Union Station Washington DC Tour and Guide

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This post is about Union Station in Washington DC. We have advice on getting to and from downtown DC from Union Station, as well as a self guided tour of this beautiful building.

 

 

How to get to National Mall from Union Station

Union Station is the main transportation hub in Washington DC with access to the Metro, trains, buses, bikeshare, taxis and more.

But if you want to get to the National Mall from Union Station, it is easy! 

  • Walk!

You can easily walk to the Capitol and Museum side of the National Mall from Union Station. In fact, our Capitol Hill Walking Tour ends at Union Station while the Capitol Building is closed. 

If you exit out of Union Station and walk straight from the entrance along 1st Street, you'll be on top of Capitol Hill to visit the Supreme Court, US Capitol and Library of Congress. It's only a 10 minute walk.

You can also easily get to the National Gallery of Art, Air and Space Museum and other museums located on the east side of the National Mall by taking Louisiana Ave (diagonal road heading more to the right from the entrance of Union Station).

But if you want to get to the memorials or museums closer to the Washington Monument, it will be a longer (but beautiful) walk. You may want to take the Metro!

  • Metro!

If you're arriving at Union Station by Amtrak, MARC train or bus, you can also take the Metro to get to the National Mall (or anywhere, really!)

Union Station is on the RED LINE of the DC Metro system. You'll find the Metro station on the west side of the building and can access the station from escalators outside the station or inside.

There are also Capital Bikeshare racks on the west side of the station, a taxi stand out front, a number of buses make a stop  on Massachusetts Ave (walk out of the station, across the taxi and passenger pick up lanes and turn right for the city bus stops). 

Hop On Hop Off Buses and Trolley also have stops here at Union Station.

 

 


PARKING AT UNION STATION

Union Station has a large parking garage and is a central place to park in Washington DC.

The parking garage behind the station can be accessed either behind or in front of the station by H ST NE or by Massachusetts Ave NE. It is open 24 hours 7 days a week.

You can get discounts for the first 2 hours by using the validation machines inside the station! 

There is one electric car charging station at Union Station. 

If you have a smaller RV (less than 13' tall), they do allow RVs to park in the oversize bus parking lot. 

Find up to date rates and information: https://www.unionstationdc.com/parking/


SELF GUIDED TOUR OF UNION STATION WASHINGTON DC

Stop A- Columbus Fountain

Start at the large marble statue in the traffic circle in front of Union station.  

At the center of Columbus Circle is a fountain and statue of Christopher Columbus.

It designed by American sculptor Lorado Taft in 1912. Taft was based in Chicago and was working with architect Daniel Burnham on the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition, when he decided to hire whoever was available to do the sculpting work to make sure they would be finished on time. He hired women, which was unusual for the time and is credited with advancing the field to include female sculptures.

Columbus Fountain symbolizes the spirit of exploration during Columbus’s expedition to the New World in 1492.

Christopher Columbus sits at the center on a ship’s bow, with a globe of the Western World on a pedestal behind him.

The seated figure on the north side of the statue represents the Old World and the American Indian figure on the south side represents the New World. Behind Columbus is a relief of King Ferdinand & Queen Isabella, the Spanish monarchs who sponsored Columbus’ expedition across the Atlantic Ocean.

Three flag poles located in the circle between the fountain and station represent the three ships of Columbus’ fleet; the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.

Walk toward the station to the other side of Columbus Fountain.

Stop B- Freedom Bell

This large cast iron bell was a gift in 1976 from the American Legion to Congress in honor of the bicentennial of Independence. 

The Freedom Bell is a replica of the Liberty Bell, located in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The Liberty Bell hung in the bell tower atop Independence Hall, and was supposedly rung in 1776 at the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence.

The bell is a national symbol of American liberty and independence. The Freedom Bell here in DC was cast by the Whitechapel Foundry in Great Britain, the same foundry that cast the original Liberty Bell in 1752.

Turn around to face the front of Union Station, with the Freedom Bell behind you.

