In the 1920's, Chicago had six major "steam road" passenger depots, along with numerous rapid transit and electric interurban stations.
The main building, or "headhouse," of only one of the six grand old stations (Dearborn) has survived, though for non-railroad use. Parts of two other stations (Union and Northwestern) still serve rail passengers, though their headhouses are gone. The other three stations have been demolished. Of the two dozen railroads that once used those stations, none of the surviving companies now offer any type of passenger service.
While railroads sometimes operated trains jointly (for example, the City of San Franciso ran on C&NW to Omaha, then UP to California), there were no coast-to-coast through trains. Instead, all passengers changed trains — and usually stations — at Chicago. A specialized bus company, Parmalee Transport, provided frequent transfers between all downtown stations for passenger and their baggage.
Union Station — Adams & Canal
Of the major terminals from the Golden Age, only Union Station still serves intercity rail passengers. It also houses Amtrak's offices.
The classic white marble buildings, based on a Daniel Burnham design and opened in 1925, originally covered two city blocks. The headhouse was demolished in 1969 and replaced by an office tower; however, the restored main waiting room (with office floors above) and the underground passenger concourse remain in use by Amtrak and Metra. All tracks at Union Station are below street level, entering from both the North and South; three tracks run through both sides.
The station served the Pennsylvania (with trains to Detroit, Ohio, New York, Washington, and Florida), Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (Twin Cities, Kansas City, Lincoln, Denver, and through service to the West Coast), Chicago & Alton (later Gulf, Mobile & Ohio, to Kansas City and St. Louis), and the Milwaukee Road (to Milwaukee, Madison, Twin Cities, Omaha, and Seattle).
Northwestern Station — Madison & Canal
Northwestern Station was the only one of Chicago's grand stations built for a single railroad, the Chicago & North Western.
Earlier terminals had been located near the site of the Merchandise Mart. The new station, with a classic design featuring six enormous Doric columns at the entryway, opened in 1911.
C&NW provided passenger service to Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, Lake Geneva, the Twin Cities, Duluth, and Omaha. Until 1955, it ran through service (with Union Pacific) to Denver, California, and Portland. The station also served C&NW's commuter operations.
The station's headhouse was closed in 1984 and replaced with a modern office skyscraper, but the elevated station tracks and (until the late 1990's) the original trainshed remained in use. Those tracks continue to serve Metra's ex-C&NW commuter lines, accessed through what is now the Richard B. Ogilvie Transportation Center.
LaSalle Street Station — LaSalle & Van Buren
Construction of the LaSalle Street Station began in 1901, on the site of two earlier depots at the foot of LaSalle Street. The new building included ten floors of offices above the elevated station concourse.
LaSalle Street Station served as the primary terminal for the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific's commuter lines and intercity trains to Peoria, Kansas City, Iowa, Denver, and connections to Los Angeles. Other tenants included New York Central, with trains to Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Boston, and New York, and the Nickel Plate (formally, the New York, Chicago & St. Louis), with service to Buffalo and through trains to other East Coast destinations via the Lackawanna.
The original massive single-arch trainshed lasted only until 1934, when it was replaced by two smaller spans. The entire structure was demolished in 1981, and new facilities were constructed directly to the south to serve Metra's Rock Island commuter operations.
Dearborn Station — Dearborn & Polk
Though the last trains left in 1971, Dearborn Station's red sandstone headhouse and massive clock tower still stand in the South Loop.
Opened in 1885, the station served more railroads than any other in Chicago. The largest tenant was Santa Fe, with elegant trains to the Southwest and California. Other tenants included Wabash (to Decatur and St. Louis, plus commuter service to Orland Park), Erie (New York City), Grand Trunk Western (Toronto and Montreal), Chicago & Eastern Illinois (St. Louis and Evansville, with through service to Nashville, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Miami), Monon (Indianapolis and Louisville), and Chesapeake & Ohio (Washington).
Dearborn Station is the only one of Chicago's station headhouse structures to survive; it now houses a shopping mall. The area behind the headhouse, once filled by a trainshed and trackage, holds he first major housing development in the booming South Loop district.
Central Station — Roosevelt & Michigan
Central Station was perhaps the most visible of Chicago's six grand "steam road" stations, with a large clock tower and trainshed on the southeastern edge of the Loop.
Central Station served as the primary terminal for Illinois Central's intercity passenger trains to St. Louis, Iowa, Florida, and New Orleans. Other roads using the station were Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis ("Big Four Route") to Indianapolis and Cincinnati, and Michigan Central to Detroit; both offered connecting service to New York via their parent company, New York Central.
Completed in 1893, Central Station was built on reclaimed land at what was then the shoreline of Lake Michigan. Additional landfill east of the Illinois Central tracks later created Grant Park.
The station was closed in 1972, and demolished two years later. Today, new housing fills much of the station and yard areas.
Grand Central Station — Wells & Harrison
While New York had Grand Central Terminal, Chicago had Grand Central Station — a truly apt name for one of the most impressive structures of the late 1800's. Its demolition in 1971 helped spark the movement to preserve Chicago's historic structures.
Grand Central opened in 1890, with a classic 242' high clock tower and ornate headhouse located just south of the Loop, alongside the Chicago River. The station served the Baltimore & Ohio (with trains to New York, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.), Pere Marquette (Grand Rapids), Chicago Great Western (Minneapolis and Iowa), and Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Marie ("Soo Line") (Minneapolis). After merger with the B&O and the Pere Marquette, Chesapeake & Ohio also began service through Grand Central.
Despite the rush to demolish the station, the site of the headhouse is still vacant more than three decades later. The River City residential development now stands on the former yard area just to the south.