Historic Structures

Union Station Railroad Station, Nashville Tennessee

Date added: November 1, 2016 Categories: Tennessee Train Station Richardsonian Romanesque

Union Station was the product of the two principal railroad companies that served Nashville in. the latter part of the nineteenth century: the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway (referred to as the NC&StL) and the Louisville and Nashville (referred to as the L&N).

The Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad Company, the parent company of the NC&StL, was the first in the State of Tennessee. In 1842 a group of enterprising Nashville citizens under the leadership of Vernon L. Stevenson conceived the idea of building a railroad to Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 1845 the Tennessee Legislature granted them a charter, incorporating a "Railroad from Nashville, on the Cumberland River, to Chattanooga, on the Tennessee River." The entire line was opened in 1854. Stevenson remained president of the railroad until the close of the War and came to be known as the father of the railway system in Tennessee.

Following the Civil War, the company began to expand by acquiring other railroads in the area. With its acquisition of the Nashville & Northwestern Railroad in 1872, the company changed its name to the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway.

The L&N Railroad Company was chartered in March 1850, The object of the company initially was to construct a railroad from Louisville, Kentucky, to Nashville, Tennessee, with branches to Lebanon and Guthrie, Kentucky, and Memphis, Tennessee. Construction was begun in 1853 and completed by 1870. In the next two decades, the L&N achieved enormous expansion by acquiring control of other railroads through both purchase and lease. By 1890 its routes extended from Cincinnati and Louisville on the Ohio River, and St. Louis on the Mississippi, to Pensacola, Mobile, and New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico, passing through the states of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi into Louisiana. Nashville was the central distributing point in this vast system.

By 1882 the NC&StL and the L&N were the only principal railway systems serving Nashville and Middle Tennessee. As traffic increased, both railroads realized that their existing freight and passenger facilities were inadequate for the needs of a fast-growing city like Nashville.

The "Depot Bill," a proposed franchise agreement between the City of Nashville and the two railroads for the construction of a Union Station, became a hot political issue in Nashville during the 1890s. There was considerable agitation for such a facility to be located at Broad and Walnut Streets (the present site) where the NC&StL was building a large shed and doing extensive remodeling to its depot in advance of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1897. Both railroads made substantial gifts, totaling $167,000, to the Centennial. John W. Thomas, President of the Centennial and his NC&StL associate, Major E. C. Lewis, became its Director General.

By this time, however, the L&N had acquired the majority of the outstanding shares of the NC&StL, the Nashville-based company. For that and other reasons, the L&N decreased in popularity in Nashville. Numerous Nashville merchants and citizens began to feel that there was no longer proper competition between the two railroads. Led by Nashville lawyer Jere Baxter, they began a movement to build a new railroad to connect with the Illinois Central to the west and with the Southern Railroad to the east. Thus, the Tennessee Central Railroad was chartered in 1894, but foundered financially before making any headway. The new corporation was purchased in 1897 by a St. Louis syndicate, which obtained a new charter and installed Jere Baxter as president of the new company, the Tennessee Central Railway.

As the "Depot Bill" was being heatedly debated, the majority of the Nashville City Council wanted the new Union Station to--,be open for use by the Tennessee Central and any other railroad desiring to enter Nashville. Not unexpectedly, the L&N and the NC&StL resisted this movement vigorously and they prevailed. The "Depot Bill" finally passed on June 10, 1898, made no provision for the use of the facilities, by a third railroad. Under its provisions, the two railroad companies we-re authorized to form the Louisville & Nashville Terminal Company, which actually had been formed two years before, for the purpose of acquiring the necessary property and erecting the necessary facilities for the new Union Station. Through the leadership of August Belmont, the New York banker and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the L&N, the Nashville Terminal Company built the station and leased it to the railroads. Earlier in the year, Belmont had been a major force in the financing of the New York subway system.

Preparation of the site involved the destruction of some 200 buildings of various sorts in the immediate vicinity, and the removal of 220,000 cubic yards of earth and rock. Completion of the building involved the labor of 200 men employed constantly for a period of two years.

Despite the planning controversies of the station, it became at once a source of unbounded civic pride. An editorial in the Nashville American, in its special edition of October 9, 1900, the day of the opening of Union Station, proclaimed that: ďAn epoch will this day be made for Nashville. The great stone edifice at Broad and Walnut streets is the matchless monument to record the fact, and this is the day of its formal unveiling. The epoch is one of larger progress and more persistent enterprise. The monument is typical of all that is comprehended in these two worlds. Erected on the threshold of a new century, it holds aloft a light by which the people of Nashville and this section of country may look upon all the future has in store for them. The beacon points along a great broad path of promise, generous with the rewards of intelligence and sustained effort. Its beams sweep the enlarged boundaries of Nashville that are to be and bring into strong relief the vast multitudes of its greater population."

"Nashville is proud today, and to the many visitors within her gates points out with conscious pride the reason why. To these she speaks: 'Henceforward my people will approach nearer and nearer to the standard set for them, and the oncoming years shall find me established in my own - the first city in the Southland.'"

Union Station, crowned until 1952 with the bronze statue of Mercury that had been transplanted there from the Commerce Building of the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, dominated for decades both the skyline and the commercial activity of downtown Nashville.