Stop C- Front Façade of Union Station

Union Station was originally commissioned by Teddy Roosevelt as part of a large-scale urban redevelopment project in 1903. This was once the largest train station in the world.

The building was meant to be a “great vestibule to the city of Washington.” Prior to Union Station, there were two main stations in DC located on the National Mall. They were owned by the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad and Pennsylvania Railroad.

The name Union Station refers to the uniting of these two competing railroads into one grand station.

Union Station was designed by famous architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham.

Burnham was influential throughout the United States but is mostly known for his work in Chicago. He is considered to be the father of the skyscraper, for example one of his more well known works is the Flatiron Building in New York City.

Stop D- The Progress of Railroading

Look above the three center arches in front of you and notice six granite figures over the main entrance to Union Station.

These sculptures are 18 feet tall. In 1908, sculptor Louis St. Gaudens, brother to famous sculpture Augustus St Gaudens, created these to depict Greek figures representing the invention and triumph of the railroad industry.

From Left to Right:

  • Prometheus with a torch, known in Greek mythology for giving fire to man.
  • Thales, a Greek philosopher known to be the first to study electricity
  • Themis, goddess of law and justice
  • Apollo, god of inspiration
  • Ceres, goddess of agriculture
  • Archimedes, god of mechanics (note the gear behind him).

Walk under the center arch through the main entrance of Union Station, into the Waiting Room.

Stop E- Main Waiting Room

Union Station is one of the largest granite buildings in the world, built of stone from Bethel, Vermont with a cast iron/steel frame.

Hundreds of Italian stone masons were brought over to build the structure and were housed in parked rail cars during construction.

The Main Waiting Room is modeled after the ancient Roman Baths of Diocletian. It includes massive 96 ft high barrel vaults. The room is 220 feet wide by 120 feet long, with marble floors and gold leaf throughout the coffered plaster ceiling.

In its heyday during WWII, Union Station saw 200,000 people pass through each day. 

Note the 36 Roman centurions standing guard above you around the perimeter of the waiting room. Originally these statues were designed to be nude, but shields and clothing were added to the final design.

With your back to the main entrance, make a right and walk into the East Hall. Note the clock above the entrance to the East Hall, with the roman numeral showing IIII instead of IV on its face.

Stop F- East Hall

The decoration in the East Hall is taken directly from ancient Pompeii, which was being excavated around the time Daniel Burnham designed Union Station.

This area was originally used as a public dining room but was converted into retail space in the 1980s.

Walk to the back of the East Hall and look through the glass door in the center of the back wall. This bar area was once part of the Presidential Suite, built for the President of the United States to travel and greet visiting dignitaries.

This area was added to the original station plans after President James Garfield was assassinated in 1881 at the former Baltimore & Potomac railroad station near what is now the National Gallery of Art.

The suite was converted to a USO lounge in 1941 to accommodate large numbers of troops coming through the station during WWII. The area has since been used as a restaurant and a private event space.

Walk back into the Main Waiting Room and make a right, through the center doors into the Main Concourse. You’ll see a curved staircase in front of you, walk up to the top level and stand near the top of the stairs.

Stop G- Main Concourse

This area was once the largest single room in the world, stretching 760 feet down the length of the concourse.

Passengers would walk straight through this massive corridor to get to the train platforms beyond.

With your back to the Waiting Room, look across the length of the concourse to your left and notice a dirty looking patch of the ceiling. This portion of the ceiling was left to show what the state of this room was like with trains billowing smoke and ash into this enclosed area as they loaded and unloaded passengers from the tracks.

The concourse has undergone substantial changes, reflecting the rise, deterioration, and eventual revitalization of Union Station.

After the frenzy of activity during WWII, rail travel declined rapidly in favor of car and air transit.

Union Station went from a busting hub of urban life to an off-the-beaten-path attraction surrounded by underused government buildings and seedy neighborhoods.

In 1976, Congress attempted to convert the station into the “National Visitor’s Center,” installing a massive multimedia display in a sunken area carved out of the floor of the Waiting Room referred to as “the pit.”

