David Steinberg: Chattanooga's Union Depot

Saturday, May 27, 2017
Union Depot
Union Depot

Chattanooga at its peak in railroad history had two major railroad passenger terminals. One was Southern Railway’s Terminal Station; the other was Union Station or “Depot” as it was often referred to. Were a popularity contest to be held, there is no doubt that Terminal Station would be the winner by a country mile in all respects. Terminal Station was mammoth, it was grand, it was architect Don Barber’s Beaux Arts masterpiece with its 85-foot freestanding dome and its beautiful Flemish bond laid brick. 

But Union Station commanded some respect also in several distinct areas. In particular the original 304-foot long arched shed that covered the station’s four tracks needs to be examined. By today’s standards the shed would not be considered a great engineering feat, but taking into consideration that it was built in 1858, an amount of respect must be given it. Consider the unique wooden bowstring trusses which supported the roof with their clear span of 98-feet 8½-inches. These were hung with wooden circular arch top chord stiffened with cross-brasing and rods with no web members. The bottom chord consisted of two 1 1/8 inch tie rods supported from the top by suspender rods.  Remember that all of this was built in the era before iron and steel was used for buildings. The trusses were positioned on 2-foot thick brick walls – which it is said were handmade by slave labor – which in turn were supported on limestone pillars taken from the Chickamauga quarry located on the right-of-way of the old Western & Atlantic Railroad just across the state line in Georgia. The original roof covering itself was made of tin and supported a ventilator that ran the entire 304-foot length of the shed along its center line six feet high and 16-feet wide. The head station, which was not built until 1881, also commands an amount of respect. In the 1850s houses and buildings were built lavishly and graciously and Union Station was no exception with its 16-foot high ceilings and its antebellum appearance.

Although I frequented Terminal Station every available occasion that I had to take pictures and to generally watch the station’s activity, primarily because it was the busier of the two stations and also because the railroaders there always made me feel so welcome, for some reason, Union Station personnel were much less accommodating – with but a few exceptions. From the age of 13 when I left home to attend seminary in New York, I mostly used trains that emanated out of Terminal Station. On several occasions, however, I did use Union Station, travelling on several occasion down to Atlanta via NC&StL’s “Dixie Flyer,” Train No. 95,  to connect to either Southern or Seaboard to reach my New York City destination. I also travelled a couple of times to Nashville, to change to the L&N into Cincinnati and to there connect to either the Pennsylvania  or New York Central Railroads to reach New York City.

When the announcement was therefore made that Union Station would be razed and reduced to but a memory, I was saddened by the fact as were so many other Chattanoogans.

This basic history serves to preserve the station’s memory and it is hoped that others will feel like its author that it was deserving of being remembered.

In the Beginning

A bit of Chattanooga railroad history is necessary to understand how it was the railroads that made Chattanooga an important junction and necessitated large passenger stations.

Looking at a good relief map, one can readily see that Chattanooga is located in a valley that has a natural break in the Appalachian Mountains. This allowed railroads to easily funnel in and out of the area and attracted them to Chattanooga’s location as they sought their way to other western destinations.

On December 1, 1849, the first train arrived over the Georgia-built Western & Atlantic Railroad  that had been constructed from Atlanta, Georgia. At that time, there was still an obstruction of the line at a point near Tunnel Hill, Georgia known as Cheetogeta Mountain, where the necessary tunnel at that point had not yet been completed. A locomotive and coaches were portaged over the mountain and they operated between the mountain and Chattanooga. Passengers on each trip had to carry their luggage across the precipice to board another train on the other side of the obstruction to complete their journey between Atlanta and Chattanooga. This continued until May 9, 1850 at which time the tunnel was opened and through trains began to operate regularly between the two points.

Where exactly the first passenger station was located is still a matter of debate. Some say the train only went as far as a point opposite today’s Chattanooga National Cemetery. Later, there is a notion that a station was placed along what was then Mulberry Avenue, later renamed Railroad Avenue and known today as Broad Street someplace near the Tennessee River to which the line had been built. Circa 1852, the W&A built a combination freight and passenger station at the southwest corner of 9th and Market Streets. Interesting is the fact that the station was not even located within the city limits since Chattanooga’s southern boundary extended at that time only from the Tennessee River at 1st Street to 9th and so the station was actually in Hamilton County. The passenger part of the station was two-stories high, with the first floor being used as the waiting station while the upstairs, some 40-feet square, was utilized by the railroad as offices.

