On “Track” for the Holidays

By John J. Grabowski Ph.D.

Krieger-Mueller Chief Historian


It is the largest object in the Cleveland Starts Here exhibit at the Cleveland History Center.   It is so big that one is tempted to see it as part of the structure.   However, the Ferro Enamel Mural is much more than backdrop.  It is a stunning piece of enamel technology and a wonderful example of modernist art executed by Daniel Boza who studied at the Cleveland School of Art.   It is also reflects on the spectacle that was the New York World’s Fair of 1939-1940 where it first came into public view.    But for many with long memories, it is a symbol of travel, for after New York it came back to Cleveland where it was installed in the main passenger concourse of Cleveland’s Union Terminal in 1941.  For nearly four decades it was seen by hundreds of thousands of passengers who may have “read it” as a piece of art, or more simply seen it as a sign of leaving or arriving at home.   Many of those who viewed it would have been making a December holiday visit – to or away from Cleveland.

It is, essentially a reminder of how Clevelanders traveled during the halcyon years of the American passenger railroad.   Today we still travel during the darker days of December, usually enduring jammed airports and aircraft, or crowded chaotic highways that we often transit in bad weather.    But in the end, it is all worth it – families reunite – yes to exchange gifts and to dine – but more so, simply to be together and to reminisce, exchanging stories that often focus on what the holiday season was like in the past – the gifts, the weather, and perhaps stories of the journeys made in good weather and bad.

Up until the early 1950s many of the holiday travel stories would have referenced the railroad.  Trains were often crowded with collegians going home over winter break as well as with families and relatives “coming home” with presents.  During World War II, servicemen and women lucky enough to get leave during December also crowded the trains that came into Cleveland.  Yet, then and during the long history of rail travel in Cleveland (beginning in 1849) there were other stations that witnessed the hustle and bustle of travel and happy reunions.

Cleveland’s first “union” depot, built in 1853, was situated near the lakefront docks at what is now the end of West 9th Street.   In 1866 it was replaced by a massive stone structure near the same site.  It would be the city’s main station until the Cleveland Union Terminal Complex on Public Square opened in 1930 – and one railroad, the Pennsylvania would continue to use it until September 1953 (only a stone retaining wall remains today as a reminder)   As “union” stations each of these three were built to serve multiple railroads, but not all.   So holiday comings and goings could at, one time, end at the Baltimore and Ohio’s station (which is still standing) at the end of Canal Road at its intersection with Carter Road.    The Wheeling and Lake Erie had a terminal up the slope from Canal Road in an area known as Vinegar Hill, while the Nickel Plate (New York, Chicago and St. Louis) had its original station just to the west of Broadway near East 14th.  And, the Erie Railroad disembarked its passengers at a terminal in the Flats just under the east side of the Veterans Memorial Bridge.   All of these stations would eventually be closed when the various railroads began to use the new, modern Cleveland Union Terminal – although it would take the Erie until 1949 to make the shift.

Only the Pennsylvania remained apart from the concourse that housed the Ferro Mural.   After closing its service to the old Union Station in 1953, its station at E. 55th and Euclid became the end of the line for passengers.   And that hints at more places where families likely reunited for the holidays.   Many railroads had subsidiary stations within Greater Cleveland, some of which functioned as commuter stops. The Pennsylvania also maintained a station at Broadway and Harvard near the American Steel and Wire Plant.  It could well have been the site where immigrant workers bound for what is now known as Slavic Village disembarked.   The Erie had a station at East 55th near Bessemer.  It was proximate to a large Czech community.   The Nickel Plate had major station at suburban Rocky River and another in East Cleveland just to the west of the intersection of Superior and Euclid, which it shared with the New York Central.  And one of the major stations on the New York Central’s east-west route was just to the south of Bratenahl and it often saw the coming and goings of some of the city’s wealthiest families, including the Rockefellers.   All told there were dozens of stations in and around Cleveland over the years.

Yet, by the 1940s, the main destination in Cleveland and the place where most journeys started and ended was the Cleveland Union Terminal.  It hosted over 60 trains a day in the 1940s, some, at times, running in multiple sections – particularly during the war and the busy holiday season.  For those who arrived and had forgotten to buy a gift, it was the perfect place to do so with a variety of stores and shops and a department store, Higbees, accessible right from the station.   And there at the end of the main concourse was the mural and a sign, “Welcome to Cleveland”.

Some thirty years later, rail service to the Terminal ended.   Amtrak, created to take over national passenger service, began operation in May 1971 and then left the station in 1972.  Only two through trains a day came to the city at the beginning of Amtrak service.   The last scheduled passenger train to use the station was an Erie-Lackawanna commuter service in 1978.  The concourse that had seen the holiday crowds and so much more was deserted, destined to become a site for indoor tennis courts and eventually the shops of Tower City Center.   The mural was carefully taken down and donated to the Historical Society.   It stayed in storage until 1993, when it was installed in the Society’s new Reinberger Gallery.  The building’s design was literally created around the space needed for its installation.   Today, while it no longer welcomes train travelers, it greets the guests and classes that come to the Cleveland History Center.   As we celebrate the holidays this year, take the time to look at it closely and try to imagine all it has seen over the years.   And if you have guests who have come to Cleveland via Amtrak be certain to have them join you!


Photo: Williams, J. Scott. “Huge Ferro Porcelain Enamel Mural Designed by J. Scott Williams.” CardCow.com, Curt Teich & Co., 1938, https://www.cardcow.com/422050/cleveland-ohio-huge-ferro-porcelain-enamel-mural-designed-by-j-scott-williams/.