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Historic Phoenix Union Station May Be Sold By Sprint

By Steve Goldstein
Published: Tuesday, September 10, 2019 - 12:01pm
Updated: Tuesday, September 24, 2019 - 3:15pm

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Phoenix Union Station
City of Phoenix Instagram
Phoenix Union Station.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: A longtime staple of Phoenix's downtown area may be going away, or, at the very least, about to undergo dramatic changes. Earlier this summer, it was revealed that Union Station is going to be sold by Sprint, which has owned it since 2004. There are two communication towers at the South Fourth Avenue location, one of which Sprint uses, and the other that is leased to Union Pacific Railroad. That agreement is scheduled to expire in 2023. To get some perspective on the impact of Union Station, we're gonna go back in time a bit with Arizona's longtime official historian Marshall Trimble. I met him recently at his office at Scottsdale Community College, and began by asking about the first time he rode a train in Arizona and the impact the Union Station had on him.

MARSHALL TRIMBLE: I was probably about 11 years old the first time, kids could do that. My dad got a pass because he worked, he was an engineer for the Santa Fe, and that was the "pea vine" as they called it because of the way it twisted through the canyons coming down here and it was about a 200-mile trip. So it's a little longer than ...

GOLDSTEIN: So, how long would that have taken?

TRIMBLE: All night, it seemed like, because we got on the train at night, and I just fell asleep in a chair and woke up the next morning, we were in Phoenix. So it was daylight. Well I know it was dark when I got on the train and it was daylight when we got here, but it was a long drive, a long trip because, that is a funny thing about the pea vine when they built it. It was supposed to go, or there was one faction wanted it to go out through Mayer and down where I-17 comes today, down through Black Canyon. That was the old Black Canyon highway which we also traveled a lot when it was a dirt road. Yeah it was 196 miles by rail. But you went down to Prescott, and then you went way out to Skull Valley, out to Hillside and then down around Date Creek and the Weaver Mountains and then down past Congress. And that was the reason it went that way. Frank Murphy, who is one of the owners of the railroad, also owned a big mine in Congress, and so these people that want to build it the faster way, "Nope, nope, it's going out there 'cuz it's gonna go by my mine and we want a railroad there." So then it went to Wickenburg, from Wickenburg on in down, right kind of down Grand Avenue, right down into ... Phoenix.

Marshall Trimble
Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez/KJZZ
Marshall Trimble

GOLDSTEIN: How much a part of the flavor of Arizona or connecting Arizona together had to do with train travel in those years? And then, as a follow-up, because you know so much about this, what happened?

TRIMBLE: Railroads were the engines at that time that drove the whole America's economy. And this is before all the big 18-wheelers and the airplanes and FedEx trucks and everything like that. That's what made it so important to Phoenix to have a railroad. To tell you the truth, the railroads, Steve, were trying to get rid of the passenger traffic. They just wanted to do freight. I say that coming from a railroad family. Passengers were a pain. Freight doesn't complain. So it was really during its time, but then, and I can still remember in the 1950s when people started flying, and especially with the jet engines and such when the passenger planes had jet engines, then it was economical to fly. The airlines were making money hand over fist with a fuel efficiency with these jet planes versus the old turbine engines, and the writing was on the wall. The railroads really would like to get out. I think way back in the 1860s when the government commissioned them to build railroads, one of the deals were you have to provide passenger traffic, too. You can't just make all your money with the freight. And so I think the railroad said, "Well, OK, I guess we will." And they did. But boy, they had some beautiful trains. We couldn't afford them. But I think we were limited to the California Limited, but there was the Sunset Limited and Southern Pacific had theirs, but all these trains had like the city of New Orleans, these great names of trains. We don't affectionately name our airplanes. So a lot has been lost. And I can, every once in a while, I can get a whiff of a smell of a train station, or it's like their memories or the inside of a passenger train car there, and I can't even describe the smell. I was trying to describe it the other day to somebody. I can't. But it's something that's in my head, in my nostrils, and I can still see those old stations and those old the ticket offices and all that stuff.

GOLDSTEIN: There was a time when, if we're talking about Union Station in downtown Phoenix, you're talking, there was a time in the '40s, maybe '50s as well, where you had a dozen trains coming through and all sorts of passenger traffic? It must have been something to see.

TRIMBLE: During the post-World War II years and during World War II, there were 18 passenger trains a day coming into the Union Station.

GOLDSTEIN: Every day? Wow.

TRIMBLE: Eighteen trains. And it began to taper off and down into the '50s. But when my dad first started, they were still using steam locomotives. So the first trains I rode on were steam locomotives. And I still love the sound of that locomotive whistle versus these diesels.

GOLDSTEIN: We're hearing so much about autonomous cars. So the self-driving cars. And they're being driven all around Chandler and all around Scottsdale. It almost feels like, well why wouldn't you just take a train as opposed to sitting in the back seat of a car?

TRIMBLE: If there was one, yeah.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. I mean there's irony in that for me. The idea that, do you see any reason to think that the passenger train will come back to Phoenix?

TRIMBLE: Well, I don't think so. I don't think, the railroads wouldn't want to be in it. It would have to be something — well, Amtrak tried, and they —1996 they pulled out of Phoenix.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, it's been that long.

TRIMBLE: I figured it out. It was 70 years from the time they got the much wanted, that one they were pleading for, the Arizona Republic newspaper on their masthead everyday said that, I forget the exact words, but it was, "We need a mainline railroad to Phoenix." Blah, blah, blah. And finally, in 1923, it was the beginning of it, and it took three years.

GOLDSTEIN: So '26 to '96.

TRIMBLE: Yeah from 1926 to 1997. Seventy years, and that's all.

GOLDSTEIN: Marshall is the longtime official historian of Arizona.

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