Diners in the chic Urban Stack restaurant may not realize they are in one of the oldest buildings in Chattanooga. Constructed in the fall of 1870 as a baggage room by the Alabama & Chattanooga Railroad, it is a monument to the impact of railroads on the destiny of Chattanooga.
In 1877 the Alabama & Chattanooga was purchased by the Erlanger Syndicate from Cincinnati. The line’s name became the Alabama Great Southern Railway and later the Southern Railway, which is why the building became known as the Southern Railway Freight Depot.
A Times Free Press article in 2001 quotes Juliette Thornton as remembering a time when baggage and other freight were loaded and unloaded at the building. “In the ‘50s, my father would leave for his reserve duty, and I remember going to the station to see him off and pick him up,” she said. “That little building is where all the baggage was. Now, when I pass by there, I say to myself, yep, it’s still there.”
When founded in 1839, Chattanooga was a small river landing. The first railroad arrived in 1850, when the state of Georgia constructed the Western & Atlantic Railroad to furnish an outlet for products by connecting with traffic on the Tennessee River.
Then, in 1854, bold railroad engineering through the rugged and mountainous country between Nashville and this city enabled the completion of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad. Also in 1854, the Alabama Great Southern was partly completed. In 1858 the Memphis & Charleston Railroad Company, using the existing rails of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad between Stevenson, Ala., and Chattanooga, linked the two cities. Then, in late 1858, service was begun on a branch line between Chattanooga and Cleveland, Tenn., where the main line of the East Tennessee & Georgia Railroad, which extended from Dalton, Ga., via Cleveland to Knoxville, was joined with the branch line.
Thus, in the decade preceding the Civil War Chattanooga had secured rail connections with a large market area: Atlanta, the coastal markets of Charleston and Savannah, Knoxville and northern cities, Nashville and beyond, Memphis on the Mississippi, and Trenton and northern Alabama. Railroads later built were an enlargement of plans begun and mainly completed before 1860.
The war interrupted the building of railroads in the area. Federal troops retreated to Chattanooga after losing the Battle of Chickamauga. Confederate losses at the battles of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge left the Federal army in control of the area. During the winter of 1863-64, Gen. William T. Sherman made Chattanooga the major supply center for all Federal military action in the Western Theater. He devoted resources to improving and protecting the railroads. Federal forces constructed bridges, warehouses, a rolling mill and foundries. In May 1864 Sherman began his campaign to Atlanta, using the Western & Atlantic line as the route for his army.
The Cincinnati Southern Railroad was completed in 1880. It was built and owned by the city of Cincinnati because its businessmen wished to secure a good outlet toward the south for their trade and products. Chattanooga was regarded as the best distribution point in the area, since its railroads already radiated in all directions toward the Atlantic and Gulf ports. Railroads converging in Chattanooga contributed to the city’s later rapid industrial and commercial expansion, also known as the “boom.”
Building owner Tommy Austin, who restored the baggage terminal, is planning with the Chattanooga Committee of the National Society Colonial Dames of America to place a historic marker at this site.
Mary Helms is Manager of the Chattanooga Public Library Local History Department. For more, visit Chattahistoricalassoc.org. or call LaVonne Jolley 423-886-2090.