The railroad was Huntsville’s first great industry. Although it was not until 1860 that the Memphis and Charleston Railroad Company (M&C RR) chose the city as its Eastern Division Headquarters, the idea of a railroad for north Alabama had been around since the late 1820s. Businessmen as far east as Charleston, South Carolina, had been looking for ways to open up trade with the west, in general, Memphis, Tennessee, and the Mississippi River in particular. In the late 1820s, Major David Hubbard, a lawyer and land owner in the Huntsville, Alabama area, traveled to Pennsylvania to see what a new invention, the locomotive, could do for the businessmen of this area. On his return, he met with Mr. Ben Sherrod of Courtland, another wealthy north Alabama landowner, to discuss ways in which the “iron river” could be brought to north Alabama.
By 1829, Major Hubbard, Mr. Sherrod, and the people of Tuscumbia were convinced that the easiest way to transport cotton from their town to the Tennessee River was by rail. On January 15, 1830, a charter was obtained – no railroad could be constructed without a state charter, and the Tuscumbia Railroad was born. It was the first chartered railroad west of the Alleghenies. The distance of rail needed to connect Tuscumbia and the Tennessee River was just over two miles. Because one of the principle landowners of the area refused to sell his right-of-way, nothing further could be done until 1831. At that time, the plantation in question was purchased by the company.
On June 5, 1831 a groundbreaking ceremony was held for the Tuscumbia Railroad. It was not, however, until May of 1832 that construction actually began. It was completed on June 12, 1832.
Even before the Tuscumbia Railroad reached completion, a charter granted by the Alabama Legislature on January 13, 1832 provided for its extension and its incorporation as the Tuscumbia, Courtland, and Decatur Railroad (TC&D RR). It was decided that this extension was needed because of a rocky, nearly impassable stretch of the Tennessee River which lay between Tuscumbia and Decatur, known as Muscle Shoals. This area of the river required that boats loaded in Tuscumbia be unloaded above the Shoals, put aboard wagons, and transported around this area of the river before being reloaded onto boats and moved on down the river to their destination. An extension of the railroad would save not only time, but money as well. As a result, the original two miles of track now became just over forty-two. On July 4, 1834, the TC&D RR was officially opened between Tuscumbia and Courtland. Five months later, in December, the section between Courtland and Decatur was opened.
Even though the TC&D RR allowed cotton to be transported past the Shoals, there still remained the long trip down the Tennessee, the Ohio, and the Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. North Alabama planters were still concerned because of the time it took to get their crops to market and because those crops could go only to New Orleans. They wanted the option of choosing whether to send their cot ton to a Gulf coast or an eastern seaport. And, so, for the next thirteen years, plans were discussed regarding the ways in which the TC&D could be connected to a nationwide rail system.
Beginnings of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad
The State of Tennessee was the first to back the idea of a railroad that would run eastward through Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. Tennessee Governor James C. Jones insisted that development of this new railroad was a patriotic duty. With his backing, on February 2, 1846, the State of Tennessee provided a charter for the Memphis and Charleston Railroad Company. On October 27, 1846, representatives of the newly organized M&C RR advertised that a convention would be held nine days later on November 5. Delegates from the surrounding states and territories were invited to come to discuss development possibilities.
In 1847, a few months after the death of Ben Sherrod, the TC&D was sold at public auction. It was purchased by David Deshler, who reorganized it as the Tennessee Valley Railroad Company.
Area politicians and businessmen lobbied hard to have the railroad come through the city of Huntsville. On November 7, 1849, Mr. A. E. Mills of Huntsville was appointed agent for north Alabama. Tennessee Governor Jones and M&C RR Agent Mills immediately began the task of raising money through the sale of railroad stock. When the sales were totaled on December 2, 1849, Alabamians were the major stockholders.
On January 7, 1850, the State of Alabama provided a charter to the M&C RR for the right-of-way along the Tennessee Valley Railroad. For $75,000, paid in stock, the M&C RR received not only the tracks and land of the Tennessee Valley Railroad, but also the warehouses, depots, shops, and tools. On April 30, 1850 Governor Jones was elected president of the M&CRR at the Huntsville stockholder’s meeting. It was then decided that the railroad would definitely go through Huntsville, and that Huntsville would serve as the new railroad’s Eastern Division Headquarters.
On April 23, 1851, the route was laid out. It was to begin in Memphis and run eastward on the track of the LaGrange and Memphis road to LaGrange; from there it would travel through Jacinto in Tishimingo County, Mississippi to Tuscumbia, Alabama.
From Tuscumbia, it would run on the tracks of the Tennessee Valley Railroad, to Decatur, from Decatur to Huntsville, and from Huntsville to Crow Creek, Jackson County, Alabama where it would intersect with the Nashville-Chattanooga Road. All totaled, this would include 271 miles of track.
Construction began in Madison County on May 21, 1851. The track was completed in sections, so that by 1855, one could travel from Memphis to Pocahontas, Mississippi, then take a stage line into Tuscumbia, transfer back to the train for the trip from Tuscumbia to Huntsville, and continue to Stevenson, again by stage. to connect with the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad.
By the summer of 1851 Madison County’s governing body, then known as the Commissioners Court, had agreed to an initial investment of $100,000 in the Memphis & Charleston Railroad and was authorized to invest another $50,000. On June 6 of that same year, the county fathers decided to make the investment subject to the vote of the people. In August, by a vote of 1,195 to 726, the people of Madison County approved the investment. In 1852, the M&C RR began to buy land in Huntsville.
By 1855 all the lines which composed the Memphis and Charleston Railroad had been completed. On October 13 of that year the General Garth made its entrance into the city of Huntsville. Even though it had come only from Decatur (about twenty miles away), the huge crowd was nonetheless excited. One of the men present that historic day exclaimed excitedly that it was “the greatest day in the history of Huntsville since John Hunt!” Their dream of a north Alabama railroad had finally come true.
Having the first train chug into town was a monumental step, but the process was far from finished. In April of 1856, The M&C RR constructed a brick freight station here. During 1857, an engine house and a machine shop were completed. The passenger shed and ticket office were completed in July 1858, and a car shop was finished two years later. This was also the year that regular service with Tuscumbia began.
In 1856, the railroad concentrated on buying land adjacent to the depot and its tracks until they owned 150 acres. This land was divided into blocks and houses were built for the company’s employees.
