The Hidden Tunnels Of Union Terminal

During its heyday, the Jacksonville Terminal was the largest passenger railroad station in the South and served as an official gateway to worldwide travelers entering downtown, handling as many as twenty thousand passengers and 200 trains each day. Now part of the Prime Osborn Convention Center, the old passenger concourse at the Jacksonville Terminal doesn’t attract the crowds it was originally designed to facilitate. Instead of welcoming thousands of visitors to town with its grand barrel-vaulted ceiling, the terminal’s main waiting room is completely locked off from the passenger concourse except for during the occasional special event. Entombed underground just south of the main waiting room, lies the ruins of the abandoned Jacksonville Terminal Subway.

Inside the Jacksonville Terminal passenger concourse in 1921. (State Archives of Florida)

A Florida anomaly, the massive Neoclassical Revival–style rail complex was designed by New York-based architect Kenneth M. Murchison. His first major commissions were for railroad stations for the Pennsylvania Railroad company. Among the stations he designed are the Delaware Lackawanna Station in Hoboken, New Jersey; both the Lackawanna Terminal and the Lehigh Terminal in Buffalo, New York; and Pennsylvania Station in Baltimore, Maryland. Borrowing freely from the design of New York’s Pennsylvania Station, Murchison’s terminal design featured a façade of fourteen stately Doric columns anchoring a main waiting room with seventy-five-foot cathedral-like vaulted ceilings. In addition, it was initially designed with a capacity of moving a maximum of five thousand passengers and twenty-five trains an hour through the facility.

(Bullet of Abandoned Florida)

The $2.5 million terminal quietly opened its doors one minute after midnight on November 17, 1919. The life and blood of Murchison’s terminal design was a centralized passenger concourse and subway, which served as a spine of pedestrian connectivity throughout the entire complex. The tile-roof, steel-framed passenger concourse provided direct access to eight island rail platforms. The terminal subway was designed as a twenty-foot-wide tunnel that ferried rail passengers underneath a series of railroad tracks at the busy station to an additional five island platforms without the use of an elevator or stairwell system. The subway was then tied together with the platforms through the use of eight-foot-wide, eighty-foot-long ramps. This design was used for several practical reasons. Besides their lower construction cost, the platforms allowed facilities, such as ramps, to be shared between a pair of tracks rather than being duplicated or present only on one side. In addition, passenger convenience was another significant consideration; the combination of island platforms, ramps and the tunnel system allowed passengers to avoid walking across working railroad tracks between platforms and going under the railway lines. This significantly reduced the possibility of pedestrians and trains coming in conflict with each other and made all of the terminal’s tracks accessible from a single street-level entrance.

(Bullet of Abandoned Florida)