The Visitor’s Center was a total flop and failed to draw visitors off of the National Mall and into Union Station. The building continued to deteriorate until a massive storm in 1980 brought down parts of the plaster ceiling in the Waiting Room and Concourse, which forced the station to close entirely.

In 1981 Congress passed a redevelopment act that invested $160 million dollars into revitalizing the station. Amtrak, the primary interstate passenger railway in the United States, contributed funds and, in exchange, was permitted to use Union Station as its new national headquarters.

One of the major successes in this renovation was the addition of retail, which brought business and activity back into the station. The track beds were pushed back, adding a modern train waiting area behind the original building, and the massive Concourse was converted into retail space.

Walk back down the stairs and take the escalators on either side down to the bottom food court level.

Stop H- Baggage & Mail Level

This food court was once used at the baggage and mail area, where trains would offload packages as passengers disembarked upstairs.

You can still see the low arches of the original track beds, with numbers in the tile work indicating track numbers. The basement mail level was converted at the same time as the concourse above to bring activity back into the station.

This area was also the site of one of the most dramatic runaway train stories in American history, known as the Federal Express train wreck. (This event inspired the 1976 film, Silver Streak).

On January 14th, 1953, the overnight Federal Express No. 173 departed Boston at 11pm carrying both passengers and mail en route to Washington D.C. The engineer reported trouble with the air brakes about 45 minutes later, and an inspection was carried out during the New Your City stop, though no problems were discovered.

The Federal Express departed New York City at 4:38am, continuing to Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore, and departed from Baltimore at 7:50am for the last stop at Union Station.

The train accelerated to 80 mph (normal speed) until reaching Landover, Maryland, when the engineer attempted to apply the brakes and start slowing for the approach to Washington D.C. The regular brakes only slowed the train to 60mph, and emergency breaks applied moments later brought it down to 50mph.

The engineer then tried to throw the train into reverse, but the stress caused the electric engine to spark and malfunction.

As the train began the final descent into the city, a grade change caused the Federal Express to pick up speed.

Finally, the engineer sounded the distress signal, and began running through the cars telling passengers to get down and brace.

The signal worker in the yard quickly directed the train onto track 16 and phoned the stationmaster’s office to warn them and of the approaching train, supposedly shouting “Runaway on track 16! Run for your lives!”

Twenty seconds later, the Federal Express barreled through the stationmaster’s office at 45 miles per hour, just barely missing the fleeing master and his staff.

The Federal Express struck the bumper at the end of the track bed going 35 mph and crashed through the bumper, offices, a newsstand, and finally into the concourse itself.

The concourse floor gave way beneath the 240-ton locomotive, and the engine plunged into the mail level below (where you are standing), coming to rest 6 inches from the foundation of the Main Waiting Room beyond.

Incredibly, no one died or was even seriously injured in the crash, and train service was delayed but not suspended. News coverage of the event came in just one hour after the crash, which was the fastest live nationwide broadcast ever made up to that point.

The engine that had crashed through the floor was back in service nine months later, and continued to operate until 1985.

Proceed back up the escalators to the main level. From here you can exit back out of the station via the Main Waiting Room, or peruse the shops and dining!

To access the metro station, walk past the Amtrak ticket counters into the modern train waiting area. Make a left and walk down to the end of the corridor, where you will see the metro station entrance on your right.

About The Author

Canden Arciniega

Canden is a historian and tour guide in Washington DC with 4 published books about the city. She has written for HuffPost Travel and has been featured in the Washington Post, WTOP, and numerous other DC papers. She's also been interviewed by the BBC, NPR, Travel Channel and Discovery Family Channel. Canden is the producer of our podcast, Tour Guide Tell All With a M.A. in History from University College London and a B.A. in History from Elon University, she is an authority on D.C. history, and has led tours in the city for over 10 years. She currently resides in DC, but has also lived in London and South Korea, and has travelled to 28 countries. Her two children (both under the age of 4) have their passports and own frequent flier accounts.
Updated: octubre 6th, 2021
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