When Getting There Was Glorious

Created Wednesday, 24 February 2010 14:22

When Getting There Was Glorious

Once there was a time – and that time is long out of memory for anyone alive in the United States today – when traveling on land was an arduous, uncomfortable business, and dependent upon muscle-power, either one’s own muscles or those of draft animals. To go as far as fifty or five-hundred miles was a considerable project, well up to the mid-19th century – and then it seemed that the nation and the world itself were suddenly spanned by steel rails and steam engines. The railway had arrived – and a journey from the upper-Midwest to the West Coast, which once took six months of grueling travel, could be accomplished in comfort over a matter of days. Going by train became the way to go – and at the very high end, one could travel in considerable luxury, in a private parlor car. Even the ordinary traveler could feel like a person of consequence, walking through a railway station the likes of Grand Central Station in New York, or Paris’ Gare de Lyon.

And burgeoning cities everywhere paid homage to the railway by constructing ever more magnificent temples to progress in the form of railway stations; combining comfort and efficiency with every possible technological advance – and no small display of architectural grandeur. Late 19th and early 20th century architects copied elements of everything from Roman baths, Greek Temples, Italianate towers and Moorish palaces. San Antonio’s own Sunset Station was done in Spanish Mission Revival style; completed in 1902, it is an absolute period jewel, although combatively modest in size. It was the pride of San Antonio, when completed: along the upstairs galleries in the old Depot building there are pictures of a lavish banquet being held to celebrate it’s completion – a banquet held to coincide with the arrival of the first train. For more than half a century, the Depot building was the waiting room and arrival hall for passengers departing and arriving. Presently it serves as a banquet hall again – and the current Amtrack station doesn’t pack anything like the same glamorous and historical wallop of the grand old Depot.

The old station is the anchor of the slowly reviving historical St. Paul Square district, a cluster of various turn-of-the-last-century buildings which once housed a number of lively and vital businesses dependent upon rail transport and traffic – warehouses, hotels, grocery stores, cafes and the like. One senses that it might have revived a little sooner if the highway had not so brutally amputated that part of downtown from the rest of it. Still and all, it’s a lovely place on a warm spring day, to explore the old neighborhood – and to marvel again at how elaborate a public facility like a railway station could be, in the days when the railway was the only way to go.

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