THE HUNTSVILLE DEPOT
Courtesy of Huntsville/Madison County Public Library
In the spring of 1859, the line to Stevenson was completed. This is where the tracks owned by the M&C RR would end. The directors had decided the previous year not to extend beyond this point, since connections with other railroads provided service to the Atlantic coast. A 30-year lease had been signed for the tracks of the Chattanooga Railroad between Stevenson and Chattanooga.
To celebrate the completion of the eastern section of the road, the M&C RR provided a complimentary ride to Stevenson, and a return ride for the stockholders. The 300 passengers made the trip in four hours. In order to prevent an accident, a separate locomotive was run several hundred yards ahead in advance of the train, to signal any obstacles discovered on the tracks.
A State-of-the-Art Depot
Completed on July 1, 1860, the passenger shed was replaced with a new 70′ x 58′ passenger station. The civil engineer for the project was Gabriel Jordan, Jr. of Virginia. (He married the second daughter of John and Mary Lewis and stayed in Huntsville a few years before moving to Mobile.) The depot was built of brick on a stone foundation and contained every comfort, convenience, and necessity imaginable. On the first floor was the ticket office, Engineers’ and Conductors’ room, waiting and retiring rooms for both ladies and gentlemen, and a baggage room. On the second floor were the offices of the Superintendent, the Secretary, Treasurer, and other officers of the railroad. The third floor was reserved as a bunkroom for the employees of the railroad, and provided sleeping quarters for railroad officials.
By late 1860s, the M & C RR ‘s Eastern Division Headquarters in Huntsville included a freight station, a 13-bay roundhouse with turntable, an engine house, a car shop, and a machine shop – all made of brick. Directly across the street from the depot the company also owned and operated a hotel known as either the “Venable” or “Venerable.” In addition, the company encouraged businesses to relocate to the area around the depot with tempting real estate offers.
The Nation at War
In April 1861, Huntsville native Leroy Pope Walker, grandson of the “Father of Huntsville” LeRoy Pope, ordered the first shot fired at Ft. Sumter. As the Confederate Secretary of War, his order was carried out and a surprised nation braced for war. Residents of Huntsville prepared and the men left town to fight the enemy. In May, M&C RR Superintendent William Babb resigned and William Jordan, a northern clerk, left town in a hurry. The lines had been drawn.
On June 26, word came to town that Victor Venable, son of Venable Hotel clerk James Venable, had died of “bilious typhoid fever” while in training with the Madison Rifles. Soon, other bodies would be arriving by train.
On the cold foggy morning of April 11, 1862, Federal troops, under the command of General O. M. Mitchel, marched into Huntsville. Their prime objective had been to capture the Eastern Head quarters of the M&C RR and the telegraph office located in the depot building which would break the vital east-west artery of the Confederacy. On that day, Mitchel wired Captain J. B. Frye:
“We have captured about 200 prisoners, 5 locomotives, a large number of passenger, box, and platform cars, the telegraphic apparatus and offices, and two Southern mails. We have at length succeeded in cutting the great artery of railway intercommunication between the Southern States.”
Other documents, however, indicate that General Mitchel underestimated the extent of what was captured. According to these documents, a complete accounting included; the road with its office, books, shop, tools, rolling stock, cross-ties, a large stockpile of wood, 18 engines, 100 freight cars, six passenger cars, two baggage cars, and a number of smaller cars. Also captured was an additional train carrying 159 Confederate soldiers who were just returning from the Battle of Shiloh.
The Yankee General
General Ormsby M. Mitchel had been born in Kentucky. While still a young child, his parents had moved across the river to Ohio where he grew up. With the help of family friends, Mitchel received an appointment to West Point, where he graduated last in his class in 1829, the same year as Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
After graduation, he remained at West Point where he taught mathematics, the subject in which he had majored. Once he completed his military obligation, Mitchel left the Army and returned to school where he received a law degree. He then practiced law in order to make enough money to support his first love – astronomy.
Mitchel helped establish the U.S. Naval Observatory and the Harvard Observatory. He also helped raise the money to build the Cincinnati Observatory, where he was the director when the war broke out. Like many of his fellow classmates at West Point, he re-enlisted. Mitchel was promoted to Brigadier General and placed in charge of the Fourth Ohio Army. “Old Stars,” as his men called him, was given orders to move south and capture the Eastern Headquarters of the M&C RR at Huntsville.
General Mitchel reached Fayetteville, Tennessee, where he encamped on Wednesday night, April 9. Here he waited until almost noon on Thursday, April 1 0, for news of the Battle of Shiloh, which had begun on the 6th of April. If the Confederates were to win this battle, General Mitchel believed, they would send reinforcements to Huntsville, and therefore make the capture of the depot more difficult. If the Federal troops were to win, taking the depot would be a much easier matter.
The next day General Mitchel received news that, although technically the battle had been a draw, General Grant had claimed victory.
In the meantime, it appears that a conspiracy was brewing in Huntsville. A man known to some as J. Howard Larcombe, and to others as Charles E. Larcombe, along with his wife, worked as substitute telegraphers. Martin Pride, the regular depot operator, had, on April 7, gone to Fayetteville, Tennessee on “personal business.” He was replaced by John M. Webb, an assistant telegraph operator from Memphis. On the morning of April 10, assistant railroad superintendent J. M. Hopper unexpectedly sent Webb to Corinth. Larcombe, a clerk in the machine-shop and an experienced telegrapher, was assigned to take Webb’s position inside the depot.
Larcombe’s wife was the operator at the telegraph office near the courthouse. Before leaving for Memphis, Webb heard that northern troops had been seen near Meridianville, a small town just north of Huntsville. He had given Mrs. Larcombe a telegram to this effect, and told her to send it to General P.G.T. Beauregard at Corinth. Mrs. Larcombe neglected (or refused) to comply with Webb’s request. The Larcombes, as it was learned later, were both “northern born Lincolnites.”
The plan was coming together. Union General Mitchel ordered his men to sleep at about 6 p.m. on the evening of April 10. At 2:00 a.m. on the morning of April 11, his troops were awakened and marched quietly towards Huntsville. As dawn was breaking over Monte Sano, General Mitchel and 5,000 men – 4,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry – entered Huntsville, a Huntsville defended by approximately 350 infantry and 150 Confederate cavalry. As a result of these overwhelming odds, and because the attack had been a complete surprise, there was no resistance from Huntsville.
