OPINION: Fifty years ago this month, passenger rail service in Chattanooga was in its death throes, but, tomorrow, who knows?

Clint Cooper, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
·4 min read

Apr. 11—Fifty years ago this month, passenger train service into and out of Chattanooga was in its death throes.

Even so, the hearts of local preservationists were growing stronger. And though they could not save Union Station, from which the last train departed on May 1, 1971, they did make enough noise to help save Terminal Station, which saw its last train pull out in 1970 but which today hosts the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel complex.

While the last few trains chugged in and out of the city that April, Margaret Summerville, a representative of the Historic American Buildings Survey, a division of the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior, arrived to take the measure of Union Station.

She noted its year of original construction (1858), its designation as the only surviving building in the city built before the Civil War, its likely construction of bricks made by slaves, its current ownership by the state of Georgia, and an "interior feature of note," the walnut doors in the "ladies waiting room."

Summerville also detailed the interior and exterior features, its major alterations, and its architectural and historical significance. Her report included two photographs, one of its interior and one of its West Ninth Street (now M.L. King Boulevard) exterior.

Its unclear what she and her superiors with the National Park Service arm had in mind for her report.

Only days or a few weeks after she compiled it, the last train, the Georgian, heading for Atlanta, left the station.

"I hope they at least keep this old building the way it is," general foreman J.E. Renauld told Chattanooga Free Press writers Roy Exum and Jim Frierson before the last train pulled out. "It was constructed in 1858 and has a lot of history in it. I remember seeing pictures of the bodies of dead soldiers stacked up on the west wall during the Civil War."

Only a few bystanders, according to the writers, were around to witness the end. If preservationists were on hand, they did not make their presence known.

A St. Louis passenger, Ella Bush, said she'd been taking the train to Atlanta for 15 years.

"I enjoy it because it's so relaxing," she said. "After today I suppose I'll have to take the bus or the plane, but it won't be the same."

The Georgian's engineer, G.L. Raven, also was feeling the end of an era. He said he woke up that morning "feeling like I was going to a funeral."

"I've worked on locals, freights and switch engines," he said, "but this is the best right here."

Over the next few months, the future of the station had yet to be worked out, but a summer English class at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga came up with an idea.

After touring the station as part of Dr. Tom Preston's The City in Literature course, students compiled "A Proposal for the Restoration and Utilization of the Historic Union Depot in Downtown Chattanooga."

Their idea was that the renovated station would be the "focus of a midtown mall," similar to Larimer Square in Denver, Georgetown in Washington, D.C., Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco and Underground Atlanta.

"Through a lack of planning," they wrote, "many cities have destroyed historical landmarks without due consideration of the integrated parts those landmarks played in the city's creation."

Their plans also envisioned a railroad history museum in the depot, an outdoor, European-style restaurant under the train shed and the restaurant, by night, as a venue for outdoor drama and music.

While their plan found a warm reception from the Chattanooga City Commission, the Chattanooga Area Historical Society and "downtown leaders," it was not to be.

The state of Georgia owners sold the station site, and it was razed in 1972. Today, the land is occupied by two office buildings. On the site where the train shed stood are the Chattanooga Public Library and the TVA complex.

However, only a few blocks away is the Terminal Station, which was developed by B. Allen Casey into a hotel and restaurant complex in 1973. Today, in addition to a hotel, it hosts, among other things, restaurants, bars, and music and comedy venues.

And now, 50 years later, in the way life sometimes comes full circle, Amtrak said passenger train service could one day return to the city if a $2 to $3 trillion infrastructure package proposed by the Biden administration is passed by Congress. That package, according to the White House, would have in it $80 billion for passenger and freight rail. Meanwhile, Amtrak has said its "2035 Vision" plan would add 30 new routes to 160 cities and service to 15 more states than it is currently serving.

Don't go buy your tickets yet, but what was dying in Chattanooga this month in 1971 may learn if it will have new life in 2021.