Designed by renowned architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood, the beautiful Union Pacific passenger station was reported to be "one of the finest passenger stations on the line" when it opened January 27, 1927. With its 34-foot ceiling and ornate glazed terra cotta ornamentation, the elegant building is perhaps the finest representation of classic railroad architecture in Kansas.The last passenger train left the station May 2, 1971. The building was later remodeled for railroad offices, abandoned in 1988, and damaged by fire in 1992. At that point, Railroad Heritage, Inc. secured a lease from the Union Pacific Railroad to prevent the building's demolition. A Use and Feasibility Study indicated that a museum celebrating railroad heritage was the most desirable use for the station, and a Capital Campaign Assessment demonstrated that funds could be raised to that end. On July 2, 1998, the Union Pacific Corporation formally donated the station to Topeka Railroad Days, Inc. The Great Overland Station Project Team was established to direct efforts to preserve the station and transform it into a railroad heritage museum. In June 2004, The Great Overland Station opened its doors again as a community landmark.
The station was built on a site already rich in history. Here, the Pappan brothers ferried Oregon Trail pioneers across the Kaw River, while Indian Chief Burnett traded supplies and horses with the sojourners. Slaves seeking their freedom crossed here on their way north along the "underground railroad." Future Vice President Charles Curtis, grandson of Louis Pappan, was born on a corner of the property. George Armstrong Custer, Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok were frequent visitors to the bustling frontier community on the north bank of the river. The area from the river front through the North Topeka business district contains historic buildings, largely original and intact. The early history of our community survives in North Topeka, waiting to be brought to life.
Railroads have been the heart of Kansas since our earliest days. The Union Pacific, Eastern Division, brought the first train service to Topeka on New Year¹s Day, 1866. Cyrus K. Holliday, a founder of Topeka, envisioned a railroad reaching all the way to Santa Fe, New Mexico. His dream of tracks to the west took root when the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway turned the first spade of dirt near 4th and Washington Streets in Topeka on October 30, 1868. The Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad and the Missouri Pacific Railroad also came through Topeka. The fact that these four principal railroads served a town of our size makes Topeka unique, and it is appropriate that The Great Overland Station represents the heritage of all the railroads which have crossed our city and state. Although railroading has changed drastically since its heyday, Topeka remains the center of several vital operations of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe and a key link in the Union Pacific system. Topeka was and still is a railroad town.