The second railroad to reach Chattanooga became the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad which per its name connected the two namesake cities in 1854. It joined the original W&A in mutual use of the Market and 9th Street station. Thereafter, in July 1859, the East Tennessee & Georgia Railroad which extended from Knoxville to Dalton, Georgia there to connect to the W&A into Atlanta, completed its spur line from Cleveland, Tennessee 30 miles north of Chattanooga into Chattanooga to a point at Missionary Ridge where a tunnel was under construction. In the meantime, ET&G passengers were met by W&A trains that conveyed them the remaining distance into Chattanooga proper until September 1859 when the Missionary Ridge Tunnel was completed and ET&G trains operated under their own steam directly into the one Chattanooga 9th and Market Station. In the meantime, early in 1855, the Memphis & Charleston Railroad was built to a junction with the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad at Stevenson, Alabama and passengers and freight were handled between that point and Chattanooga in trains of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad.

By this time the station serving three distinct railroads had outgrown the small initial station. A contract was entered into on September 12, 1857 and amended March 12, 1858 between the Western & Atlantic, East Tennessee & Georgia and the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroads for the construction of a union station on a site just to the west of the existing station along 9th Street at Broad Street. Each railroad was to pay $10,000 for a fourth interest in the station, the remaining fourth to be owned equally by all three railroads. The contract further stipulated that the station was to be built similar to the existing Atlanta railroad station and was to be built by the Western & Atlantic Railroad. The Atlanta depot had been built prior to 1858 and occupied the State Square between Pryor and Lloyd Street today’s Central Avenue. A stone tablet was then positioned on the outside of the Car Shed that  stated: “Built 1858. Eugene LeHardy, Civil Engineer, John Lother, Master Mason.” LeHardy and Lother were both employees of the Western & Atlantic Railroad.

The new Chattanooga station became the shed described above in the preface and indeed for many years Chattanooga’s depot was affectionately (or perhaps derogatorily) dubbed “The Car Shed.” In detail, the Shed was 100 feet wide by 304 feet in the length. There were four tracks in the station, two on each side of the structure that were entered by two separate arches 24½ feet wide, each of which spanned two tracks. In the center of the car shed was a line of separate ticket offices that each of the railroads maintained, while Stoops Brothers had a confectionery on the south side. The tracks extended through the station on the north end almost to 9th Street. This was to allow the steam locomotives of the era that utilized wood and later coal to park outside the shed to keep the belching suffocating smoke of the locomotives from filling up the station. The Burns House, which was the town’s leading hotel at the time was located just to the west of the Car Shed at 9th and Chestnut Streets and it is said that for a time, the railroads’ ticket offices and waiting room were removed to that point. Initially this building occupied a space of 30 feet by 120 feet and later was enlarged to 175 feet on the Chestnut Street side and 75 feet on the 9th Street side.

Besides serving as a train station, interesting is the fact that during the winter of 1863, on January 2 to be exact, wounded and dying Confederate soldiers from the Battle of Murfreesboro were rushed to Chattanooga on railroad cars and placed on sheets taken from the old Crutchfield House, then located across the street from the station where today’s Read House stands. These sheets were hastily converted into mattresses stuffed with leaves. The Car Shed then attained historical significance by becoming one of the few railroad stations ever to be converted into an army hospital. Tragically, history has recorded that those soldiers requiring treatment fared far worse than those who were left unattended due to the high incidence of infection and the lack of antiseptical supplies. In addition to being used as a hospital, until the Southern army evacuated Chattanooga, the Confederate soldiers utilized the depot as their commissary and sleeping quarters and nearly everything else imaginable. With the capture of Chattanooga by Federal forces, they similarly used the station for a commissary until the end of hostilities in 1865.

Shortly after the Civil War, the Wills Valley Railroad was built southward from Wauhatchie, Tennessee on the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad  as far as Valley Head, Alabama. This company went bankrupt and was initially reorganized as the Alabama & Chattanooga Railroad that later became the Alabama Great Southern Railroad. It was then completed through to Birmingham, Alabama which now brought additional trains directly into the Car Shed.

