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.
The Jacksonville Terminal (State Archives of Florida)
Several businesses operated within the concourse, catering to the thousands of daily visitors once passing through its veins. They included a barbershop, confectionery store, newsstand, drugstore and a restaurant named the Terminal Café that was wildly popular as a morning stop for local businessmen and passengers. The brick-walled pedestrian subway served tracks sixteen through twenty-six and stretched three hundred feet from the south end of the concourse and stopped just short of McCoy’s Creek. To facilitate its construction, the once meandering McCoy’s Creek was channelized and relocated south of the terminal site. A small booth stood at the entrance for information and assistance, and in the final years, the booth was used by conductors to collect tickets for what was usually a single Amtrak train. The passenger would then be directed into the subway and told which ramp would take him up to the surface alongside the train. The entire ceiling was lit with florescent lights that ran the length of the tunnels. Decorative metal signs with oval tops hung above the entry to the subway, as well as on the giant wrought-iron gates to the stub track platforms. On these were painted the name of the train and the railroad name in a color scheme that matched the railroad.
(Bullet of Abandoned Florida)
During its time in use, the subway became the gateway to Jacksonville for millions of railroad passengers, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in 1941. The terminal subway’s pedestrian traffic peaked in 1944, when nearly forty thousand trains passed through the terminal, carrying nearly ten million passengers. Over the decades, serving all trains coming out of or going to South Florida, every president since Warren Harding passed through either the concourse or its platforms. To support operations of such a large facility, over two thousand people were employed by the Jacksonville Terminal Company, making it the second-largest employer in the city at the time.
When Amtrak took over private railroad passenger train operations in 1971, three-quarters of the country’s passenger rail services were eliminated in a single day, reducing the need for grand railroad terminals in cities all across the country. By the end of 1973, passenger rail operations at the terminal had been reduced to a handful of Amtrak employees and two tracks for passenger trains. On January 3, 1974, Amtrak 93, formerly the Seaboard’s Floridian, became the last passenger train to use the Jacksonville Terminal on its way to St. Petersburg, Florida. A victim of high modern maintenance costs, decreased rail travel and civic shortsightedness, the terminal closed its concourse, subway and doors for good.
(Bullet of Abandoned Florida)
On November 23, 1983, the Jacksonville City Council approved a $37.2 million bond issue to finance the conversion of the old passenger railroad terminal into the Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center. Construction of the convention center included razing the terminal’s old railroad platforms. When the demolition crews were asked about the future of the pedestrian subway, they said they had orders to fill it with demolition debris and cover it up. Sometime later, the city decided to rebuild the Lee Street Viaduct to create a better view of the convention center from downtown. To facilitate this decision, the Florida East Coast Railway’s mainline was lowered to maintain clearance for trains to pass underneath the new bridge. This exposed the south end of the old passenger subway, leaving a hole that was also filled with debris. Could this historic pedestrian tunnel system be utilized once again in the future? Possibly. Only time will tell.
The Jacksonville Terminal in 1921. (State Archives of Florida)
Article by Ennis Davis, AICP and Robert Mann. 2019 tunnel photographs courtesy of Bullet at Abandoned Florida. Contact Ennis at firstname.lastname@example.org