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100 years of history at Union Station

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2 minute read

“All of my life I had lived in very small farming communities. Coming into Union Station was entering a shocking, different world. I still remember the great, big doors, the very tall, tall ceilings, and lots of people. I had never seen so many people, enormous numbers of people. And all that huge, large hall was filled with a blue cloud of cigar smoke.”

Corval Lile visited Union Station for the first time in the 1920s, and wrote about her memories of the train depot in a letter to the Kansas City Star in 1999. The Star solicited reader submissions about Union Station memories to coincide with the reopening of the refurbished station. These letters, and others, are now a part of Union Station Stories, a permanent, interactive, four-level exhibit in Union Station that opens Oct. 31.

Union Station Stories takes guests through the 100-year history of Union Station through artifacts, photos and interactive information screens.

George Guastello, president and CEO of Union Station, said the letters are an integral part of the exhibit.

“It tells the rich history in people’s words about their memories, dating back through many generations,” he said. “(Guests will) have the chance to go through the decades … and you’ll be able to read the letters of the people … about what this place meant to them.”

The experiences at Union Station, as remembered in this collection of letters, are varied. Many important historical experiences are represented: survivors of a Nazi concentration camp coming to America, racial segregation in the dining areas, the Union Station Massacre and the passing through of celebrities like singer Kate Smith and President Eisenhower.

Romance is a common theme in many of the letters. Based on several letters, it seems as if every Midwest boy sent to fight in World War II traveled through the station at some point.

William Hatcher remembered reuniting with his girlfriend in Union Station the day before Valentine’s Day in 1945. He was an Army Air Force corporal on a three-day leave pass, and she was on furlough from the Coast Guard. He proposed early in the morning of Valentine’s Day. He didn’t have a ring, but later sent her money so she could buy one. Hatcher wrote in 1996 that he and his wife now live in Texas and had been married for 53 years.

A woman who signed her letter Mrs. Alan E. Mills was married in 1942, only weeks before her husband was stationed overseas. She remembered his return several years later.

“After three years, Uncle Sam finally released him to return home, and it was a very special reunion for us to meet again under the big clock at the Union Station about 2 a.m. that October morning in 1945,” she wrote in 1999.

Several letter-writers reminisce about accompanying family members to work at Union Station. Beverly Tanner’s father was a red cap — a luggage porter — in 1926. Tanner said she would enjoy refreshments from the soda fountain and exchange addresses with little girls she met in the restroom so they could become pen pals.

When many of these letters were submitted to the Star in 1999 before the station reopened, their authors were in their ‘70s or ‘80s. Corval Lile, the woman who so vividly described the station above, was no exception.

“At 89, I hope to have the opportunity to look at the renovated Union Station,” she wrote. “This time it will be with very dimmed eyes, still filled with the same wonder.”

The full Union Station Stories exhibit will be unveiled Oct. 31 at 10 a.m. The unveiling is free and open to the public. The exhibit will also be free Nov. 1–2 during a Weekend Open House with live music, history lectures, food trucks and more.

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