The Chattanooga Choo Choo: A Beacon of History
The railway had played a central role in Chattanooga’s history by the turn of the 20th Century. Union Depot and other stations had opened in the late 1850s and by the late 1800s, the city’s rail traffic increased significantly. In 1904, a vision for a new, centralized train terminal emerged. Donn Barber, a New York architect, submitted drawings for the building. Southern Railway accepted his proposal which was inspired by New York’s National Park Bank.
The building’s Beaux Arts architecture, made popular in Paris in the late 1800s, was a spectacle against the backdrop of Lookout Mountain and the ever-industrializing city. European Beaux Arts typically boasted large exterior columns, arched windows and doors, and a smooth stone exterior in Europe. Barber’s adaptation substituted in red brick. The 90-foot-wide arched window over the front entrance was the largest of its kind in the world. Inside was an 8,000-square-foot lobby, crowned with a cast-iron mezzanine. The showpiece was an 82-foot central dome adorned with hanging brass chandeliers.
Terminal Station became the first train station in the South to connect with Cincinnati, opening up travel to the North and drawing the likes of Elvis Presley, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. During World War I, Sergeant Alvin York, and thousands of other soldiers, traveled through Chattanooga’s Terminal Station heading to and from the conflict in France.
By the end of the 1940s, Terminal Station was seeing 60 arrivals per day. However, the invention of the automobile led to a decline in rail service nationwide. By 1960, only two trains were stopping in Chattanooga. Since then, efforts to modernize–then to preserve and restore–Terminal Station keep visitors connected to its iconic history.
- 1960s: A dropped ceiling was added to the Terminal Station lobby, concealing the dome, in an attempt to improve energy efficiency.
- 1970: The final passenger train left Terminal Station on August 11.
- 1972: Southern Railway voted to tear down Terminal Station, but a group of businessmen inspired by the Glenn Miller song “Chattanooga Choo Choo” bought the station instead and invested $4 million in renovations. They turned Pullman cars into hotel suites, removed many of the tracks, and restored the dome.
- 1973: Terminal Station reopened as The Chattanooga Choo Choo Hilton.
- 2018: Now owned by Choo Choo Partners, the central dome was donated to local nonprofit preservation organization Cornerstones for continued restoration.
Today, the Chattanooga Choo Choo is bustling with activity. The complex remains a popular destination for visitors, and is home to the Chattanooga Jewelry Complex, The Comedy Catch, Escape Experience, Glenn Miller Gardens, Station Street Entertainment District, Sweetly Southern, American Draft, Backstage Bar, Frothy Monkey, Nic & Norman’s, STIR, and the Gate 11 Distillery. To learn more, go to https://choochoo.com.
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