated the city on its great achievement, but added a note of cold reality when he said “I should say it [the terminal] came after the need, to some degree, had passed, for the decline of more than 50 percent in railroad passenger business has left expensive passenger stations in this country standing as monuments to civic spirit and unfulfilled railroad expectations.” He said he was hopeful that the magnificent new terminal would stimulate travel to and from the city and that the unified operation of the railroads would result in a savings justifying the expenditures.

Souvenir Menu from CUT Grand Opening Celebration Dinner at the Netherland Plaza. CMC Collections.

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