Exactly one hundred years ago, Connecticut was gripped in a frigid and snowy winter, much like the one we are currently experiencing. And exactly one hundred years ago last Friday, Hartford’s Union station was ablaze. On its own, a fire can be pretty devastating enough, but coupled with the snow, firefighters had difficulty getting to the station to put the fire out. Ultimately there were several small explosions, one of which displaced a large section of the roof, pieces of which fell and destroyed the ticket office. The station was heavily damaged, and much of the items in the baggage room – where the fire started – were destroyed.
All fire photos are from the Connecticut Historical Society, accessible at CTHistoryOnline.org
Originally constructed in 1889, Hartford’s Union station was built in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, which first gained popularity in the Boston area and was used for several stations along the Boston and Albany Railroad. Conceptually designed by local architect George Keller, the bulk of the design work fell to architectural firm Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, successors of Henry Hobson Richardson (which is where the “Richardsonian” part comes from. Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge also designed a few stations we’ve featured: Chatham, Dobbs Ferry, Irvington, Tarrytown). The station featured the typical arches and rusticated stonework characteristic of his style, using stone quarried in Portland, Connecticut.
Besides the 100th anniversary of the fire, the station is also celebrating the centennial of its rebirth. The entire building was not completely destroyed by the aforementioned fire, but the roof and interior were both gutted. Though some of the decorative arches at roof level were only slightly damaged, it was decided that the rebuild would not be to the exact specifications of the old station. Roof-level decorative elements were removed, and stonework was repaired – now bearing the date “1914”. The “new” Union Station boasted a full third story, and, as one would imagine, a fireproof roof.
The station after the fire was put out. Note the detail on the roof that no longer exists.
Despite spending the first twenty plus years of my life living in Connecticut, I am mildly embarrassed to admit that I had never visited Hartford’s Union Station until recently. Likewise, I must also admit that I was unaware that Hartford’s Latin motto is Post nubila, phoebus (after clouds, the sun). That motto can be found within the station, above the doors that once led out to the platform, flanked between the past and present of railroading – steam and electric.
A northbound train at Hartford in the late 1940s. Note the Capitol visible in the background. [image source]
These days, Hartford is not the hub it once was. No longer are the days where trains were plenty, and it has been many decades since quasi-celebrity citizens like Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe called Hartford home. About twelve trains stop daily at the station, the station is along Amtrak’s Vermonter, and Northeast Regional routes, and is a station stop on the New Haven – Springfield shuttle. Technically trains don’t run from the historical building – Amtrak occupies out of an addition underneath the viaduct carrying the railroad over the city, along with bus operators and a few fast food kiosks. One can, however, enter the addition from the historical depot.
If you’re ever passing through Hartford, the old station is at least worth a look. The stonework and detailing found on the exterior is undoubtedly beautiful, only marred by a few trappings of today – you’ll find security cameras just above decorative elements, and a garish Subway logo above a once more graceful arch. Be sure to check out the artwork at the top of the steps, and keep your eyes peeled for views of the the Capitol building from the platform.