But shots were fired. A black man who worked as a fireman on one of the engines was the only casualty recorded. Two trains in the railyard tried to escape. One train succeeded, making it all the way to Chattanooga. The other, filled with soldiers just returning from the Battle of Shiloh, was stopped when the tracks in front of it were blown up by a Union cannon ball.
After the depot and the City of Huntsville had been secured, General Mitchel had to decide what to do with the 159 Confederates on the captured troop train, who were now prisoners-of-war.
Ironically, the only building in Huntsville large enough and secure enough for this job was the depot itself. Those prisoners who were wounded too severely to be moved were left in the box cars in the yard. The rest were taken to the third floor, where they were held for ten days before being transferred to Camp Chase, a prisoner-of war camp in Ohio.
By the time Mitchel and his army had arrived, the Larcombes had a significant number of telegrams they had received, or been requested to send, concerning Confederate troop movements. It has been hinted that the M&C RR actually carefully arranged for the Larcombes to be in the positions they were in so that they might aid in Mitchel’s capture of the depot. The board of directors of the M&C RR saw the War as a losing proposition and hoped that by cooperating with the Union, they could save the depot from complete destruction. If that indeed had been their thinking, it appears to have been correct, since the Huntsville Depot, unlike many of its contemporaries, did survive intact. However, the War would do much more damage to M&C RR in the long run.
As a result of his taking of the Huntsville Depot, General Mitchel received his second star. He was, only months later, accused of dealing in captured Southern cotton and allowing his troops to steal and plunder at will, especially during the Battle of Athens, a city some twenty miles west of Huntsville. Locally, that incident would forever be known as the Sack of Athens.
Mitchel traveled to Washington, D.C., where his resignation was refused. He was, however, re-assigned to the Department of the South at Hilton Head, South Carolina, where he died of yellow fever on October 30, 1862.
The Union Army remained in Huntsville until late 1862, returned in July 1863, left again that same month, returned a third time in August, again in September, and finally returned in November to completely occupy the city, where they remained through the winter of 1864.
Following the Civil War, the United States government returned the line, which was in almost total ruin, to the Memphis & Charleston Railroad Company. The company never fully recovered, and after being operated by several other lines, it finally went bankrupt. On February 26, 1898, it was purchased by Southern Railway System.
As far as is known, except for minor changes, the Huntsville Depot remained as originally constructed until 1912, when Southern Railway remodeled the interior first floor to better accommodate the traveling public. The addition of steam heat, electric lights, new “retiring” rooms, and elegant furniture made this one of the finest stations in the Southern Railway System. The second and third floors were modified slightly. It was probably during this renovation that the window shutters, two chimneys and slate roof were removed and the exterior painted. The baggage express building, concrete platform, and long train shed were constructed the following year.
The depot thus continued to service the City of Huntsville without major changes until the late 1960s when Southern Railway first cut back and then finally discontinued passenger service through Huntsville.
On September 10, 1971, the depot building became Madison County’s first landmark to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. A month later, on October 28, 1971, after 111 years of use as a railroad facility, final approval was given by the City Council for its purchase. The purchase price of the building and surrounding 1.8 acres was $37,750. The City Council decided in December of 1972 to preserve the structure by restoring it as nearly as practical to its original state.
Recognized for Historic Significance
Through the efforts of the Alabama Historic Commission in Montgomery, the depot was placed on the list of National Historic Landmarks. To deserve this rating the site must have historic relevance, not only to the surrounding locale, but to the entire nation as well.
The depot’s prominence during the Civil War qualified it for inclusion. This is the only ante-bellum passenger depot surviving in Alabama and one of the few remaining in the United States. The discovery of the Civil War graffiti on the third floor, however, is what gives the depot its national importance.
The station was originally unpainted red brick when built in 1860. It was painted gold and green – the Southern Railway colors – in 1912. Although the date is uncertain, the building received its first coat of red paint probably sometime in the 1920s. The building was again painted green and gold during its present restoration in the 1970s. The platform shed was built in 1887, and replaced the original 1860 shed which was lower than the present shed and supported by posts. The posts were removed because they were in the way of passengers boarding the trains. The original platform was constructed of wood. A concrete platform was poured in 1913. At that time, the 435-foot platform was constructed adjacent to the tracks. The separate baggage building was built in 1912/1913 with additions for a rail way express office in the 1920s.
WATERCRESS FOR THE WALDORF-ASTORIA HOTEL
Courtesy of Huntsville/Madison County Public Library
The first floor of the station was always used for passengers and operation of the railroad. The second floor held the corporate offices of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad. The third floor was originally used as bunkrooms for the train crews and railroad workers.
The depot was the first public building in Huntsville with indoor plumbing. The depot then became a great place for people to come to experience this modern convenience for the first time. Rather than restrooms, these rooms were called “retiring rooms.” They were located on the east side of the building – where the entrance is located today. The arch over this east side of the building supports the two vaults on the second floor. The south side of the first floor, where the theatre is located today, was where the operation of the railroad was located – the baggage office, the ticket office, the telegraph office, and business offices.
In 1898, Southern Railway purchased the Memphis and Charleston Railroad Company, and in 1912/1913, completed a renovation of the 1st floor. The 1st floor the guest sees today has been restored to that era. The only exception is the stairway. During the 1912/1913 renovation, that stairway had been removed to limit access to the 2nd and 3rd floors. The stairway now leading to the 2nd floor was reconstructed during the 1970s restoration. This stairway was modeled after the original 1860 stairway that leads from the 2nd to the 3rd floor.
Most of the windowpanes in the building are original wavy glass. There was a law at one time that one could not give testimony about a crime witnessed through this kind of glass because of the distortion.
Courtesy of Huntsville/Madison County Public Library
On the front outside wall, located behind a window shutter, is a patched place where a cannonball narrowly missed going through the window. There are several stories to explain the scar, but one story that seems most plausible is that a foundry located across the street accidentally discharged a loaded cannon at the building. Another possibility is that it happened when a Union caisson crossing the tracks accidentally discharged their cannon, killing several soldiers.
