Lost Jacksonville: Union Terminal

January 8, 2010 101 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

While the building may still be in use as a convention center, the sights, sounds, scenes and activities from its days as the South's largest rail terminal are long gone. Today, Metro Jacksonville shares images from an vibrant era that no longer exists.

When completed in 1919, the Jacksonville Terminal was the largest railroad station in the South.

An aerial of the terminal and Railroad Row district during the 1920s.

Looking east down Bay Street, just outside the terminal, in 1921.

During it's heyday, the terminal handled as many as 142 trains and 20,000 passengers a day.  

The concourse in 1921.

The black waiting room in 1921.

The black waiting room always had a more detailed ceiling, similar to the Texas Pacific Station (still in use) in Fort Worth. If more was ever done on the great arched ceiling in the main waiting room, it was before 1950 and by this time was history.

The main waiting room in 1921.

The interior features a 75-foot barrel vaulted ceiling above the main waiting room, giving a tremendous sense of space to the traveler.

Thomas Edison coming into Jacksonville.

Bay Street in 1921.  The streetcar connected the terminal with the rest of the city. This scene is historically significant for several reasons, the infamous Jacksonville Big Cat Story took place here, also 2 different models of streetcars are visible in one photo. The foreground contains a "Birney Safety Car - 8 wheel version," and the background contains what appears "to be Brill Semi-Convertible Car" (IE: The front windows were removable for summer and fair weather).

The terminal's yard in the 1920s. Somebody's bound to be wondering about that road that crossed all those tracks... Relax folks, it was for Terminal baggage trains and not public use, it was way out near Myrtle Avenue because many of the trains handled in Jacksonville were 18-22 cars long!

A scene from 1926.  Scene of the Big Cat, right across the street through the 1980's were some of the coolest pawn shops in town. About 6 years after the Terminal Closed a rail nut friend strolled across to take photos, and sitting in the window was a locomotive. Not just any locomotive but a large scale, RIDE in type, he bought it for $100.00!

Even at this early date, parking was a major problem, one that the Terminal never was able to solve. Note that in this photo is one of Jacksonville's other unique streetcars, completely different then the other two in the first photos. This is a Stone and Webster Turtleback Car, bigger then any JTA bus and very comfortable. Large rail cars tend to "float" over the track, and a ride on the Turtleback is no different. There may be surviving cars scattered around the city, as they were stripped of their wheels and sold for sheds, chicken coops and "Florida Rooms."

A scene from 1939.  (Feb 2, 1939) top/ FEC Flagler bottom.
Not just 1939 but Feb 2, 1939 and the Jacksonville public is getting their first look at a new technology, the Diesel Streamliner. In this scene the Seaboard Air Line debuts the Silver Meteor with lightweight stainless steel cars. This train replaced the old Pullman green "Orange Blossom Special."  The Meteor is one of just 2 surviving trains to Florida under Amtrak. Oh and speaking of Amtrak, the old station handled more passengers in 3 days then Amtrak does in a year.

Just below the Meteor photo is a picture of the Florida East Coast's "pocket streamliner," The Henry M. Flagler. This train is also showing off to the public as there is NO WAY the FEC trains would ever have been hosted here on track 2-4 unless they backed all the way to Miami. The Flagler was FEC'S contribution to a family of new trains, The South Wind, The City of Miami, Dixie Flagler, each with a unique route to Chicago. The first run was December 19, 1940.

Jacksonville was a major railroad center for over fifty years, and the monumentality of this building celebrated the corporate pride and power of the Florida railway systems founded by Henry Flagler and Henry B. Plant.  

Franklin D. Roosevelt coming into Jacksonville in 1943

Looking over Union Terminal, Brooklyn and Downtown Jacksonville in 1946.

The front of the terminal and the Lee Street Viaduct in 1946.  Note how the original "LEE STREET viaduct" got up and over the tracks reaching the critical elevation at a point equal to the south wall of the station. The COJ'S great idea for a new misnamed viaduct (losing both the bronze marker and the name of the viaduct, JTA reconstructed it as the "Park Street Viaduct," which is historically incorrect), for the visual effect of a view down water street, has now become a critical road block to reopening the old station. Note also parking was still a problem in 1946. A sharp eye will detect the row of taxi's parked in front of the columns, and the semi truck delivering another load of goodies to one of the best restaurants in the city.

New York architect Kenneth M. Murchison won the competition...
Again note the parking and the taxi's. The other plan was drawn by klutho and involved a station over the tracks, it featured through tracks, and a location closer to the Riverside Viaduct. It's downfall IMO was too few tracks, and the under the station concourses would have been filthy and choked with smoke, no amount of venting is going to kill the fly ash from those steam locomotives, or the foul smell of oil burners, or toxic gas of diesels.

New York architect Kenneth M. Murchison won the competition for designing the terminal by borrowing freely from the design of New York's Pennsylvania Station,  which in turn had been modeled after the ancient Roman Baths of Caracalla.

