Great Chicago Walks: Revisiting Classic Rail Stations Past And Present

LaSalle Street Station

LaSalle Street Station

About 50 years ago, I rode on a train for the first time. It was a St. Louis-to-New York City trip. I was a 12-year-old kid. I don’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday and I can’t seem to recall where I left my sunglasses but I do remember small details about that trip. The clackety-clack of the wheels, the whoo-whoo of the whistle. Seeing a man in a suit eating a hot dog with sauerkraut—for breakfast.

I still enjoy traveling on trains. Maybe it was that early trip that sold me. Even walking through a train station has its charm (definitely more than the unpleasant airport experience).

We are lucky to still have a classically designed working rail station in Chicago, filled with ornamentation and unusual designs in its nooks and crannies.

There were actually eight interstate rail stations in the city back in 1930, all located in the same general area. I went along with intrepid local historian Rich Kolar and a dozen street photographers last weekend to shoot the remnants of that golden era of rail travel. It’s a walk ripe with possibilities for architectural photography.

Ogilvie Transportation Center

Ogilvie Transportation Center

We began at the Ogilvie Transportation Center. On most weekdays it’s a bustling commuter station, disgorging many worker bees from Metra trains. The August 2 crowd was a bit different—lots of flower-headband-clad girls on their way to Lollapalooza.

Ogilvie station is functional, not too fancy. It was built in 1987, an example of Renaissance Revival design. The train shed lacks the ornate design of European stations, but it offers protection from the elements. The 16 tracks are elevated, accessible from the Citigroup Center (500 West Madison Street), or from the French Market just to the north.

From there, we headed down Canal Street to Union Station. Unlike the other three working rail centers downtown, Union Station (210 South Canal Street) is Chicago’s sole interstate Amtrak hub. It doubles as a commuter station for Metra, just like Ogilvie.

Chicago Union StationThe imposing limestone structure was designed by Daniel Burnham and completed in 1925. There are lots of interesting backdrops in the station for a photo safari like ours, but you’ll find most of the action is in the great hall. I shot a couple saying their goodbyes (or maybe hellos?), oblivious to the other travelers—seeing only each other’s eyes.

A French physician chatted with us and marveled at the ornate detail of the structure. And there are plenty of details—statues, pillars, and wide-open stairways (which were also used for a critical scene during the filming of “The Untouchables”).

Even the train shed has its unique charm, if a strong whiff of diesel is your thing. The lighting is muted and the tracks emit an eerie glow. Outside the building you’ll find unusual touches like the vintage (working) “ELGIN CENTRAL TIME” clock.

From Union Station, we headed east on Harrison to Wells to see the site of the former Grand Central Station (now a dog park). Then it was over to LaSalle Street Station, a Metra commuter stop now, but once a bustling interstate terminal. The trains disgorged more Lolla-goers. The very same platform and shed were the setting for another Hollywood film years ago—Alfred Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest.”

We walked from LaSalle station to our last stop on our walk through Chicago rail history, south through Printer’s Row to Dearborn Station (47 West Polk Street). It’s no longer a working station, but clock tower and structure at Dearborn and Polk remain largely intact.


Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at

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