Rail service in New Orleans began in 1831 with the Pontchartrain Rail Company, but was slow to develop. The Port of New Orleans and Mississippi River trading made transportation of goods so efficient that railroads were less vital to economic growth than in other cities. It wasn’t until the 1880s that passenger and freight railroads became a presence in the Crescent City.
Railroad stations were scattered about the city, so in 1949 planning began to create one central station that would serve all of New Orleans: the Union Passenger Terminal. It would replace the station serving the Illinois Central Railroad, in operation on Loyola Avenue since 1892, which held the distinction of being the only train station designed by famed architect Louis H. Sullivan who, at the time, had in his employ Frank Lloyd Wright.
New Orleans architectural firms Wogan and Bernard, Jules K. de la Vergne, and August Perez and Associates designed the Union Passenger Terminal. It was considered to be ultramodern and featured a waiting hall with a 120-foot mural painted by Louisiana State University professor and artist Conrad Albrizio, depicting 400 years of Louisiana history, broken into four panels representing four ages: exploration, colonization, conflict and modern.
The new station opened when the first train arrived on Track 12 at 4:35 p.m. on January 8, 1954. It was the Southern Pacific’s Sunset Limited, arriving from the West Coast. Mayor Shep Morrison had boarded earlier that day, and rode in to be among the first passengers to debark at the new station. The first train to leave the new Union Passenger Terminal departed at 5 p.m. that same day – the Illinois Central Panama Limited, en route to Chicago.