The Huntsville Depot Today
As one enters the depot, the first two doors to the left offer access to the depot theatre. There is where the depot guests have the opportunity to view a 12-minute film on the history of Madison County and the Huntsville Depot. The first door on the right gives the guest entrance to a ticket office that looks pretty much the way it would have looked back in 1912. Here the visitor will meet three robots. Andy Barker, who sells tickets, handles the “funds by rail” and is an expert on the Southern Railway schedule. John Hamilton is the telegrapher. Even though there were telephones available during this period of time, the railroad did not believe the technology was reliable enough to be used in conducting business. Therefore, as in the decades previous, all railroad business was conducted by telegraph. Telegraph operators like John were nicknamed “Sparks” or referred to as “brass pounders.” Their telegraph key was known as a “clacker.” Once a man had been a telegrapher long enough, he could tell whether the message he was receiving was being sent by Jim, Joe, or Jane by the rhythm, or swing, of the key. Yes, there were Janes who worked as telegraphers. These, in fact, were the first jobs that women had on the railroad. The railroad decided early that women were indeed trainable and, as an added bonus, would work for half the salary of their male counterparts.
The third man in the depot office is Horatio Clark. Horatio’s job was to check the brakes and couplings and make certain that the wheels were well oiled. Since the trains reached speeds of 80 to 100 miles an hour, there was lots of friction generated. If the wheels were not properly oiled, this friction could generate sparks which could catch the grass next to the tracks on fire, or had even been known to set fire to the wooden boxcars themselves.
From the depot office, guests step into the old waiting room. This room, however, did not always look the way it looks today. In 1860, the space leading from these north doors was a hallway to the ticket office which was opposite the north doors. The room that is now the ticket office was originally the Ladies’ Waiting Room. The Men’s Waiting Room was over in the northeast corner. Before the turn of the century and women’s suffrage, the general feeling was that women and children should be protected from being exposed to the disgusting behavior of men – smoking cigars, chewing tobacco, talking rough. Chewing tobacco could actually have been reason enough to keep the women and children separated from the men. When a man chewed, he would eventually have to spit. Spittoons were provided for that function. When the time for spitting came, he might or might not aim at the spittoon.
There is a story of an old man who came in to take the train for the first time. He had chewed tobacco all his life. He saw the brass containers sitting on the floor here and there but had no idea what they were for. When the time came to spit, he spat, right onto the floor in front of him. The equally old cleaning man saw what the customer had done and quietly moved a spittoon to where the tobacco juice had splattered onto the floor. The customer spit again. Again, the old cleaning man moved the spittoon to where the spit had hit the floor. This happened several more times before the customer addressed the cleaning man: “If you don’t quit moving that thing,” the customer finally said, “somebody’s likely to spit right into it.” While some men were not aware of spittoon etiquette, others were. Nevertheless, if they aimed and missed, they were not likely to clean up the results. If women, with their long dresses, walked across the floor where a man had spit, she might get the disgusting mess on the hem of her skirt. If children were in the same room with men, they might decide to get down on the floor to play. Once again there would be a mess some mother would have to clean up.
Courtesy of Huntsville/Madison County Public Library
Against the ticket office wall are flat-topped trunks stacked on top of each other. Against the end of the bench is a trunk with a rounded top, often called a camel-backed trunk. Men usually used the trunks with flat tops. The railroad figured that once a man had packed for a trip, he would not need access to his trunk until he reached his destination. These trunks. then, could easily be stacked on top of each other and not moved again until the passenger had reached his destination. Women generally used the camel-back trunks. The railroad recognized that five minutes into a trip, a woman could think of something she might desperately need. If she used a flat-topped trunk there would have to be stacking and unstacking in order to meet her needs. The camel-backed trunks solved this problem, since stacking a truck on top of the camel-backed trunk would be virtually impossible. The other reason women used the camel-backed trunks had to do with the large, elaborate hats women wore during this period of time. The rounded tops of the trunks gave those hats greater protection.
The bench was one which was used in the waiting room. Armrests have been built onto the bench at regular intervals. The railroad did not do this out of any desire to make a passenger’s wait more comfortable. These were installed for a much different reason. The depot was warm in the winter and cool in the summer. If a passenger arrived at the station too early, he might be tempted to stretch out on the bench and take a nap before his train arrived. The railroad thought this unsightly behavior needed to be controlled. The armrests, then, were installed to force the waiting passenger to sit upright.
Installed in the outside sills of the depot windows are large spikes. These were called loafer spikes. This was to prevent people – who came to the depot to watch the trains come and go or to sight-see or gossip – from engaging in that activity while sitting in the comfort of the depot windows.
The Men’s Waiting Room is enclosed on three sides by a model train system that has been some six years in the works. The display on the right gives one an idea of what a train depot would have looked like in the 1860s. The display on the left shows what a more modem depot might look like. The only thing that has any relationship to Huntsville at all is the copper-topped building in the center section of the display. This is the old Monte Sano Hotel, which existed from 1885 to 1946.
A Resort for the Wealthy
Even before north Alabama was settled and the mountain to the east of the city was named Monte Sano (Italian for “Mountain of Health”), the four civilized Indian nations – the Cherokees, Chickasaw, Creek, and Choctaw – knew of the curative properties of the mountain springs found there. In 1827, only eight years after Alabama became a state, a health colony had already been established on the mountain. People traveled from as far away a New York and Chicago to bathe in the mountain’s natural springs and enjoy its cool, fresh air. In 1829, Rowe’s Female College, or the Monte Sano Female Seminary, was constructed. Here young women received classes in language, music, science, and painting, and all for a tuition of $120 per year, including room and board. In 1833 the town of Viduta was formed.
As early as 1878, the local newspaper had suggested that someone build a resort on the top of Monte Sano. In 1884, there was a promotional drive launched to attract investors. In 1886, two brothers from New York, Michael J. and James O’Shaughnessy, provided the capital for the North Alabama Improvement Company. One of their objectives was to build the Monte Sano Hotel. Construction began in February of that year. The site for the 308 x 200 foot foundation was selected by nationally reknowned architect John Rhea. Major Schrimshaw, one of the most notable landscape artists in New York, was hired to lay out the grounds. He built most of the hotel’s ornamental structures out of local cedar trees, and his designs became so popular that the Monte Sano Rustic Furniture Company was begun.
After several delays, the hotel was completed on June 1, 1887. It was constructed roughly in the shape of a cross, had three stories, and 233 rooms, all of which opened to the outside. No two rooms were furnished the same. A porch surrounded all but a small portion of the hotel in the back. The south wing housed guests’ baths, a billiard room, and bowling alleys. There was also a formal dining room, a ballroom, a ladies’ parlor, and a men’s smoking room.