The New Head Station

With five separate railroads now operating into the station, it was felt that a new head station was needed where unified ticket offices, waiting rooms and baggage facilities could be provided.  In addition, it was felt that a new combined freight station needed to be constructed at the same time and work on both these facilities was underway simultaneously. Bids for both stations’ construction were opened April 27, 1881 and received until May 14 of that year. Work was begun shortly thereafter and chosen as the architect was a Colonel W. C. Smith of Nashville. With its length of some 96 feet, the head station was brought to within a few feet of 9th Street, as was the freight station which was built just to the west of the passenger station along 9th to Chestnut Street. With an entrance built of double walnut doors, the floors of both the freight and passenger stations were initially laid with plain wooden planks and brick foundations, with the exception of the corridor extending from the entrance some 65 feet long and 16 feet wide that was laid with a mosaic floor. A general waiting room was built that was 20 by 40 feet, the baggage room occupied 30 by 32 feet, the dining room was 20 by 40 feet and a separate gentlemen’s smoking room and separate ladies waiting room were constructed each 26 by 21 feet. The ceiling height was 16 feet and its lavish interior consisted of walnut, ash and white pine. The roof was made of West Virginia slate and the station became the “talk of the town.” On July 1, 1882, both stations were opened for business when a J.D. Faulkner and wife became the first passengers with their purchase of tickets to Denver, Colorado. $38,000 had been spent on the passenger edifice; $20,000 on the two-story freight station. With the completion of the new head station, trains no longer headed into the station but with the building of a wye for the purpose, all trains now began to back into the new edifice. Chattanooga’s depot then began to be called Union Depot. As for the stone tablet that had adorned the outside of the Car Shed, it was now positioned on the inside and placed under one of the bricked-up arches that faced the concourse area.

The Car Shed Becomes Too Crowded

Central Passenger Station is Created

Commencing December 10, 1879, yet another railroad entered Chattanooga from Cincinnati, Ohio known as the Cincinnati Southern Railroad Company. In October 1882, the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia Railroad entered Chattanooga with their separate line to Atlanta via Cohutta, Dalton and Rome Georgia. Then on June 27, 1888, the Chattanooga, Rome & Columbus Railway reached the city operating its trains to Griffin, Georgia via Chickamauga, Lafayette and Cedartown. Effective October 1892, Chattanooga Southern Railroad trains that operated to Gadsden, Alabama, switched over from their original Georgia Avenue Depot that they had utilized from their inception into the city on July 1, 1890 to Union Station which brought two more daily round trip schedules into the facility.

With some eight separate railroad lines now emanating out of the one station, traffic and conditions at Union Depot became unbearable and severely crowded. Two companies, the Cincinnati Southern and the Alabama & Chattanooga Railroad, which by then had become the Alabama Great Southern (and which combined were known as the “Queen & Crescent Route”) undertook to build their own station at the corner of Market and Union Street, today’s 13th Street. This station was given the name Central Passenger Station and had been converted from an older freight station that existed there, having been built in 1871 by the Alabama & Chattanooga Railroad. On September 1, 1888, this station was opened for traffic and within a few months of that waning summer day, the Memphis & Charleston Railroad and the Georgia and Knoxville divisions of the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia Railroad also began to schedule certain of their trains through Central Station. Since all Knoxville and Atlanta trains over the ETV&G had to anyway pass by Central Station,  for several years, these trains stopped at both downtown stations allowing patrons to have their choice of where they wished to board.  Effective July 15, 1889, the local Chattanooga & Lookout Mountain Railway which per its namesake operated trains directly from downtown Chattanooga to the top of nearby Lookout Mountain and the Lookout Inn located at the terminus, switched their service from their Newby Street Station to Union Depot and 11 daily round trip schedules began to operate from the station. It was the hope of the C&LM Railway that by so doing, patronage at  Lookout Inn would be improved since now out-of-towners riding into Union Station could switch directly to their trains to reach the summit. In addition, Pullman cars operating into the city could be attached to a C&LM train to directly bring the parties to the summit without change of cars. This had already taken place once before on February 5, 1889, when famous Andrew Carnegie and his party were brought up to Lookout Inn over the Chattanooga & Lookout Mountain when the magnate had come to visit in Chattanooga.

Circa 1900, certain improvements were made, when the space beneath the first story of Union Depot was filled and a floor laid of beautiful Georgia marble was built. At the same time, the carved woodwork in the Ladies’ Waiting Room was installed by the Edgefield & Nashville Manufacturing Company. On January 9, 1911, a disastrous fire burned 285 feet of the old Car Shed on the south side most distant from the depot. The 285 feet were rebuilt and an additional 120 feet of shed was added. This completed Car Shed finished just before the summer of that year 1911 then became a total 424 feet in length. Just prior to this fire, the ventilator that ran along the entire length of the roof was blown off by a heavy windstorm as well as a large part of the tin roofing. The ventilator height was then reduced to three feet and the tin was replaced by a built-up asphaltic covering.

