Throwing back to Union Terminal’s biggest decade

In the days of rail travel, Cincinnati was an important connector for passengers and freight moving through the region. And its bustling Union Terminal, which opened in 1933, was built to accommodate large volumes of travelers with layovers.


“Union Terminal was its own little city in a sense,” says Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC) manager of community collaborations Emily Logue-Rose. “You could buy a hat, you could get your shoes shined, you could buy a toy, you could watch news reels, get some food.”


During the 1940s, the art deco train station was quick to adapt to the needs of wartime. It converted its tearoom — the present-day Rookwood ice cream parlor — into a USO Lounge where service men and women could refresh, visit, and write letters. There were even sleeping stations and showers made available upstairs.


“It was the first troops-in-transit lounge in the country,” adds Logue-Rose.


The 1940s would end up being the transit hub’s biggest decade.


So when Union Terminal’s 75th anniversary came around, the CMC concocted a 1940s-themed celebration to honor the building’s history as a train station.


Since then, 1940’s Day has become ingrained in tradition. Every year, during the second weekend in August, the CMC goes retro with a classic car show, swing dancing, big band jazz, and an increasingly popular vintage costume contest for all ages.


“At first it was mostly staff dressing out,” recalls Longue-Rose. “[But now] it’s become very popular. Almost to the point now that it’s hard to tell who’s a staff member and who’s just here to enjoy it.”


Over time, 1940’s Day has also expanded to incorporate more and more of the decade’s stories — including its most difficult — through lectures and testimonials. The CMC partners with local groups working to perpetuate the memory and the lessons of recent history.


This is the first year that the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center, a longstanding CMC partner, is housed at Union Terminal. So in addition to getting to hear from Holocaust survivor Dr. Renate Neeman, attendees can opt to tour the downstairs Holocaust Center gallery for a small additional charge.


CMC is also partnering with Cincinnati’s chapter of the Japanese American Citizen’s League to tell the story — through personal testimonial — of Japanese internment camps and post-war resettlement in America.


Cincinnati was, in fact, one of the designated relocation cities for Japanese Americans following the war, says Logue-Rose. So there are local stories out there that the CMC has been eager to showcase. And this year it’s coming to fruition.


Another lesser-known story of the 1940s was the role of Dayton, and the role of women, in United States code breaking efforts.


“Dayton, of all places, had their own Enigma machines through the National Cash Register Company,” explains Logue-Rose. And they had a camp where female code breakers lived and worked throughout the war.”


Who knew?


“I had no idea,” says Logue-Rose. “Mind blown.”


You can discover these stories and much more at 1940’s Day on Saturday, August 10th (10 a.m.–5 p.m.) at Union Terminal, including a flyover at 1:15pm, courtesy of the Cincinnati Warbirds.


A Museum Discovery pass gets visitors in for the day. The event is free to CMC members and all veterans.
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Read more articles by Sarah Dupee.

Sarah Dupee is a freelance writer, teacher, translator, and musician with a background in French and Francophone Studies.