Denver’s Union Station a Mile-High Treasure
By Brian E. Clark
At its peak more than a century ago, 80 passenger trains a day – from six different railroads – rumbled through Denver’s Union Station. In modern parlance, it was a happenin’ place.
Likewise, the neighborhood surrounding the neighborhood that’s now known as LoDo – for Lower Downtown – also hummed with activity. It was filled with brick mercantile buildings, warehouses, offices, restaurants, hotels and other businesses catering to workers, shoppers, businessmen and those traveling by train.
As airplane travel began to dominate the American transportation scene in the 1950s, however, the neighborhood was all but abandoned.
“It became pretty much a skid row,” Denver historian Rich Grant told me on a recent walking tour of LoDo.
By the 1970s, only two Amtrak trains used Denver’s Union Station, leaving it empty the majority of the day, added Grant, who looked like a cowboy straight out of central casting during our stroll.
Fast forward to 2021 and Union Station has been lovingly restored and is now filled with stores, great restaurants, two bars and the luxurious, 112-room Crawford Hotel. It’s popular lobby has been dubbed “Denver’s living room” and is the meeting place for everything from drinks to dates to business meetings to families grabbing an ice cream cone at the Milkbox Ice Creamery, in a corner of the depot where barbers once clipped travelers’ hair.
Moreover, Union Station has been transformed into an urban transit center serving not only Amtrak’s California Zephyr train, but offers frequent light rail service to Denver International Airport and suburbs to the north and south. Numerous buses also arrive and depart from a separate depot beneath the railyard. In the end, the Union Station and transit center redevelopment cost $500 million.
And LoDo? It’s thriving again. More than 100 of the former brick warehouses have been restored, housing many of the 100,000 residents who now call the area in and around downtown Denver home. Those buildings are filled with shops, restaurants and bars on the first floors and apartments and condos on the upper levels.
“The transformation is nothing but amazing,” said Grant, who moved to Denver more than 50 years ago, fell in love with the city and stayed put.
My journey to Denver began, appropriately, at Union Station in Chicago. There, photographer Tish Lafferty and I boarded the California Zephyr at 2 p.m. and settled into our sleeper compartment as the train headed west past fields newly planted with corn and soybeans. We crossed the Mississippi several hours later and watched the sun set near Des Moines, Iowa while we had a meal in the dining car.
Around 10:30 pm, as we were tucking in for the night, we crossed the Missouri River and rolled into Omaha. We were lulled to sleep by the clicketty clack of the rails and were awakened around 6 a.m. by Colorado sunlight poking into our compartment.
About 50 miles west of Denver, our anticipation built with our first vision of the Rockies in the distance, reminding me of a trip decades past when I drove with my parents from Iowa to Fort Collins north of Denver to attend Colorado State University for my freshman year.
Within an hour, we were pulling into Denver’s busy Union Station, which reminded me of the depot in the center of Stockholm, Sweden, which I’d visited a few years back. Located on the Baltic Sea, Stockholm was my embarkation point for a high-speed train to Gothenburg on the Sweden’s western Atlantic coast. Denver’s station boasts a white, fabric canopy covering some of the tracks that is a stark modernistic contrast to the century old, beaux art Union Station. Remarkably, the two styles flow together well.
When we bid adieu to the California Zephyr and walked into Union Station with its soaring Great Hall, we could smell fresh-baked pastries coming from a deli and the Snooze restaurant, where we had a tasty breakfast of French toast, pancakes, fresh fruit and coffee.
Then we checked into our digs for the next three nights, the Crawford Hotel in Union Station, in a corner suite that was once the offices for what probably was a shipping company. From our front window, we looked out over the plaza in front of the station and down 17th Street.
Not long after that, we met Grant on Wynkoop Street, which runs in front of the depot, and we were off. One of first stops was the Oxford Hotel, which historic preservationist and developer Dana Crawford, for whom the Crawford Hotel in Union Station was named, owns.