At the time access to the mountain was limited to the Monte Sano Turnpike, which had been constructed in 1859. It began with what today is Tollgate Road and moved up the mountain parallel with what now is Bankhead Parkway. In 1887, hotel guests had to make the four-and-a-half hour coach ride from Huntsville to the front of the Monte Sano Hotel in a large carriage called the Tallyho. Once checked-in at what the World’s Congress of Climatologists called “The Mecca for Sick Babies,” management would advise guests which spring waters would best treat their ailments. This water was then taken to the bathhouse.
The first manager of the hotel, S.E. Bates, considered the kitchen to be the foundation of a good hotel. English-born Jessup Whitehead, who had worked in Chicago and New York, was immediately hired and placed in charge. Professor Abbott’s orchestra was available on weekends for both afternoon matinees and evening meals.
By the end of the first season, the hotel reported that 1,000 guests had already stayed there. The management also declared its first profits.
However, the Tallyho proved to be inefficient. More economical transportation was needed for the upcoming season. During the construction of the hotel, the idea of a railroad had been discussed. In early 1888 Arthur Wilson was hired as Chief Engineer for this project.
THE WAITING ROOM
Courtesy of Huntsville/Madison County Public Library
He came up with a plan, and the North Alabama Improvement Company obtained the right-of-way on June 30, 1888. They created the Huntsville Belt Line and Monte Sano Railroad Company on August 2, and transferred all rights to the North Alabama Improvement Company.
The route chosen for the railway was one which offered the most scenic view. This route began at the Huntsville Depot, ran south along Jefferson Street, turned left on Clinton and wound through Fagan Hollow up the mountain to the backyard of the hotel.
From as early as June of 1888, this railway was referred to by the press as a “dummy line,” a term applied to a railroad which came off the mainline and extended to an end point usually belonging to a private company. The 26-ton Baldwin engine was disguised to look like a trolley in order to keep from frightening horses. The original intent had been for the railroad to encircle Huntsville before continuing up the mountain. The O’Shaughnessy Brothers intended to make this railroad the center of a future industrial park.
The completion of the track was delayed because Huntsville experienced its first labor strike when the workers on the Monte Sano Railway expressed their unhappiness with the wages they were receiving. An agreement was finally reached and the railroad was completed August 7, 1889, well into the hotel’s third season. The 8½-mile-trip from Huntsville to the Monte Sano Hotel took just thirty minutes. Points of interest were announced along the way. A pamphlet praising the railroad also advertised that the North Alabama Improvement Company owned some 200 choice building sites along the route, all of which were for sale.
A ticket to ride on the railroad was 25 cents for adults and 15 cents for children, each way. Trunks were delivered for 50 cents each. The railroad ended approximately one block from the east side of the hotel. Carriages, for an extra fee, transported passengers from this station to the hotel’s front doors.
Unfortunately, an accident occurred the first season that would adversely affect the train ‘s reputation for the rest of its short life. The engineer, as he started down the steep grade on the far side of the mountain, began applying the brakes. The brakes held, but the sand pipes, which provided extra traction, were clogged and the wheels slid along the rails, finally jumping the track. There was no damage done to either passengers or the train. The incident nevertheless frightened potential riders.
During the hotel’s off-season, the railroad company tried to make a profit by hauling supplies up the mountain for the residents of Viduta. In addition, the company planned and promoted picnics and excursions on the mountain. Neither of these endeavors was successful.
The train continued to run in 1890, 1891, and 1892. On June 7, 1893 it was announced that, due to the World’s Fair in Chicago, which was expected to attract a majority of the tourist trade that year, the railway would not operate. The train ran again in 1894, but not in 1895, when the hotel was not opened due to litigation among the stockholders. So few passengers had been riding the railroad, that its owners could not afford to make the necessary repairs. In 1896, the Monte Sano Railroad was sold to creditors under a court order. The ties and steel rails were sold in 1897, and the remainder of the equipment was scrapped.
Problems with the hotel had begun to surface in 1895. The closing of the railroad in 1896 did not help matters much at all. The next season, the hotel hosted a large number of Spanish-American War veterans. Electric lights were installed in 1898. This was also the year that the U.S. Surgeon General declared Monte Sano to be the second healthiest place in the United States. The end for the hotel came two years later in 1900. Because of a bad economy and the discovery of the causes of a variety of diseases, especially yellow fever, the mineral baths provided by the Monte Sano Hotel were no longer in vogue, and so the North Alabama Improvement Company was forced to sell the property.
Courtesy of Huntsville/Madison County Public Library
For almost ten years, the hotel remained unused. During this period of time, there had been serious speculation concerning an electric railway that would go up the mountain. There had been even an auction of lots on the mountain to raise money for this purpose. In April of 1909, it was announced that Ed Pulley was about to reopen the old Monte Sano Hotel, and a railway would be ready by July. Mr. Pulley’s plan was to tum the hotel into a state tuberculosis sanitarium. Unfortunately, he died unexpectedly, and the project died with him.
Abruptly and unexpectedly, the old hotel was purchased by Lena Garth, a wealthy Huntsvillian, as a summer home for her father. The New Yorker had been ill, and so he and his wife moved into the old hotel, hoping the climate would be good for his health. Unfortunately, he died within two years. In the late 1920s, the Monte Sano Hotel was opened once a year for gala balls. It remained in the Garth family until 1944 when the abandoned building was sold for salvage to the Mayer Lumber and Supply Company of Birmingham. Many Huntsville residents can boast that an item of furniture or a piece of architecture in their home had once been in the Monte Sano Hotel.
About fifty feet past the entrance to Monte Sano State Park stands an old chimney. Today, this is all that remains of the old Monte Sano Hotel.
Items of Every Day Life
The steamer trunk located against the south wall of the depot was used by a conductor who worked on for the Southern Railroad. Since those who worked on the trains would be away from home anywhere from ten days to two weeks at a time, these trunks made nice little portable closets. On the left side, the conductor could hang his uniforms, and on the right side were drawers in which he could keep his personal possessions. Before the lighting on trains became as efficient, trains would be required to stop at the nearest depot at dark where the passengers and crew would spend the night to begin their trip again at dawn.
