The Inside Track on the History of Trains in Chattanooga
(Above) Passengers waiting for a train at Terminal Station, 1959
Photos Courtesy of Chattanooga Public Library
I was walking past the Choo Choo the other day, and it really got me wondering. Ever since Glenn Miller immortalized the Scenic City in his iconic song, it’s hard to think Chattanooga without thinking Choo Choo. Though there are no longer any trains pulling out of track 29, our city still seems to have a real connection to trains. What is the history of the railroads in our area that led up to that famous tune?
Union Station, 1924
Chattanooga has a history that is so intertwined with trains that the city likely wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for the railroads. As you pointed out, Glenn Miller’s hit song really put our Tennessee town in the spotlight. Not only did it gain us acclaim, but it also boosted our tourism industry as curious music-lovers flocked to the city to see what Miller’s orchestra was singing about. Did you know that “Chattanooga Choo Choo” was the world’s first song to reach gold-record status, selling 1.2 million copies its first year in 1941 and remaining at number one for nine weeks? There are now some 173 different versions of this legendary song!
But more than just that swingin’ “Choo Choo,” Chattanooga grew on a financial, industrial, and urban scale in large part thanks to the railroad industry.
Façade of the Chattanooga Choo Choo, 1975
The city’s first rail line was the Western and Atlantic Railroad, which came to Chattanooga in late 1849, and several other lines soon followed. Fun fact: The first railroad tracks from Atlanta to Chattanooga were interrupted by a mountain blocking their path. When traveling this route, the train cars had to be hauled across the mountain, while the passengers were forced to disembark and carry their luggage around the ridge and to a connecting train to continue their journey. This difficult situation was eliminated with the building of a tunnel in May of 1850.
Chattanooga played an important role during the Civil War due to its strategic location along multiple rail lines. Many wounded soldiers were brought into town via rail, and the old train depot became a makeshift army hospital. Confederate soldiers also used the station as barracks and for storing food and supplies.
Illustrated postcard of the new Terminal Station, 1909
During this same time, Chattanooga was rapidly developing as industries realized the advantages of the railroads and thrived because of them. In 1870, 58 different industries were present in the city, but 40 years later, there were more than 300. And it wasn’t just freight trains rolling in and out of Chattanooga. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, passenger trains were a popular mode of travel, with many trains providing a luxury experience, including posh dining and sleeper cars.
Three railroad terminals have existed throughout Chattanooga’s history: Union Station (or Depot), Central Station, and, of course, the best-known and most popular – Terminal Station.
Built from 1906 through 1909, Terminal Station became a bustling passenger train station that welcomed up to 50 trains a day and such notable figures as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson.
Train stationed at the Chattanooga Choo Choo, 1973
The last trains passed through the station in 1970, and following its closure, some people wanted to see the building torn down. Luckily, it was saved instead and converted to its current incarnation as an “entertainment complex,” aptly named the Chattanooga Choo Choo, complete with restaurants, bars, shops, and more. It’s also been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974.
For over 60 years, Terminal Station brought millions of trains and passengers to the city and today plays host to tourists and locals seeking recreation. It served as the inspiration for the world-renowned hit “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” which still lives on today in both the building’s name and its history.
I hope this puts you on track with your train research!
Resident History Hound