Center of the Community

Seventy years ago, Tucson's newly renovated train depot played a prominent local role in World War II

As war engulfed much of the world 70 years ago, the Southern Pacific Railroad decided to enlarge and improve its passenger depot.

The station was originally built in 1907, and by the spring of 1941, the station was considered outdated and too small. In addition to numerous passenger trains serving Tucson daily, more than 410,000 freight cars rolled through town annually, a 14 percent increase over the year before.

"Construction of a temporary ticket office and traffic department for the Southern Pacific station here has been started," reported the Tucson Daily Citizen on May 28. "When the temporary building is completed, workmen will begin remodeling, enlarging and altering the present station."

The 4,000-square-foot temporary structure was quickly finished, and work began on the estimated $68,000 depot job. The building would be extended to the west; the second story would also be expanded to the west; and the building's east end would be enlarged.

The most obvious alteration, though, was to the depot's façade. The 1907 building had an ornate Mission Revival motif, but straight lines and earth-tone colors distinguished the 1941 version.

That same design would be retained when the historic depot was renovated once again in 2004.

The interior of the train station was also substantially altered in 1941. A single large waiting room was developed to replace two smaller rooms. The new interior space featured a long ticket counter, a newsstand selling sundries and a row of wooden benches for waiting passengers.

Changes were made to the building's landscaping, too. Poplar, ash and chinaberry trees were replaced with Seville sour-orange and palo verde trees, in addition to numerous oleanders.

The exterior included new "Tucson" lettering adorning the trackside elevation of the building between the first and second stories. Underneath the depot, a breezeway was constructed to allow train passengers to safely access the sets of tracks that adjoined the station.

Changes to the work ballooned the final cost to $234,000. It was finished only days after the attack on Pearl Harbor and America's entry into World War II—and the new Tucson depot immediately became a major transportation center for troop movements.

Around the same time, the U.S. Army banned American Airlines from using Davis-Monthan airfield. The facility had long been used as a joint military/municipal facility, but that changed in 1941.

As a result, the city of Tucson had to scramble to establish a replacement civilian airport. Land had been purchased west of Davis-Monthan, and at the end of December 1941, the City Council authorized the acquisition of the temporary building that was used during the depot-remodeling project.

The structure was slated for use as a temporary airline station. For an estimated cost of $3,000, the building was purchased and moved to what would eventually become the Tucson International Airport.

Within seven months of the completion of the remodeling at the Toole Avenue depot, another change was made: A 17-foot neon American flag was installed at the top of the building's trackside exterior.

Donated by the Tucson Division Union (No. 28) of Locomotive Engineers, on either side of the flag was written in large neon letters: "Thanks to you, this will be flying when you come home."

The flag and sign were dedicated at a ceremony on July 8, 1942. A local member of the military, recently returned from the April 18 Doolittle air raid on Japan, told the 700 people in attendance: "It is things like this that make us men in the service know that the people at home are war-conscious and anxious to do everything possible to let us know they're behind us."

Gustav Schneider, a longtime Southern Pacific employee in the Tucson engineering department, recalled in a later letter a much sadder wartime depot episode.

A plane from one of the local military-training fields crashed, killing the entire crew of eight. A few days afterward, their coffins were taken to the depot for transport home.

As the coffins were being moved toward a train, Schneider recalled, everything around the depot went quiet. Men removed their hats, and "some grimy men (many railroad men are that way while on duty) rather self-consciously wiped away a tear.

"The oleanders along the approach to the Fourth Avenue subway were in bloom," Schneider continued. "An old Negro went over to them, plucked eight clustered blossoms, and slowly, with a tottering walk, carried them to the line of coffins and placed one on top of each."

A happier occasion occurred as the war neared its end. To show support for almost 1,000 local company employees then in the military, more than 500 Southern Pacific workers gathered in Tucson to honor them.

The celebratory nature of that event was minor compared to the euphoria that captured Tucson at the war's end in the summer of 1945. Upon hearing the news, the community celebrated rowdily.

At the train station, though, things were more subdued. "Troops on the westbound Golden State Limited ..." the Arizona Daily Star declared on Aug. 15, "got their first news here of the (Japanese) surrender. They were quietly enthusiastic."

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