Courtesy of Huntsville/Madison County Public Library
The picture on the wall is that of George Bryant, one of the Huntsvillians responsible for helping to raise the $10,500 it took to build the depot back in 1860. The depot building is made of brick on a stone foundation. The concrete floors were not installed until 1912. The ceiling on the first floor is 14 feet high. The ceiling of the second floor is 13 feet nine inches in height. The walls of the first floor are made of solid brick, and are 18 inches thick. The walls on the second floor are made of solid brick as well, but are only 15 inches thick. The walls on the third floor are 6-inch stud walls framed partitions.
To the right of the picture of Mr. Bryant is a water fountain called a bubbler. This is the kind of water fountain that would have been installed during the 1912 remodeling by Southern Railroad. When the handle is turned, the water bubbles up and falls back on itself. For sanitary reasons, it is only for display today. Near the top of the ceramic back on the left side there is a small spigot. A button at the top would produce running water. This was originally used to fill a cup with water. It was fashionable for men of this era to wear beards and of course many men chewed tobacco as well. When a man spit, some the tobacco juice inevitably dribbled down into his beard. If he leaned over to drink from the fountain part of the bubbler, water would get his beard wet and that would get the dried tobacco juice wet. When he stood up, the tobacco juice would stain his clothes. For that reason, most men who had beards and moustaches would carry with them a small collapsible metal cup. The cup could be extended and filled with water. Once an individual had drunk his fill, the cup would be collapsed back down and slipped into one’s pocket.
The stairway that leads from the first floor to the second floor was removed during the Southern Railroad remodeling of 1912. The Southern wanted to limit access to the second and third floors. They felt the best way to do this was simply by removing the stairway and using the fire escape behind the door in the back of the room, which is now the depot office. The stairway was reinstalled during the remodeling of the 1970s.
Courtesy of Huntsville/Madison County Public Library
The original color of the walls on the 2nd floor was white. The lighting was so poor that white paint was used to reflect the light and make it easier to see. Once electricity was installed, the white paint was covered with brown paint in 1912/1913 by the Southern Railway. The floors are the 1860 floors and are made of pine. All of the door-facings and windowsills on this floor are the original 1860 construction.
While some visitors admire the architecture of the depot, others appreciate the affiliation with trains. Still, many visitors come to examine the historic graffiti left by men who are long gone. The first of the Civil War graffiti is located at the top of the stairs on the second floor. This is a sketch of Major Stout, a Union officer who was involved in the capture of the depot in 1862.
All the rooms on this floor were the corporate offices for the Memphis and Charleston Railroad. After Southern Railway removed the staircase and sealed the opening, the rooms on the second floor were primarily used for storage.
The room located in the southeast comer of the building was the Secretary/Treasurer’s office. Both of the main 2nd floor offices have their own vaults. The vault for this room is in the left corner of the room behind a small door. Another vault just like it is located on the other side of its far wall. Entrance to that second safe is from a room on the other side of the building. This safe did not have a combination lock but was made to look like a regular door with a regular keyhole. Even though it is made of steel filled with concrete, the door itself was painted in a style called “faux bois” or false wood. The enormous hinges on the heavy door is the only sign that it could not be a regular door. The door is four inches thick, and the walls of the safe are fifteen inches of solid brick. These vaults were used to store company payrolls and protect cash that was taken off the trains when they pulled into the station at night. Until the early 1870s, trains didn’t run at night. It wasn’t safe. The headlamps weren’t very effective and there was little fencing to prevent cattle and horses from roaming wherever they wanted. As a result, trains remained in the station overnight.
Courtesy of Huntsville/Madison County Public Library
The bricks in front of the fireplace, as well as those which make up the floor of the vaults, were made on site, using clay from the banks of the Tennessee River.
There are eleven fireplaces throughout the building. When the depot was first built, the mantels were made of brick. These brick mantels were eventually replaced by mantels made of cast iron. These functioned like the old cast iron wood stoves. The fire in the fireplace would heat up the metal and radiate out into the room to make for more efficient heating. These fireplaces originally used wood for fuel because the trains used wood. When trains converted to coal in the 1887, the fireplaces in the depot were converted to coal as well.
A metal pipe protrudes from the ceiling. At one time the depot was heated and lit by gas. In this room at one time a glass chandelier hung from the ceiling and was lighted by natural gas. When electricity came along, the depot makes the transition and now uses it for both heating and lighting.
The 1:12 scale model train which rests along the east wall was built by Mr. Yankovich of Fayetteville, Tennessee and was donated to the museum after his death. It is a working model that weighs about 300 pounds, operates with coal as its fuel, and can attain speeds of up to 15 miles per hour. It is an accurate reproduction of the steam engines of the 1880s. The cowcatcher, light, bell, and the chimney contribute to the authenticity.
On a typical engine, a straight chimney indicated that the fuel was either coal or diesel. A funnel shaped chimney indicates the fuel was wood; the funnel shape served as a spark resister to keep flying sparks of wood from flying out the chimney and catching the wooden cars or foliage near the track on fire. Behind the chimney there are three domes. The two domes nearest the cab were steam domes. The dome between the chimney and the first steam dome was called a sander. This is where sand would have been stored and heated by the engine. A pipe ran from the sander down each side of the engine to just in front of the first large, driver wheel of the locomotive. Whenever the engineer needed a little extra traction, a rope that ran from the sander back into the cab would be pulled. This dumped sand onto the track in front of the driver wheel to give extra traction for inclines, icy tracks, or sudden stops.
Steam engines were designated by the types of wheels they had. The model engine in the display case has the three sets of wheels which were used in this designation. The small wheels in the very front were called pilot wheels. The large wheels behind them were called the driver wheels. Behind the driver wheels were a third set of wheels called the guide wheels. The display engine is a 4 x 4 x 2. That means there are four small pilot wheels, four large driver wheels, and two small guide wheels behind the driver wheels. The most common steam engine from 1845 through 1900 was the 4 x 4 x 0. That meant there were four pilot wheels, four driver wheels, and no guide wheels.
Outside the Secretary/Treasurer’s room is a three-wheel velocipede. In the yard adjacent to the depot building, there is the better known four-wheel variety. The larger four-wheel velocipede was used to carry workers and equipment when there was a problem found with the track that would take more than one man to correct.
