In 1971, time no longer mattered much at the Union Depot in downtown Chattanooga. Passenger trains, which once arrived throughout the day and night according to precise timetables, ceased service on May 1, 1971. Inside the venerable structure at Ninth and Broad Streets, businessmen were no longer glancing at their watches while in the waiting room. Any traveler who was really concerned about time was taking to the air or to the freeways. The hotels around the depot were almost anachronisms, as there were no passengers looking for a place to stay.
Everyone had given up waiting for the L & N Railroad to bring the General locomotive back to Union Depot from its 1961 tour. Despite “Kelley’s Raiders” and legal action by the City of Chattanooga, the General was now on display at Kennesaw, as a result of a business deal between the State of Georgia and L & N. In a speech to the Chattanooga Area Historical Association a few years before his passing, former Mayor Kelley recalled that the city was stuck with boxes and boxes of letterhead, cuff links, tie clips and other promotional items that had the General on them.
About the only group around Union Depot to whom time still mattered was a UTC English class whose members were touring the vacated station. Realizing that the Union Depot’s days might be numbered, the students were putting together a visionary plan to save an important artifact of Chattanooga’s history. They went to the Union Depot to get an eyewitness view of its history.
“A Proposal for the Restoration and Utilization of the Historic Union Depot in Downtown Chattanooga” was prepared as part of a summer English class taught by Dr. Tom Preston. I contacted Dr. Preston, who is now a semi-retired professor at the University of North Texas, to see what he remembered about the class and its Union Depot project. “I’m a pack rat – you’re lucky,” replied Dr. Preston in offering to send me a copy of the proposal and course syllabus. “Yes, the proposal was ahead of its time even though cities like Atlanta were doing just such things,” he said.
Dr. Preston’s course was entitled, ‘The City in Literature,” with an objective “to study literary images of urban life from Biblical to modern times.” The students decided to study urban life from an historical point of view, and to focus on a “specific project for the betterment of Chattanooga and its urban setting.” The project was the proposal to restore and to utilize the historic Union Depot.
The students proposed that the Union Depot become the “focus of a midtown mall” which would be similar to other restored structures including Larimer Square in Denver, Georgetown in Washington, D. C., Ghiradelli Square in San Francisco, and Underground Atlanta. “Through a lack of planning many cities have destroyed historical landmarks without due consideration of the integrated parts those landmarks played in the city’s creation,” the students wrote.
Certainly, the Union Depot had played an important role in the founding and growth of Chattanooga. In “The Next Station Stop Will Be Chattanooga,” author David Steinberg described how that the Union Depot originated from an 1857 agreement among the Western and Atlantic, Nashville and Chattanooga, and Memphis and Charleston Railroad to serve Chattanooga passengers. Thus was built the “Car Shed,” an impressive limestone and brick structure south of Ninth Street. The bricks had been made by slaves. During the Civil War, the train shed was converted into an army hospital.
In 1882, freight and passenger stations were erected which adjoined the Car Shed. Double walnut doors welcomed those entering the station from Ninth Street. In 1900, a remodeling project added a Georgian marble floor to the depot. Perhaps it was appropriate that this was Georgian marble, as the State of Georgia was the founder of the Western and Atlanta Railroad and also owned considerable property in downtown Chattanooga – including the site of the Union Depot.
By mid-July, 1971 the UTC students had completed work on their paper. The Chattanooga Times reported their plans in a July 18, 1971 front page story: “Group Envisions Culture Center for Depot Area.” The depot itself would be converted into a railroad history museum. An outdoor European-style restaurant would be opened underneath the train shed, which by this time, had been reduced in size due to the opening of Broad Street south of Ninth in 1926. At night, the restaurant would be used as a venue for outdoor drama and music.
The class met with the Chattanooga City Commission on Monday, July 19, 1971. In addition to presenting their paper, the students showed a film which they had made inside the Union Depot. The film not only showed the vacant Union Depot, but also other scenes of neglect and decay in downtown. Restoring Union Depot would help to reverse the situation, and bring residents as well as tourists into the central city. The authors of the paper said that they had “found a prevailing sense of optimism among downtown leaders.”
Mayor Robert Kirk Walker thanked the students for their presentation, and noted the “deep concern that today’s youth have for the city and its welfare” and the interaction between UTC and city government. He said that the redevelopment of the Union Depot area had the number one priority in rejuvenating downtown. With the Golden Gateway project nearly complete, the mayor said that its target area might be expanded to include the train station. Mayor Walker recommended that the students take their plans to the Downtown Development Committee.
In November, 1971, the Chattanooga Area Historical Association joined in the fight to save Union Depot. However, on September 26, 1971, the State of Georgia announced plans to sell some of their downtown properties including the Union Depot site. Today, the Krystal and Tallan office buildings stand where the passenger station once was. The downtown library, Tennessee-American Water Company office, and TVA complex are on the site of the Car Shed.
Elements of the proposal to preserve Union Depot eventually came true. As Ed Wingate, a student in that 1971 UTC class, recalled in a recent interview, “A lot of what we wanted went into the Chattanooga Choo-Choo (the restored Terminal Station on Market Street). The Chattanooga Market at the First Tennessee Pavilion resembles the open-air market that was envisioned. The Nightfall and Rhythm-and-Noon concert series at Miller Plaza provide a venue for performing arts. The Chattanooga Regional History Museum houses artifacts of area history including its railroad origins. With some exceptions, downtown is a cleaner, more inviting place to visit than it was in 1971 and certainly welcomes more tourists than it did then. Some things haven’t changed completely since 1971. Just recently, it was reported that the State of Georgia was selling some of its railroad-based property on King Street.
Though some of the student’s goals came true, the Union Depot was demolished in 1973. One has to wonder how many tourists today would welcome a chance to visit a train station with the history of Union Depot. I asked Dr. Tom Preston if he had returned to Chattanooga to visit after leaving UTC. He said that he had visited, and “was very sorry to see the depot had been torn down – a structure of historical and cultural significance (just recall the songs!).”
If you have memories of Union Depot, please send me an e-mail at email@example.com. Also, does anyone recall a time when the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis railroad placed a donation bucket in front of the General and requested the public to contribute towards the General’s restoration? My father recalled that charitable request, and felt that it should have given Chattanoogans at least part ownership of the famed Civil War locomotive.