The Park Street? Viaduct in 1947? So says JTA. Correction: "THE LEE STREET VIADUCT," (So said the plaque for 60+ years) "Built so that the people of Jacksonville may pass..."  The christening of the brand new Diesels, note the bottle in her hand and the executives that dutifully stayed out of the photo! To the far right one can see the platforms of two railroad private cars, on the private car tracks next to the building. To the far left, barely visible, is a baggage car off of the FEC trains.

A scene from 1948. The crew is probably at lunch, the lack of shadows puts this as a midday scene. Midday was always the calm before the storm, the storms coming at morning and evening. The engine is positioned to handle the next train sections from south Florida to be joined into one train. To the far left some baggage cars on the express tracks, and the far right more baggage cars ready to leave. A photo testament of Jacksonville's position as the worlds largest railroad express station.

A scene from 1960.  To the far left the "white" (actually a mist green) face of a Seaboard engine with what is probably the Gulf Wind being readied for evening departure for New Orleans. On the far right two sections of a train being combined, based on where they sit, one is off of the Florida East Coast, from Miami, and the other off of the Atlantic Coast Line, from Tampa.

The last passenger train to run on the FEC in 1968, arrives in Jacksonville from Miami in the early evening. Conductor Fields secured the doors and walked away into retirement, tears running down his cheeks. On the FEC even to that last day, the little train sported a First Class, Tavern - lounge - Observation car... "The St. Lucie Sound," today the car survives in a museum and so does it's last passenger, who BTW took that photo.

On January 3, 1974, the last passenger train rolled out of the Jacksonville Terminal, which had fallen victim to high modern maintenance costs and decreased rail travel.

Restoration was begun in 1985 to convert the terminal into the Prime Osborn Convention Center. Looking East down track 15-16 M/L, which ended at the terminal, more exactly they ended in front of The Terminal Restaurant. If you could have walked straight down this sight line, you would have found yourself in the dining room. Incredible as it seems the place was packed with Jacksonville business men, travelers and railroaders, up until the day it closed, and Denny's thinks THEY know how to make a grand slam... Denny's meet god!

The terminal shortly after the completion of the convention center project in 1987.

The Terminal Today

Although the grand station remains, the scene today is a morbid one.

The tomb of the last remaining passenger rail car on site. This scene is double sad to a railroad historian, Seaboard Coast Line never operated the "Orange Blossom Special" passenger train, and where they have a train name painted, would have been the name of the car. In this case a First Class Sleeper Lounge. The railroad name should read Seaboard Air Line.

Unlike the 1921 images, the old concourse often sits empty these days.  On this particular weekend, the entire complex was sealed shut.

No one is purchasing tickets in 2010.

The remains of Railroad Row.

The Prime Osborn's exhibition hall has replaced the old terminal's platforms. This "concourse" and perhaps a 100' extension of the adjacent exhibit building, is all that is worth saving of the 1980's convention center additions, according to our own Metro-Jacksonville Transportation Center redesign.

The photo just above the concourse shot is of that infamous corner again, those that have not heard the Big Jax Cat story, hang on to your seats.

This part of the terminal was a broad passage open to the street, it also was in the part of the concourse (North end) near track 1-5 where all of the express and baggage was sorted. Bags often were stacked just inside this area as it afforded a large open space to work through the sorting during heavy volume days. Theft from Bay Street became chronic, and finally, so frequent, that the "baggage-smashers" could almost predict the arrival of a particular group of thugs. This carload of thieves would race out Bay Street, screech to a stop in front of this passage way, they'd jump out toss 1 or 2 big bags in their 1950's era auto, then stomp it and make their getaway. They were just irregular enough that they threw the police off, they had no luck in catching them in several stakeouts. Finally, an old train Conductor who lived in Hilliard, or Callahan, came in beaming one day with a big deluxe suitcase. He told the boys he used a live trap and caught, "That damn bobcat that had been raiding my chickens." This was a classic case, "THE CAT WAS IN THE BAG!" Literally!

The story goes that almost as soon as the Terminal Employees sat that bag near the sidewalk, the gangsters came around the corner, speeding to a stop. The "kitty bag," was snatched, and the car took off westbound. They got down to about Cleveland Street, about where I-95 is today, when the car suddenly lurched off the road and smashed into a telephone pole... The whole Terminal Company was standing out on Bay Street to watch the show, and some show it must have been. Elbows, heels, teeth and fur, mixed with claws, screams, and sheer terror! To hear the railroaders tell it those boys are still running to this day! The thefts stopped.

Converting the old terminal into a convention center was a brilliant idea to save an empty building that most likely would have been demolished. However, the possibility of this site being used as a viable convention center has come to an end.

It is time for the City of Jacksonville to address the convention center's future and convert the terminal back into its original intended use; Jacksonville Terminal.

Article by Ennis Davis
Caption History Additions by Robert Mann