Southern Railway Passenger Station (7)
318 West Depot Avenue
Built for the Southern Railway on the site of East Tennessee’s first train station (ca. 1855), this 1901 building is the second station to stand on this site. The terminal illustrates the prominence of Knoxville as a wholesaling center. At the time the terminal and freight depot were built, Knoxville was the third or fourth largest wholesaling market south of the Ohio River, a prominence brought about by the completion of rail lines that linked Knoxville with the towns and crossroads markets in its region. Also, as a 1903 newspaper article pointed out, “We have here the great shops of the Southern, which furnish employment and good wages to a large number of mechanics and workingmen, whose presence and employment have gone a long way toward swelling our population.”
Originally, the lower level of the passenger station contained the mail, express, telegraph, and dining rooms. The upper level contained two waiting rooms (one each for whites and blacks) that opened to the ticket office. These waiting rooms each contained a smoking room, a ladies’ parlor, and restrooms. A weathervane-topped central clock tower, which was a prominent feature of the passenger station, was removed in 1945.
Trains coming from and to this station collided in the horrific New Market wreck of 1904, about 20 miles east of here, killing about 70. It was the worst transportation disaster in East Tennessee history and the inspiration for at least two contemporary folk songs. Many of the corpses were brought to this station.
The downtown location, with its viaduct, made it ideal for the whistlestop era of politics. Trains carrying Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson stopped here. The northbound funeral train of William Jennings Bryan stopped here in 1925.
In later years, as the automobile and airplane travel became the norm, passenger rail travel dwindled. The last passenger train to serve Knoxville was a late-night special from Birmingham to Washington, which stopped here in August 1970. Long vacant, it was eventually renovated in 1989 to serve as headquarters of a prominent architectural firm.