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Reading 3: Terminal Station

After the Civil War American railroads expanded rapidly. In the 1860s the country had 53,000 miles of track. By the turn of the century, it had nearly 200,000 miles, more than in all of Europe. Growth occurred particularly in the West and the South, linking those regions more closely to the industrial Northeast.

Chattanooga was one of the cities that benefited most from railroad expansion. In 1870 there were 58 industries in Chattanooga. By 1910 there were more than 300. Over the same period industrial employment in the city rose from 2,100 to 22,000. Virtually all these businesses were dependent on the railroad for customers or transportation of goods.

By 1910, 10 lines considered Chattanooga a key part of their networks. The Southern Railway alone controlled tracks which headed out of the city in four different directions. Rails connected Chattanooga to all the largest ports in the South: New Orleans, Mobile, Pensacola, Jacksonville, Savannah, Charleston, and Norfolk. Tracks also reached major inland cities such as Atlanta, Charlotte, and Memphis.

This growth created demand for new facilities. By the early 1880s the city had outgrown its original 1858 station. An 1882 replacement lasted only six years before it also became too small. In 1888 an old freight depot at the corner of 13th and Market Streets was converted to the Central Passenger Station. During this period freight facilities expanded and by 1900, the area near the Central Station housed three different depots serving commercial and industrial traffic.

Within 25 years Chattanooga again needed a larger passenger depot. In 1905 the Southern Railway hired New York architect Don Barber to design what became known as "Terminal Station." This building, which opened in 1909, handled only passenger traffic and "express," or small package shipments.

From its opening Terminal Station was one of the city’s grandest buildings (see Photo 1). Its most distinguishing architectural feature was the brick arch framing the entrance. At the time it was built, it was said to be the largest brick arch in the world. The station included a main waiting room, bathrooms, ticket office, and other services. It was one story throughout; this meant that the center section, which featured a dome and skylight, had an exceptionally high ceiling. Large brass chandeliers manufactured in New York City hung from brightly painted ceilings. Two Chattanooga-based firms, brick producer Southern Clay Manufacturing Company and timber supplier Willingham and Company, provided most of the materials used in the station’s construction. Prior to its official opening, Terminal Station was praised in an article in the Daily Times on December 10, 1908:

Chattanoogans who have not visited the new terminal station since it has been practically completed have a big treat in store. Few persons, if any, who have not visited the station within the past few weeks have any conception of its grandeur and entire fitness for handling passenger traffic. To properly appreciate the new railroad plant a person should spend a few minutes at the Central shed and study the conditions there and then go to the new station. The contrast is great.

Terminal Station enjoyed a long and busy history as the city’s main passenger terminal. The station was especially important during World War II, when as much as 90 percent of the nation’s traffic went by rail. In 1944 a complete renovation and redecoration was begun to modernize the station. By the next decade, however, the railroads were receiving stiff competition from airlines, automobiles, and long-haul trucks. As railroad traffic declined, so did the area around Terminal Station. The last passenger train left Terminal Station in 1970. By that time many businesses in the area around the station were already closed and boarded up.

In 1972 local businessmen formed a partnership and began the rehabilitation of the building they renamed the Chattanooga Choo-Choo after the 1940s song. Although the project has had problems over the years, today the Choo-Choo is a successful convention center and hotel with restaurants, shops, and even some railroad cars renovated for overnight accommodations. The success of the Choo-Choo has also brought about a renewal of the area around the station. Owners of restaurants, shops, offices, and other businesses have returned to restore and occupy many of the historic buildings in the district. Meanwhile, trains continue to roll in and out of Chattanooga daily. The past, the present, and the future come together in the railroad industry and its place in the heritage of Chattanooga.

Questions for Reading 3

1. Why did Chattanooga have to build so many freight and passenger stations?

2. Why might the Southern Railway have hired a New York architect to design Terminal Station?

3. What were the areas inside the station used for?

4. According to the Daily Times article, how did the Terminal Station compare with the old Central Passenger Station?

5. What is the tone of the article? In other words, how did the paper want the city to feel about its new station?

6. What factors brought about the decline of the railroad industry?

7. Why did the decline and revival of the Terminal Station have such a dramatic effect on the surrounding area?

8. Why was it important to revitalize and rehabilitate Terminal Station?

Reading 3 was compiled from Ellen Beasley, "Terminal Station" (Hamilton County, Tennessee) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1972; and Miranda Roche, "Market and Main Streets Historic District" (Hamilton County, Tennessee) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1992.

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