Passenger Train Station in AL closed since 1979

Southern Railway Depot, Decatur Alabama
Date added: February 03, 2024 Categories: Alabama Train Station Passenger Station Milburn, Frank Pierce
Front, looking from southwest (1979)

The Southern Depot in Decatur is a successor to the first depot at the terminus of the first railroad in Alabama, the present station was constructed in the early years of the 20th century by Southern Railway shortly after that company had emerged as one of the two principal railroad systems in Alabama. The building was constructed as part of a series of new depots to replace the inadequate facilities. There is some indication that the station was designed by the noted Southern architect Frank Milburn and this may well be the only such structure designed by him in Alabama.

In 1834 the Tuscumbia, Courtland and Decatur Road reached this point, bypassing the Muscle Shoals of the Tennessee River and providing the valley-area cotton planters with an obstacle-free route of transportation to cotton markets at New Orleans. Decatur thus became a primary rail point in the mid-South. Later the line was extended by the Memphis and Charleston Railroad over the nearby Tennessee River via an iron and wooden bridge in the early 1850s, with the crossing being a significant military target during the Civil War. The development of the Nashville and Decatur Railroad (later part of the Louisville and Nashville) in the 1870s made the town a four-direction hub of rail transportation. The depot replaced the structure from which President McKinley spoke in 1901. The depot served as the focal point of Decatur business and commerce from its construction until the 1950s. Six hotels surrounded the depot because the station was the primary point of departure for commercial and pleasure travel until the rise of automobile travel and the construction of motels on the major highway in the city. It functioned as a railroad depot until October of 1979, when Amtrack canceled its Floridian passenger train, the final passenger route in North Alabama.

Building Description

The Decatur Southern Railway Depot is a one-story, brick structure composed of a central rectangular main block with flanking subordinate wings. The middle or main portion of the building is seven bays in length, as in the north wing, while the south wing is four bays long. A shallow-hipped roof with widely overhanging eaves crowns the main block, the wings each capped by a broad gable. The roofing material is terra cotta tile. A low-hipped dormer with a horizontal three-part window breaks the east slope of the main roof above a projecting porte-cochere.

Exterior embellishment is confined to the decorative variation of brick wall surfaces through simulated brick quoining and a broad water table extending upward to the level of the stone windowsills. The water table is corbeled two courses out from the principal plane of the exterior walls. Otherwise, adornment is achieved only through the use of heavy wooden brackets at the eaves level, interspersed with horizontal clerestory windows set into a wide frieze band articulated by a corbeled belt course. The main window openings, surmounted by splayed brick lintels, appear originally to have contained two over two sashing, although the lower half of the windows is now filled with 16-light sash.

The porte-cochere, or vehicular entrance, with its segmentally arched openings and low brick parapet concealing a flat roof, repeats, in the treatment of the piers, the quoining of the main structure. From the porte-cochere, glazed wooden doors open into a narrow foyer leading, on the left, to a large waiting room formerly designated for white patrons only, and on the left to a smaller room designated for "colored" patrons. Between the two waiting rooms and back of the foyer lies the ticket sales area. Heavy ornamental iron grilles covered ticket windows opening onto the foyer and the primary waiting room, while the secondary room is served by a smaller window screened with a plain grille. Both rooms contain wooden oak benches and are adorned only by a continuous wainscot made up of a narrow, beaded vertical boarding trimmed by a chair rail, and by a wide band of molding at the ceiling level, above the clerestory windows. Floors are scored concrete.

The south wing contains two restrooms with marble flooring. Beneath this wing is an excavated basement, entered using outside steps at the south end of the building. The basement was probably used originally as a furnace room. The larger north wing housed the freight office and storage for the depot. The west side of the depot presents a continuous unbroken facade, protected by a cantilevered shed, to the railroad tracks. Parallel to this shed and extending over the tracks were formerly two rows of passenger sheds. These were demolished many years ago.

Southern Railway Depot, Decatur Alabama Front, looking from southwest (1979)
Front, looking from southwest (1979)

Southern Railway Depot, Decatur Alabama Main entrance (1979)
Main entrance (1979)