Depot History

Standing just a few hundred feet from the western shore of the Mississippi River, the Burlington depot was erected in 1944 by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (CB&Q). It replaced an earlier station that was built in 1893 and destroyed by fire in January 1943 by an overheated oil boiler in the waiting room that took the lives of four railroad employees.  In addition to serving Amtrak passengers, the depot is the hub for Burlington Urban Services, the local bus system.

Designed by the well-known Chicago-based architectural firm of Holabird and Root, the depot exemplifies the streamlined mid-century modern aesthetic that came into vogue in the 1930s. With its sleek styling and trendy, contemporary finishes, the $300,000 building represented a new era for the CB&Q. Like many American railroads, it had experienced tremendous passenger growth during World War II that it hoped to retain in the post-war years. The dedication ceremony held on March 28, 1944 was attended by architects John Holabird and John W. Root, Iowa Governor Bourke Hickenlooper, CB&Q President Ralph Budd, Burlington Mayor Max Conrad and other local officials as well as townspeople.

Meant to be functional, streamlined buildings were characterized by clean lines and simple surfaces in which the materials themselves—textured stone, shiny aluminum, glossy glass block—were the main decorative elements. The two-story station, constructed of reinforced concrete, is faced in buff-colored Wisconsin Lannon fieldstone laid in a random ashlar pattern.

As a combination depot, the building included passenger and freight functions under one roof; from the exterior, the window configurations indicate how space was arranged. At the north end of the depot, the waiting room is denoted by a full height corner window wall that allows ample natural light to flood the space. On the northeast corner, a one-story rounded pavilion projects out from the building, sharply contrasting with the otherwise crisp, rectilinear lines. The pavilion, with windows all around, originally housed a restaurant with sweeping views of the busy tracks and the bridge over the river.

Moving south, the bands of windows along the principal elevations further reinforce the horizontal orientation of the structure and point to the location of more utilitarian spaces such as a baggage room, restrooms and locker area. The upper floor was devoted to railroad operations and included offices for the general superintendent, freight agent, division engineer and telephone and telegraph operators. There was also space for trainmen to sleep and relax between shifts.

Interestingly, the depot was built to accommodate both rail and bus passengers in a time when intermodal facilities were rare. Cantilevered canopies around much of the building protected passengers from inclement weather while they waited outside for the arrival of the train or bus. Inside, the waiting room was used by all passengers. The two story space features walls clad in a buff Montana travertine; durable terrazzo floors; and black marble accents and trim. Streamlined furniture constructed of rich walnut had green and grey upholstery that was set off by the room’s vibrant yellow window treatments. On one wall of the waiting room, the CB&Q inscribed many of the major achievements that it had accomplished in its namesake city, such as the testing of inventor George Westinghouse’s air brakes in 1887.

In the summer of 1993, the Burlington depot was inundated by 20 inches of water during widespread Mississippi River flooding. The next year, the city purchased the building from the Burlington Northern Railroad and undertook a series of renovations including roof repairs and the installation of new windows. A “Friends of the Depot” group also formed to help the city maintain the structure and encourage ideas for its adaptive reuse. In 2001, the depot was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in acknowledgement of its daring modern design and physical integrity.

A 2008 flood undid much of the previous decade’s renovation work. The next year, the city updated an earlier feasibility study detailing the restoration and reuse potential of the depot; it includes the idea of erecting a floodwall to protect the building. While the city explores financing opportunities, it has granted permission to the revived Friends group to renovate and spruce up the depot. Using more than $1,000 donated by Amtrak, the Friends organized work days in 2011 and 2012 during which volunteers painted the depot’s exterior trim and caulked windows. Local businesses either donated supplies or offered deep discounts to support the renovation effort. In addition, using monies that Amtrak received under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the depot received a new wheelchair lift and enclosure in 2010; platform signage was updated the following year.

New Englanders settled in what is now the Burlington area in the 1830s and named the settlement for their hometown of Burlington, Vt. The arrival of the steamboats, the railroad and a plank toll road in the 1850s established Burlington as a transportation gateway to Iowa. The railroad mainline running through the southern tier of the state was conceptualized and built by the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad. Incorporated at Burlington in 1852, the owners hoped to build a line westward from Burlington, Iowa and then onto Omaha, Neb., the railroad was headquartered in Burlington. The southern route was desirable due to the area’s potential for agricultural production, timber harvesting and finishing and coal mining—all activities that would bring business to the railroad. In colorful posters aimed at settlers throughout the Midwest and on the East Coast, the railroad advertised the sale of the millions of acres it had received in federal land grants.

Commencing surveying in 1853, the 75 mile line from Burlington to Ottumwa was completed by 1859. After a delay due to the Civil War, construction started once again in 1865 and reached the Missouri River by 1869. In 1868, Burlington gained national fame as the site of one of the first iron railroad bridges to cross the Mississippi. The first 496 mile, 22 hour journey from Chicago to Council Bluffs was made in January 1870, and regular rail service began soon thereafter. Two years later, the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad was subsumed into the CB&Q. In the mid-1930s, the CB&Q began running its famous Zephyrs, articulated stainless steel, streamlined passenger trains that came to epitomize a new era of glamour for the railroads. The famed California Zephyr running between Chicago and San Francisco included a vista-dome car with glorious all-around views of the countryside, cities and towns through which the train sped.

Amtrak does not provide ticketing or baggage services at this facility, which is served by two daily trains. A caretaker opens and closes the station.

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