Then it was on to the Rockmont Ranchwear store, which Grant said is the only original business in LoDo. Founded more than 75 years ago, its embroidered shirts – which feature distinctive snap buttons – have been worn by musicians ranging from Bob Dylan to Eric Clapton to David Bowie to Bonnie Raitt.
“Papa Jack opened the business – which also sells hats, belts and vests – in 1948 and it was a revolutionary place,” he said. “You can hardly name any famous person who hasn’t been in the store. Every other building in LoDo has been repurposed, but Rockmount is the same as it was long ago.”
Then it was on to Larimer Square, which was the first section of LoDo to be restored and another Dana Crawford project. After that, we visited the Dairy Block, a former dairy that is now filled with restaurants on the first floor. We also strolled through an alley filled with stalls that reminded me of the medina (old quarter) in Marakesh, Morrocco.
No trip would to LoDo would be complete, however, without stopping in at the Wynkoop Brewing Co., which Grant told us was Colorado’s original brewpub. It was started by John Hickenlooper and three friends back in 1988, when the area was still considered skid row. Hickenlooper had been to California, experiended brewpubs there and brought the concept back to Colorado.
The brewery/restaurant in the old J.S. Brown Mercantile Building did well. Hickenlooper then added condos and apartments to the upper floors of the building because he believed people would want to live downtown, Grant said.
“People thought he was crazy, but he succeeded and that was one of the sparks that lit the revitalization of LoDo,” Grant said. Hickenlooper, a petroleum geologist by training, proved a popular fellow and went on to become Denver’s mayor from 2003 to 2011 and governor of Colorado from 2011 to 2019. He was elected to the U.S. Senate last year.
“The Wynkoop was the game changer for the modern era of LoDo,” Grant added. “There was nothing much within five or more blocks when it opened. Now, within a six block radius, there are 100 restaurants and bars.”
But the Wynkoop was special, Grant said, somewhat akin to Rick’s Cafe in the Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman movie “Casablanca.” “If you came to Denver, you made your way to the Wynkoop. I met writer Kurt Vonegut and other luminaries there.”
As much as I enjoyed Lodo, the highlight of the trip for me was Union Station itself. In addition to breakfast at the Snooze and ice cream cones at the Milkbox Ice Creamery, Lafferty and I also had dinner one night at Utreia, which was tucked into a corner of the depot off the Great Hall and is the creation of award-winning chef Jennifer Jasinski.
An intimate setting, Ultreia has an Iberian theme and takes its name from the word people shout at pilgrims (Ultreia translates as “onward”) for hikers on the Camino de Santiago, the 1,000 year old pilgrimage to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. We shared delicious pintxos (pronounced “peen chos”) and tapas prepared by executive chef Adam Branz. My favorites was the Escalivada, made from roasted eggplant, pepper and onion stew, shishito crema, torn herbs and pan de cristal.
For the last night of our stay, we had cocktails at the Cooper Lounge. Perched on the second floor of the depot on almost the same level as several enormous, inverted dome-shaped chandeliers, we could look out the massive hall below and imagine all the tens (hundreds?) of thousands of railroad passengers who’d traipsed through the building during the past century.
I have a feeling we’ll be back. In a sense, we only scraped the surface during our stay. We never had a drink at the Terminal Bar, which offers dozens of microbrews and where travelers once bought tickets to far-flung corners of the country, or tasted seafood at the Stoic & Genuine oyster bar, or the offerings of acclaimed chef Seidel at Mercantile Dining and Provision.
For more information on Denver’s Union Station, see unionstationdenver.com. For things to see and do in LoDo, go to denver.org. And for tickets on the California Zephyr, which continues on from Denver to the San Francisco Bay Area, see amtrak.com/california-zephyr-train. In addition, the Crawford Hotel is linking up with Ultreia this summer to offer a Crawford Picnic in the Park package that starts at $294 per night and inlcudes a picnic basket stocked with Spanish-inspired cuisine & a bottle of wine, along with luxury transportation to the local park of your choice in The Crawford’s Tesla. See thecrawfordhotel.com/offers/picnic-at-the-park.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.