Depots - East Tennessee

Depots.  According to Webster there are several meanings of the word, but for the people of Appalachia, it was the information station.  Instantly recognizable in structure, this tiny building was the means of connection with the outside world. 

It is difficult in modern times to envision the critical role played by the centrally located railroad depot in a town.  One must erase the vision of multistory brick, steel and glass towers, smoothly paved highways, traffic signals, and clearly marked passageways.  When the railroad depots were built, the surrounding area was sparsely populated with long distances between homesteads and towns, and the crudest of conveniences.  Once this picture is ingrained into the imagination, the full impact of the critical importance of the tiny building known as the depot, or the train station, may be realized.

In the mid-nineteenth century, when railroad tracks were being laid throughout East Tennessee, steam-powered locomotives were fired by wood.  This required frequent stops on the line to refurbish wood and water, hence the number of depots.

In an age when travel was somewhat rudimentary and limited at best, and problematic at worst, train travel ushered in a new era for people in isolated areas and small towns.  Trips that took many days, or several weeks by stage, were reduced to hours or a few days by train.

The depot was an exciting place to be as there was a constant hustle and bustle of travelers, businessmen, merchants and farmers, either shipping local products or receiving goods, as well as daily news and communication via mail or telegraph.  The trains brought men, mail and merchandise.  The convenience of Fedex, UPS, and Amazon did not exist.  Customers were completely dependent upon the basic stock of local merchants.  Specialty parts, tools, or commodities were ordered from Sears and Roebuck or Montgomery Ward catalogs.  Growth of business and commerce was dependent upon the depot.  

In addition to the commercial benefit, the depot was also a place where the community gathered to welcome family and friends, or send them away. The arrival of the train at the depot was a much-anticipated event. People would come from all over to gather and socialize for a spell.  The most exciting topic of the day was who was coming and who was going.  The train depot was the nineteenth century version of Facebook and Instagram.

During wartime, many people said goodbye to their loved ones for the last time at the depot, or welcomed them home after long separations.  Parents sent their children off to college or to a new life in another town. Railroads soon became the lifeline of small-town America, creating thriving economies by providing employment, transportation, and shipping of essential goods.  The depot was the central hub of the town.

In a 1973 Johnson City Press-Chronicle article, housed in the Appalachian Vertical Files Railroads - Tennessee, East in the Archives of Appalachia, Dorothy Hamill interviewed Mrs. Lloyd Jones, a ticket agent at Johnson City's Southern Railway Station for 30 years.   Mrs. Jones exuberently shared numerous stories of her years at the depot saying, "The atmosphere was never dull."  She expressed that people would bring their lunch to the depot just to observe the activity of trains and people coming and going.  People also brought food to take on the train, and often showed her "half of a ham, fried chicken, cakes and pies."  Others would pass through the depot while walking from one side of town to the other.  There were excursions for school children, and special excursions for "places of interest."  On June 18, 1932, during the Depression, the railroad advertised a special rate of one cent per mile for that day only.  Mrs. Jones said there was a "constant stream of people from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m."  

The depot was more than just a place of business.  Mrs. Jones shared many stories of personally helping people in various ways, sometimes buying tickets for people who were sick, or who didn't have the money to get home.  She was also privileged to witness the visits of many famous people coming through the depot including Herbert Hoover, Eleanor Roosevelt and Elvis Presley!

In the beginning, many train depot structures in East Tennessee were purely functional, especially in small towns.  Built in the Gothic Style influence, many depots reflected vernacular construction and were rectangular, with a low roof featuring raking eaves, brackets, and one story.  Four walls, and enough space to conduct basic operations, was all that was required.  As the railroad industry grew, stations became larger for two reasons: to handle the ever increasing traffic flow and merchandise, but also to impress.  The realization that the depot was often the first impression for visitors fueled the desire to build more elaborate depots with many architectural styles: Greek Revival, Italianate, Romanesque and Beaux-Arts Classicism.  Some depots were a mixture of styles.

While many depots have disappeared, or transformed into other modes of commerce, East Tennessee is fortunate to have a few readily recognizable depot structures still in existence, running the gamut from the purely functional, to the more elaborate in architectural style.

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curated by Sandy Laws