Memorial Day for many American signals the start of summer season. Communities all across the country celebrate with parades, picnics, parties and, in my hometown, with an event called Katy Days which recalls the town’s earlier days when the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad had its regional headquarters located there.
But originally, Memorial Day was established as a federal holiday just after the Civil War to commemorate those soldiers who had died in that war. At that time, it was known as Decoration Day and was a time when families decorated the graves of their loved ones. Today, Memorial Day, as it has become known, honors all those who have died in military service. Many of those were perished during World War II, a time when trains, like the ‘Katy’ transported troops across the country to and from their homes and bases as they were heading off to War. Among those thousands of young Americans was my own father.
And some of them, like my Dad, took time to write to family members as they waited for their train. “My Dear Brother & Sister, I am sorry I haven’t been able to write you before now,” he wrote on a postcard dated Jan. 2, 1942 and that I discovered recently among his things. “I am in K.C.”(Kansas City) “on my way to Ft. Leonardwood. I enlisted in the army last Tues. and am on my way to be a soldier…”
As he wrote these words, he was sitting in Kansas City’s Union Station, that was, at the time, one of the busiest in the country. During World War II an estimated million travelers, many of them soldiers like my father, passed through the station.
At that time, the station had 900 rooms in its 850,000 square feet. Built in the Beaux-Arts style, the station was the second largest in the country when it opened in 1914. But after 1945, as train travel declined in the U.S., the station fell on hard times until eventually, it stood silent, empty and a sad shell of what it once was.
The landmark station was nearly demolished several times but in 1996, Kansas and Missouri joined together to undertake the renovation, funded by a ‘bi-state’ sales tax. In 1999, the station re-opened to the public and now houses a railway display, exhibition space for traveling shows from major museums and institutions, a planetarium, an interactive science center,a live and film theatre and restaurants as well as the Amtrak station. Visitors, like myself, are drawn to see this historic place and its grand interior. This year, the station is celebrating its centennial.
I wandered through the Grand Hall, strolled beneath the giant clock–a meeting place for many families–and walked down the long hall where the heavy sliding metal doors on either side once led to 28 different tracks.
I remembered when, as a child of seven, I, my aunt and my younger brother,excitedly boarded one of those trains for a trip to Oregon. I could almost hear the voices of all those many travelers, who, like myself and my own father, had taken a train from Union Station.
And so, if as you celebrate Memorial Day you hear the distant sound of a train whistle, stop for a minute and remember the days when trains carried Americans all over this country, and especially all those thousands of soldiers, many of whom never made the return trip home. It is for them for whom the whistle blows and the bugles sound on this American holiday.