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The Union Station Gangplank

Last updated on February 8, 2019

The union Station gang plank.

Ever notice, while crossing the Broadway bridge, a gangplank leading from a covered roofway to the main rooftop (and then a door) of Union Station? Much speculation has been made – what exactly is the purpose of this object? Perhaps the gangplank serves as an emergency exit, or maybe a maintenance walkway. If you guessed either of these, you could not be more wrong. The Union Station gangplank actually was part of a blimp (ie rigid airship) anchorage – or rather, that was the plan.

When Union Station (or Union Depot as it was called then) opened in 1896, rigid airships were seen as the wave of the transportation of the future. The Luftschiffbau Zeppelin company patented their famous airships a year before in Germany, and were well on their way to patent these airships in the United States. Airplanes were not invented, although they were theorized, so the idea of traveling through the air was quite enticing. The Union depot architects, McKim, Mead & White, were futurists. They knew that their brand new rail yard would in fact be obsolete in thirty years. They envisioned Northern Pacific Terminal Company ripping out most of the tracks and building airship landings – leavening only a few tracks for perhaps cargo trains.

Of course, the railroads could not be convinced that they would change the way they do business in just a matter of a few decades. Still – the architects decided to install the basework for one airship mooring. While never finished, they did provide an entry/entrance way to Union Depot, as well as the gangplank that exists. The plan was to build an actual mooring next to the roofing, where now the Broadway Bridge exists. A second gangplank would serve to reach the mooring from the roof, and stairs and pathways on the roof would also be added.

Sadly, Portland’s dreams of an airship mooring at Union Station never materialized. There are several reasons for this. For one, the Airships never really caught on for passenger purposes, at least not in the Northwest United States. There was some buzz generated at the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exhibition with one of Thomas Baldwin’s Airships.
One of Thomas Baldwin’s airship at the Lewis and Clark Centennial.
Courtesy, library of Congress.

Despite the buzz – the mooring at Union Station never was to be. In 1911, a few short years after the exhibition – the Broadway Bridge was built. The space earmarked for the mooring was of course claimed by the bridge itself. While there was talk of another mooring, either at Union Station, or elsewhere in the city, none would ever come about. Of course, in 1937, the fascination with airships came to a flaming end, literally, with the Hindenburg disaster.

The Hindenburg Disaster.
Courtesy: National Archives. 

So while traveling across the Broadway Bridge, look at the Union Station gangplank, and imagine what once could have been. Where would the bridge have been? And how many airships would have been parked at Union Station? Would the Union Station gangplank still be in service, or would that mooring be long since retired? We’ll never know quite for sure, but we can imagine.

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. At the time of this publication, I have yet to find a solid answer on the true purpose of the Union Station Gangplank, but I guarantee that it was never intended for airships. If you have any information, feel free to comment below! 

Published inTransportation and infrastructure