As Seen at Union Station, Chicago, IL

From the Jackson Boulevard mezzanine overlooking the Great Hall at Chicago Union Station. 12:34-12:56 PM, 23 February 2016
Da' Bears, reflected in the freshly-polished marble of iconic Great Hall at Chicago Union Station

Da’ Bears, reflected in the freshly-polished marble. Click to follow COA on Instagram

Two Mennonites spring from the mezzanine overlooking the Great Hall, then mount a marble railing, slide down it out of sight. Seeing this is one of the highlights of my life to date. Four Indian men power walk around the rectangular Great Hall and discuss business on a level most people can only imagine. Around the rectangular Great Hall.

Two good ol’ boys wait to board train 21, the Texas Eagle. South-bound. Maybe they head to Texarkana, where the station is split in two by a state border. They have matching styrofoam cups, and giggle a little more with every sip. Might not be just Pepsi. The Indian men pass underneath me again. This is a working lunch in action. The Mennonite women sit and discuss matters humbly. They have no idea the heathen mischief their men just perpetrated on that railing.

The ancient bucket seat benches under the Great Hall skylight have to be one of the best places to catch a few winks in all Chicagoland. And when you awaken, there are the heavens above you. Namaste. People leave their eyes on me awhile, I suppose returning the favor. I wonder how they’d write about the nattily-dressed man staring back at them. They’re right to be suspicious. The commuters put their head down and go. They only look up to grimace at the long distance passengers, they wandering in wonderment and getting in the way. Is all Chicago so grand?

One last pass by the walking working lunch. Teach me your work ethic, man! I go out for lunch, but I stop and write!


The reflective marble floor of the iconic Chicago Union Station Great Hall

Old Glory reflected in the marble floor of Union Station. Click to follow COA on Instagram.

For more short stories from Charlie’s trips across the Heartland, check out our Enjoy the Journey archives. To never miss a new journey, follow Cult of Americana via email.

Farewell to an American Classic

There was much rejoicing in The Flower City last month as a ceremonial swipe took out a corner of the existing Rochester Amtrak station, colloquially known as an “Amshack”.

The circa-1978 Amshack facility is being replaced by a state-of-the-art, multi-modal station, boasting level-boarding platforms, space to service two trains simultaneously, and capacity to expand as necessary.

There’s really no debating that the new facility will be a wholesale improvement over what’s existed for over thirty years in The Flower City.

The Rochester "Amshack" awaits the wreckers

The Rochester “Amshack” awaits the wreckers in November 2015. Follow @CultofAmericana on Instagram and Twitter.

Yet I can’t help but wonder if the same talking points were used at the ceremonial groundbreaking for the new Madison Square Garden?

As you might recall, Pennsylvania Station in New York City was considered archaic, and passenger trains were on the way out in the face of the jet and superhighway age. So the Beaux-Arts icon was torn down and replaced with a maze underneath the current Knicks/Rangers/Billy-Joel-final-tour (he means it this time) arena, with the idea being that this underground area could quickly be converted to other uses when passenger trains died for good. That death was imminent in 1963. But passenger trains hung in there, thanks to the creation and nurturing of Amtrak.

Demand for more passenger trains, at higher speeds and frequency, is now greater than at any point in the 45-year history of government-operated intercity passenger rail service.

No one anticipates that the destruction of the Rochester station will be a high-water mark in architectural preservation. So what is the connection between glorious, martyred, decimated, Penn Station and the Rochester Amshack, as it were?


‘It happened’ is the tie that binds these two disparate facilities. The style/model of the Amtrak station being replaced in Rochester ‘happened’, in something close to kit form, all over the country in the past four decades. Albany-Rensselaer, NY, St. Louis, MO, Bloomington-Normal, IL, Carbondale, IL, Huntington, WV; all have or had this style of station. And in that way, as these stations fall or are replaced with newer structures, we have to begin looking at these kit stations as a fabric of our history as a traveling nation.


These are, after all, facilities that weathered the past 30-plus years of political upheaval that has seen the passenger rail network in America contracted, then slightly expanded, and now waiting for the next great push from a generation that can’t stand the experience of flying and are less-likely to own their own automobile or rely on a car for medium-distance trips.


These Amshacks played a role in bringing passenger rail to a point where it’s not ‘do we even need trains?’ but rather ‘we need more trains’.

And without fail or exception, the stations that replace the Amshacks are BIGGER; because that’s what’s happened over the past 30-plus years. Demand for passenger trains has risen dramatically, thanks in no small part to the enclosed, functional, heated/cooled, safe and secure if not spartan accommodations afforded by the Amtrak kit stations of the late seventies and early eighties.


Having seen stations all across the American passenger rail network, I can assure you there are dozens of communities that would do anything to have the kind of station that is currently being demolished in my hometown. And for me, the Rochester Amshack has spanned my lifetime (proof below); it’s where I learned to love passenger trains, first from a ‘choo-choo’ fanaticism, and more recently from a practical perspective.
It’s where I got on the train to go to school, cured my homesick-ness at holiday time, and head off to a new adventure in the far-away city of Chicago.
It’s an American classic that did its job admirably for better than three decades. Things will be better for Rochester, like so many other communities, because this station and its brethren existed in the first place.


a young charlie monte verde is one of those cute kids that love trains

The author at the then-new Rochester Amtrak station (circa 1985). Follow @CultofAmericana on Instagram and Twitter.

All images are copyright Cult of Americana