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The Ghosts of Railroads Past

8 March 2010 No Comment

Minute Main Park, Houston, TexasWelcome to Houston Past and Present, an ongoing post that looks at Houston’s landmarks in the past and what they have become today.  In some cases, unfortunately, the landmark is gone and a new modern structure has taken its place.

Houston, America’s fourth largest city is unique when looking at other major U.S. cities.  We have grown more rapidly than most, to be sure.  Additionally, we as a city sadly tear down our landmarks and replace them with modern structures to facilitate our growth.

Many Houstonians have lived here a short time and have no idea what Houston looked like a hundred years ago or even 20 years ago.  There is a thirst to learn about the past to understand what drives our culture and why we as Houstonians think and act the way we do.

With baseball season approaching, what better time to explore the past and present of Houston’s Minute Maid Park.   The home of the Astros, our Major League baseball team, originally opened in 1999 as Enron Field.

One has only to visit Minute Maid Park to realize that the building at the entrance to the park is rich in Houston history.  From the replica steam engine ( fully functioning during games ) to the old ticket counters inside the building, we are reminded that that this was a train station at a point in history.

Union Station as it was called, was originally built in 1880.  In 1911 it was rebuilt by Warren and Wetmore, the same architect firm that designed and built Union Station in New York City.  Among the notables and dignitaries that traveled through Union Station, were President Ulysses S. Grant and Geronimo, the chief of the Apache nation.  It has been here through the great depression, two World Wars, the Korean and VietNam Wars, several catastrophic hurricanes,  the Make Love not War Generation, and untold other events in American and Houston History.

For many decades, Union Station was quite literally the heart and soul of transportation in Houston.  As a child growing up in Houston in the 1960’s, I experienced the thrill of traveling by passenger train, from Union Station to see my Grandparents in north Louisiana.  As the summers went by, I realized that the number of trains and the opportunities to ride the trains were becoming less and less.  Ultimately the passenger train would give way to new and more modern modes of transportation.  In 1974, the last passenger train pulled out of Union Station and that marked the end of an era in Houston history.

For the next 25 years, Union Station slipped sadly into decay and disrepair.  The sidewalks around the once proud building were now littered with the possessions of Houston’s homeless community.  The area in back of the building where the trains once pulled out, had become a parking lot for businesses in the area.  It appeared that Union Station would be taking the same path that many other historical Houston landmarks had taken.  It looked like it would meet with the wrecking ball.

As luck would have it , however, the baseball Gods smiled on Union Station.  In the 1990’s, Houston passed a referendum to build a new baseball park for the Astros.  The Astrodome was becoming outdated and there was a real desire to build a stadium downtown and build it where Union Station still stood.  Thus construction began on what was called Enron Field.

As construction proceeded, I often found myself traveling to the work site and imagining where homeplate would be and where the outfield fences would be erected.  From the very first scoop of dirt that was removed to the last specially grown palette of infield grass was laid, the ghosts of railroads past were becoming the spirit of baseball’s future.

On opening day 2000, Union Station was opened to the public as the official entrance to Enron Field.  The lobby had been transformed into a magnificent palace for America’s sport.  If a building has life, Union Station was in sincere gratitude that day.

In 2002, with the Enron scandal, Astro owner Drayton McClaine opted to buy out the Enron naming rights and soon replaced the name with Minute Maid Park as it is today.  Now comfortably secure as Minute Maid Park, Union Station has come full circle as a vital part of Houston’s life, culture, and future.


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