The great railroad tycoons of the late 19th-century “Gilded Age,” such as Henry Plant and Henry Flagler, facilitated a massive transfer of goods and people into Florida through the railway industries. According to an 1850 census of the Fort Brooke area (an area that extends beyond the modern boundaries of the city of Tampa), there was a population 974. The population of Tampa exploded to 15,839 individuals by the turn of the century. The first railway to come to Tampa was Henry Plant’s South Florida Railroad in 1883. The line ran along Ybor City’s 6th Avenue and Tampa’s Polk Street and terminated at the Hillsborough River waterfront. The two depots of Ybor City, for cigar city immigrant labor, and the Hillsborough River waterfront, for yankee socialites hoping to enjoy Plant’s Tampa Bay Hotel, represented the social divide of late 19th-century Tampa. The railway aspirations of Plant opened the way for other railway companies, such as the Florida Central & Peninsular Railway in 1890 and the Tampa Northern Railroad in 1906. Railways snaked through the fledgling city and terminated in depots as far flung as Seddon Island (modern Harbour Island) and Hooker’s Point. At the turn of the 20th-century, Tampan businessmen sought to centralize and organize the disparate railways to benefit local firms. Peter Knight, a leading Tampan businessman, and Wallace Stovall, a publisher for the Tampa Tribune, organized the Tampa Union Station Company in 1911. The company’s objective was to create a unified railway station for Tampa’s phosphate mining, cigar, and tourism industries. The company commissioned South Carolinian architect J.F. Leitner to build Tampa Union Station in 1912. J.F. Leitner erected the station at 601 Nebraska Avenue. Italianate or Italian Renaissance architecture, a popular style in the early 20th-century, influences the building through Corinthian columns and ornate wall reliefs. The station opened on May 15, 1912. Tampa Union Station centralized the people of Tampa as much as it did its myriad industries. Jim Crow regulations separated white and black passengers from each other in the station proper. However, travelers had the opportunity to intermingle on the station’s platforms. Blacks, Whites, and Cubans united under one roof. Jodi Pushkin of the Tampa Bay Times attests to the significance of Tampa Union Station in the development of Black Tampa in her article, “All Aboard: Tampa Bay’s Railroad History.” The segregated Jackson House across the street from Union Station was a gathering place for black performers such as Cab Calloway and Count Basie. White and Cuban Tampans also participated in the history of Union Station through the world wars and the cigar industry. The trains ferried men to and from their duties as soldiers in wartime and laborers in peacetime. The salad days of Union Station lasted through the end of the 1940s. The highway improvements of the 1950s greatly increased the appeal of automobile transportation for interstate travel. Bus transportation services were the final nail in the coffin for interstate train transportation. The decline of Tampa Union Station was contemporaneous with an economic slump in the 1970s and 1980s that rendered many historic buildings abandoned. Despite degrading for differing reasons, Union Station mirrored the rest of downtown Tampa and Ybor City as it fell into a state of disrepair. The derelict station closed in 1984. A group of historic preservationists and train enthusiasts, known as Tampa Union Station Preservation & Redevelopment Inc., began the process of resurrecting Union in 1988. After a decade of restorative work and $4 million dollars, Union Station reopened to the public. Amtrak began a service line out of Union Station in 2011. As of 2017, Union Station was the third busiest Amtrak station in the state of Florida. Just as its descent mirrored Tampa’s decline, Union Station’s ascent mirrors Tampa’s return to glory. Hopefully, Union Station will resume its role as a source of unity for Tampa’s citizens.
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