Located at 306 West Depot Avenue is the Southern Railway [Passenger] Station which was placed on the National Register of Historic Railroad Landmarks in 2003. The 3.5 acre site includes the Blue Slip Winery, the Southern Station and the Southern Depot, both serving as event spaces, and also features the Old Smoky Railway Museum next to the main line of the Norfolk Southern Railway.
Completed in 1903, the Southern Station was designed by Frank Pierce Milburn, the company architect for the Southern Railway. When it opened the only large railroad serving Knoxville was the Southern Railway. Only passenger trains used these facilities. Milburn designed several large train stations throughout the southeast including the Atlantic Coast Lines Columbia, SC station.
In its heyday, the Southern Station was open 24 hours a day and greeted millions of passengers, some of the notables being U.S, Presidents Roosevelt, Wilson and Taft, Buffalo Bill, actress Tallulah Bankhead, and Al Johnson.
All freight either coming into or going out of Knoxville passed through either the Southern’s freight building now known as the Jackson Terminal at the corner of Jackson Avenue and Gay Street. Goods shipped also went out through large businesses like the C. M. McClung Warehouse.
However, the Southern Station encountered operational problems right away. The projected population of Knoxville, calculated way before the new station was completed, was woefully inaccurate and seriously underestimated the number of passengers subsequently using the facilities. The capacity of the waiting rooms – both black and white passenger waiting rooms were of equal size due to the recent Supreme decision but this didn’t reflect that blacks only accounted for 10% of the local population at that time.
To handle the massive crowds, Milburn designed the Southern Depot which opened in 1907 and held the dining room, lunch counter and the Southern Express, the equivalent of today’s US Parcel Post Service, Federal Express and United Postal Service, where nearly everyone in town shipped or received parcels for this branch of the railroad.
The darkest day in the station’s history was undoubtedly when the victims of the New Market Train Wreck of 1904 were brought here. A train collision 23 miles east of Knoxville involved a train headed to the station and another train which had just left the station. While reports of the time are conflicting, the tragedy killed an estimated 64 – 112 passengers and seriously injured many others.
The last passenger train was the remnant of the Birmingham Special on August 3, 1970. While remaining as a few offices and then vacant, the Southern sold the property to private interests in 1983.
Old Smoky Railway Museum
The Old Smoky Railway Museum is a volunteer-managed exhibition featuring historic passenger cars, Pullman coaches, a U.S. Mail car, and a caboose. Tours are by appointment and/or a self-directed guide can be obtained from the staff inside the winery.
Other Local and Regional Railroad Experiences:
The Three Rivers Rambler is an excursion coal-fired steam train that travels along the northern shore of the Tennessee River.
It’s named for the fact that on this short trip, about six miles each way, you can see three rivers: the Tennessee, of course, which flows through Knoxville, and the two rivers that flow together to form it, the Holston and the French Broad. The Holston originates in southwestern Virginia and flows through Kingsport and Jefferson City before arriving here. The French Broad originates in North Carolina, and flows through Asheville and Newport before reaching Knox County.
The place where they flow together is called Forks of the River. The Three Rivers Rambler travels there, and on a high trestle near the end of the trip the train offers a perfect view of the confluence of the Holston and the French Broad, where they become the Tennessee River.
The Three Rivers Rambler embarks from the depot at University Commons at 2560 University Commons Way. Learn more at threeriversrambler.com
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