The three-wheeler was used by an inspector to ride up and down the tracks, making certain that the rails were clear, the spikes were holding tight and the crossties were all in good shape. If a train came along during his inspection, the driver could easily lift the third wheel and flip his velocipede off the track, wait until the train passed, return it to the track and continue on his way. The third wheel of the three-wheel velocipede was adjustable. This was due to the fact that until 1887, when the U.S. Government standardized all track throughout the country, there were as many as 23 different gage railroads ranging anywhere from 3 feet to 7 feet the inside of one rail to the inside of the other. Some municipalities purposely made their tracks a different gauge than those which ran into the city. Having a different gauge track was a good way to generate business that otherwise might not be there. Passengers would have to get off the train, purchase a ticket, and pay to have their luggage transferred from one train to another. While waiting for their train the passenger might decide to spend money on food, drink, or other items. Occasionally the railroads would even go to the trouble of lifting freight and passenger cars with cranes and replacing the axles with those of the correct size. Amazingly the Memphis and Charleston Railroad made the standard gauge changed to Memphis and Stevenson in one day, May 3, 1886.
In 1887 the United States government standardized the gauge of the railroad tracks throughout the country. The standard gauge set then still exists today – 4′ 8 1/2″. While this number may sound somewhat unusual, there are a number of stories about how this width was decided. The one thing all these stories have in common is the fact that the standard gauge can be traced all the way back to the northern part of England where working railroads first came into being. The most interesting story begins with the way in which coal was initially taken from the mines. Two horses were harnessed together and hooked to wagon. As the horses made their trips. pulling the wagons out of the mines, they made ruts in the ground. When the mining companies first began to use rails they decided the simplest thing to do was lay the rails in the ruts the horses had made as they pulled the wagons from the mines. The distance between the inside of one horse-made rut and the other was 4′ 8 ½”. A second story is that this standard was set thousands of years ago by the Romans. The width of the axel for their chariots, it is said was 4′ 8 ½” from the inside of one wheel to the inside of the other. Finally, there is the story that the tracks are actually five feet in width if one measures them from the outside of one rail to the outside of the other. If one then subtracts the width of the rails one comes up with the inside width of 4′ 8 ½ ”.
AFTER 1970s RENOVATION
Courtesy of Huntsville/Madison County Public Library
In addition to standardizing the width of the modern American railroad track, the railroad companies also standardized time. Before the railroads, every town operated on sun time. Those times could vary widely. It was vital to coordinate the running times of trains and so in mid-November 1883, “railroad time” was originated. Railroad time became the standard time we use today.
Against the wall opposite the door to the Secretary of Treasurer’s Office is a train whistle from an old steam locomotive. Carlton E. Bauknight (1891 to 1973) was a steam locomotive engineer with 53 years of service on the Seaboard Airline Railway. Each engineer was identified by the sound of his steam whistle, and each railroad would purchase the type of whistle the engineer requested. The whistle was attached to the locomotive he operated. Engineer Bauknight’s whistle was attached to a 4 x 6 x 4 steam locomotive. He was the engineer on the “Crescent City Limited,” which ran between Jacksonville, Florida and New Orleans, Louisiana. His part of the run took him from Jacksonville to River Junction, Florida. Upon his retirement, the Seaboard removed this whistle and presented it to Mr. Bauknight. His initials were stamped on top of the whistle so the roundhouse workers would know which locomotive he operated. The whistle was donated to the Huntsville Depot by James E. Hill.
To the left of the velocipede a small hallway leads to a second hallway. To the right is an exhibit of what life would have been like around the turn of the century. There is a gasoline pump from the 1920s and early 1930s. The handle is used to pump gasoline from the storage tank in the ground beneath the pump to the ten-gallon tank on top where one can actually see what one is buying. The nozzle is then placed in a receptacle. A lever is moved to one side. Gravity does the rest. In addition to the gasoline pump is an old oil or kerosene pump from the same era.
Across from the oil pump is a general store from around the turn of the century. Inside one will see an old radio that required ear phones and so only one person could listen to it at a time. There are two irons, one black and one blue, which were heated by gasoline or kerosene. There is also a wooden washing machine to which a small gasoline powered engine would be attached. There is a chum with a crank attached. There is also the old cash register.
As one moves west along the hall there is a small niche which contains a variety of memorabilia from the railroad days.
This hallway ends in the Cotton Room. Cotton, for many years, was “king” in Alabama. That’s why Alabama came to be known as the Cotton State. It was discovered early that the cotton growing well along the Gulf coast did not grow quite as well in the north Alabama climate. The early planters found in Africa a cotton that would thrive in this climate. The one they found had a long, sticky seed which meant that in order to make it economically viable, there would have to be a way in which the seeds could be separated from the cotton. As a result, the cotton engine came into being. Of course, the name cotton engine was soon shortened to cotton gin, and the process of separating the seeds from the cotton became known as the ginning process. In addition to the cotton seeds there were also a number of other by-products that resulted from the ginning process. One might have heard the expression “walking in high cotton.” This actually has reference to the fact that cotton, when first planted in this area, grew to be six feet in height. In order to make it easier to pick, it was hybridized to shorter stalks, and with the advent of mechanical pickers, hybridized once again.
On the right as one enters this room is an invincible seed sacker. Next to the seed sacker are a number of the by-products resulting from the ginning process. On the right side of the door that leads back out into the main hallway is a seed planter. On the scales above the seed planter hangs a pick sack. These sacks would vary in size and material. There were small sacks for children and others for adults that might be as long as twelve feet to be pulled on the ground behind the worker. Across from the seed planter, to the left of the doorway leading into the main hallway, is a 500-pound bale of cotton. Cotton bales came in sizes of 250 pounds to 500 pounds to 750 pounds. To make a 500-pound bale of cotton it takes between 1,200 and 1,500 pounds of raw cotton.
The room located in the northwest comer of the building is called the Colonel Budd Room. Colonel Budd, who died in 1989, was a gentleman who upon his retirement from Redstone Arsenal spent more than 1,500 man-hours constructing the model seen here. This display shows what Huntsville would have looked like around 1862. In his reproduction, Col. Budd used old photographs, drawings, and
insurance maps to help give him an idea of what Huntsville would have looked like then. The red brick building located to the left of the center of the display is the depot building itself. That is the way it would have originally looked when it was built in 1860. In 1912 when the depot was purchased by the Southern Railroad, it was painted green and gold – the Southern Railroad colors. Although there is no exact date, the building was painted red probably sometime in the 1920s. The building was again painted green and gold, its present colors, during the restoration of the 1970s.