In 1926, the City of Chattanooga extended Broad Street from 9th Street where it had until then terminated through to Main Street. This made it necessary to rearrange the existing Union Depot track plan. Some 300 feet of the Car Shed from its southernmost point were removed leaving 124 feet of the original structure near the head station intact. These 124 feet existed until the final end and served as the roof for the concourse area of Union Depot. It was under this section of the station that the famous “General” locomotive of Civil War fame remained until it was removed by the Louisville & Nashville Railroad on the night of June 6, 1961 and transferred eventually to Kennesaw, Georgia where it reposes at this writing. In place of the old shed, three modern butterfly sheds were constructed some 1,000 feet in length and were erected over concrete platforms laid to shelter and handle passenger traffic. From this time on, the east part of the wye no longer existed, creating the interesting fact that incoming northbound trains from Atlanta had to back into the station, while southbound trains inbound from Nashville headed directly into the edifice. During the summer of 1928 and spring of 1929, Union Station’s interior arrangement was completely remodeled. The total costs of these improvement begun in 1926 amounted to some $190,000.

Of notable mention is Union Station’s dining room that operated in the heyday of passenger railroads around the turn of the century. Its huge bill of fares, its many course dishes and the marvelous food served on crisp white linen tablecloths by white coated and gloved waiters was long the place to eat in Chattanooga. On a good Sunday evening, crowds would stretch out to 9th Street waiting to enter the facility for their turn.

Towards the end in 1970, the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, the last users of the station, leased from the State of Georgia that half of the station which under the original agreement in 1857 was deeded to the Western & Atlantic Railroad – the W&A as traced, having been built and owned by the State of Georgia the 137 miles into Atlanta. The western half of the station, that section from about the center of the depot to Chestnut Street which originally belonged to the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, later became the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway, which in turn in 1957 merged with the last users of Union Depot, the L&N Railroad. On December 27, 1890, the original NC&StL leased the W&A Railroad from the State of Georgia for a period of 29 years until 1919. That lease was in turn renewed for 50 additional years until 1969. In that year, Southern Railway System sought desperately to gain control of the old W&A right-of-way into Atlanta, but the State of Georgia after lengthy debate and wrangling, once again awarded the Louisville & Nashville Railroad use of the line for another 25 year period, during which Georgia received close to $32½ million dollars in rent.

The Demolition of Union Station

On September 26, 1972, the State of Georgia announced plans to sell four tracts of land they owned in the downtown area, one of which was the 112,000 square foot Union Depot site. On October 31, the Stone Fort Land Company of Chattanooga bid $445,000 for the site which comprised nearly half the station area on the east side. With the bid accepted, on November 21, 1972, the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, owners of the other half of the station site and the Stone Fort Land Company announced jointly their plans to commercially develop the 20 acre Union Depot area. Although the station had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, it could not be saved. After March 21, 1973 when the State of Georgia officially approved the sale, the wreckers began their job of destroying the pre-Civil War and Victorian edifice. Thereafter on June 5, 1973, plans were announced by the City of Chattanooga for the building of a new central public library on 46,000 square feet of the Union Station site. Although the City of Chattanooga could have had the entire site for $445,000 and could have spared the station, with plenty space left over to build the library and additional projects, that was not destined to be the case.

As for the original W&A combination station built on the southwest corner of Market and 9th Street that had been built circa 1852, it remained in operation even after 1858 when the new Car Shed was completed, serving as Chattanooga’s Western & Atlantic Railroad freight station and offices. This remained the case until 1882 when the new freight station was opened just to the west of Union Depot at Chestnut Street. Thereafter the building was used by the Postal  Telegraph Company until 1902, when the local newspapers reported that a portion of the old station was being torn down to make way for commercial storefronts. Interesting is the fact that the excavation revealed that the sidewalks at the time were some seven feet higher than when the station had been constructed. Much of the downtown had been filled in to allow for improved water drainage. Though partially knocked down, the NC&StL Railway continued to use a section of the old structure facing 9th Street, utilizing it as their downtown ticket office. This remained the case until circa 1930 when the railroad vacated the building and in its stead a locally famous restaurant was located, The Chattanooga Steak House. This lasted until September 1959, when the newspapers once again announced that 9th Street would be widened to accommodate the additional traffic volume that was being experienced reaching the city’s new West Side freeway. The building was then reduced to but a memory.

David Steinberg


Central Passenger Station
Central Passenger Station

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