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Home » All About Cincinnati Union Terminal: History, Photos, and More

All About Cincinnati Union Terminal: History, Photos, and More

Cincinnati Union Station was a wonderful place to start our trip to the North Cascades on Amtrak. It was so shockingly cool, a true memorial to the Art Deco movement, that I decided to dedicated a full post to it!

Welcome to day 3 of my Trip Diary!

amtrak cincinnati union terminal

The History of Cincinnati Union Terminal

Cincinnati amtrak station guide

Opened in 1931, the station was one of the most lauded stations in the country, for the few short decades that it ran. 

The station could take you to Chicago, Cleveland, Memphis, and other places around the count

In the iconic style of Art Deco, Union Station is one of the most striking buildings, not just in Cincinnati or the state of Ohio, but all of the Midwest!

Timing was never on this station’s side, as Cincinnati Union Station opened right in time for the Great Depression, and travel wasn’t exactly a priority for the millions of Americans starting their day in bread lines. 

Union Station saw a bit more traffic in the few years after the Depression and preceding World War 2.

After that, however, passenger traffic steadily declined until the 1970s, when the folks in charge finally decided it wasn’t worth keeping up anymore.

The 80s: New Life for Cincinnati Union Terminal… As a Mall?

How to ride amtrak in Cincinnati

In 1972, passenger rail service officially stopped, and a conservation effort gained the terminal National Historic status after the threat of demolition spurred people to action. For a few years in the 80s, Union Terminal saw a rebirth as a shopping mall, of all things.

More people visited the mall every day than had ever used it to ride trains.

The mall eventually closed, however, and Cincinnati Union Terminal once again became a giant, cool-looking building that nobody could use.

Union Terminal in the 90s: Museum by day, Amtrak by Night

Cincinnati union terminal museum and train station

In 1990, two museums merged together and occupied the space, keeping the lights on and preserving the historic building for future generations.

Cincinnati Museum Center had its grand opening in 1991, and Amtrak resumed service to the station that same year. The Cardinal line, connecting Chicago, New York, and Washington DC, still runs through the station today.

2018: Major Renovations

mural in Cincinnati amtrak station

From 2016 to 2018, the terminal underwent a $200m+ renovation, restoring the station, the lobby, and all its facilities to their prior glory.

Today, the museums are still running, and so are the trains. The mural above was painted to represent the history of labor and development in Cincinnati. It sort of recognizes the problematic stuff, but not as much as a realistic historian would hope.

How Amtrak in Cincinnati Works

Want to take an Amtrak train from Cincinnati? I did – here’s how it works, and what to expect when riding Amtrak in Ohio.

Amtrak cardinal cincinnati guide

Cincinnati is one of the least-used Amtrak stops in the entire country, and trains only pass through in the middle of the night. In fact, the year 2019 only saw 8,600 passengers come through the station.

If you’re riding Amtrak through Cincinnati, don’t show up before midnight. Security won’t let anyone in until midnight, and my wife and I wound up sitting outside next to the fountain for three hours because we got dropped off at 9!

Once you do get inside, though, a spectacular lobby and rotunda is waiting for you:

lobby rotunda Cincinnati amtrak station

There is a small but suitable waiting area for passengers to sit as they wait on their train, which comes at either 1:40 AM or 4 AM, depending on which way you’re heading.

Amtrak lobby waiting room

Everything in the station and waiting area looks exactly as it was in the 1930s, all the way down to the telephone booths and signage.

Once the train gets near, an Amtrak employee will instruct everyone on the boarding procedure. If you’re checking a bag, you need to tag it with your name and departure stop so that Amtrak can make sure it gets off the train at the same time as you do. If you don’t tag it, they won’t take it.

About 10 minutes prior to boarding, the Amtrak employee will guide you down a hallway and a long set of stairs to the platform.

There is only one platform, so it’s hard to get lost. If you’re in coach, you stand in one area, and sleeper car passengers stand in another.

Cincinnati amtrak station platform

After a couple of minutes out in the quiet, you start to hear rumblings, and a bright light becomes visible in the distance.

90 seconds later, you’re handing your ticket to the train attendant and finding your seat!

Wrapping Up: Cincinnati Union Terminal

The history of Union Terminal in Cincinnati Ohio is just as interesting as the station itself. Riding Amtrak from Cincinnati is a hassle, but if you’re up for being awake all night, it’s a great adventure.

Here are a few more photos of the station:

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