The small gray building across the street at the western end of the depot building was the railroad hotel. Although the railroad crew bunked on the third floor, the passengers still needed a place to stay. There were two hotels in downtown Huntsville. Both were considered to be too far away to be of benefit to the railroad. Once again there are two stories about what happened next. One story goes that the M&C RR purchased the old Wortham Hotel across the street, remodeled it, and changed its name to the Railroad Hotel. It was also variously called the Venerable (Venable) Hotel and the Donegan Hotel. Another story is that it had been built from the ground up for the M&C RR for the convenience of its passengers and the profit of its shareholders. In either case, it was not rebuilt after it burned to the ground in 1890.
The long low building on the other side of the tracks east of the depot building was the old freight depot.
To the north of the depot was a thirteen-bay roundhouse. This was also known as the Huntsville Shops. This is where the M&C RR did most of the maintenance, repairs, and storage of the locomotives used along its line. The smaller buildings at the eastern end of the roundhouse were where freight and passenger cars were built. Because the M&C RR never fully recovered after the Civil War, the excess tracks were taken up in 1875, and the roundhouse was taken down. The bricks from the roundhouse were sold to individuals who built private homes at the end of Clinton Street.
Nothing resembling the plantation at the northwest corner of the display was ever located near the depot. Colonel Budd decided to put it in to give the guests a flavor of the period.
Just outside the door of the Colonel Budd Room is a buggy which was used by a doctor when making house calls from the middle of the 19th century through the first decades of the 20th century.
The banister leading from the second floor to the third floor is from the original 1860 construction. The banister which leads from the first floor to the second was modeled on the one seen here. The seam shows where the reproduced and the original banisters connect.
The room at the top of the stairs on the third floor is one of the three rooms in which nearly 200 Confederate prisoners-of-war were confined after General O.M. Mitchel captured the depot on the morning of April 11, 1862. While the prisoners were here, some wrote their names, regiments, hometowns, thoughts, stories, and prayers on the walls. It is this room, the largest room of the three rooms, that contains most of the historic graffiti found in the depot. The prisoners were held only ten days before being moved to a prisoner-of-war camp in Ohio. Except for a few months in 1863, Federal troops occupied the depot for the remainder of the war and left their graffiti on the walls as well. After the War, these rooms were used as bunkrooms for train crews and workmen who left most of the graffiti from that time.
At some point in time, the walls were covered with a red plaster that remained in place for almost thirty years. During the renovation of the 1970s, one of the historic consultants began to pick at the plaster that had bubbled and peeled with age. It was then that the writing on the wall was discovered underneath. The plaster was carefully removed and the graffiti exposed. The combination of the removal of the stairway between the first and second floor in 1912 and the covering of the walls with plaster helped protect the graffiti from total destruction.
This graffiti includes the story of Grover Harris. He was one of the Federal troops stationed here during the Civil War and signed his name on the wall. He was later killed in the Battle of Atlanta. After his death someone who knew him was passing through the depot and wrote his obituary above his name. Other graffiti includes the outline of a very tall man, a rocking horse near the floor, “Happy New Year to all in the Year of Our Lord, 1864,” the record of a crap game from 1906, and an officer’s jacket from the Civil War – just to mention a few.
The largest piece of graffiti is the peace dove, which is on panels 28 and 29. It stands three feet in height and five feet in length. The artist was L. Pierce. The timeframe for this artwork is uncertain.
Panel #25 is the most important research date in the entire structure. When the building was being restored there was not much known about its history. This piece of graffiti told that the building was renovated by the Southern Railway in 1912 – 1913. Researchers then consulted newspapers of that time for more information.
The Depot Locomotive
Inside the cab the engineer sat on the right. Engineers worked first as brakemen, then as firemen, and finally as engineers. His, and later on her, first duty would be to operate a small switch engine like the one on the depot grounds. This engineer pulled and pushed cars in order to make up a train for the main line. Later, the engineer would be assigned to a local freight run which would require making each and every stop along the line. Finally, there would be a long distance freight run or a passenger run.
The horizontal level in front of the engineer was the throttle which could make the engine go faster or bring it to a stop. The large lever on the floor on the right was called the “Johnson Bar,” which directed the engine to go forward or backward. As the engine gained speed this lever could be moved towards the center in order to use less steam and conserve fuel.
The valve at the engineer’s left elbow is the brake handle. This engine had steam-powered brakes as opposed to the air-brakes which are used today.
On the left side of the cab sat the fireman. His job was to shovel coal from the tender and maintain the fire in the firebox. The short levers on the floor were used to shake the grate, causing the ashes to fall through to the ground. The fireman was responsible for maintaining steam pressure in the boiler. The large gauge in front of the cab indicates that pressure of up to 200 pounds per square inch were possible.
The valves on the fireman’s side of the cab enabled him to direct water from the tender into the boiler. It was essential that the water level not be allowed to get too low.
Behind the engine is the passenger car. This car was built in the late 1930s. The windows could be raised by the passengers, indicating that the car was not air-conditioned.
When the depot was operational, there was no iron fence running beside the tracks. The train would stop and the passengers would walk under the covered walkway to and from the depot doors.
Behind the passenger car is the boxcar. It was built in I 937. It gets its name not from its shape but because it was used to carry boxes, large and small. This car is made of wood with extended metal bracing. During World War II, boxcars began to be built entirely of steel with internal metal bracing.
The last car in the train is, of course, the caboose. This caboose was built in 1953 and typical of the thousands which rode at the tail end of the freight train. Train crews rode inside. The principle crewman was the conductor, who was in charge of the “business” of the train, including delivering and picking up cars as the train proceeded along its route. The table at the back of this car was not only the place where the train crew ate, but where the conductor did his paperwork, maintaining records of all the shipments for which he was responsible.
Most trains also carried a flagman and up to three brakemen. The flagman’s job was to set flares well down the track behind and ahead of the train if it had to stop on the mainline. Before air-brakes were invented around 1900, the brakemen had to climb to the top of the train and crank down the brake wheel of each car individually before jumping to the next. It usually required a mile or more to stop an average train.
When the train was underway, at least one crewman sat in the high seat up in the cupola. From here, he could see along the length of the train over the tops of the cars, watching primarily for smoke from overheated wheels, or “hot boxes.” Each wheel has a box covering the axle in the center. This cover can be snapped open to allow grease, originally tallow, to be applied to the bearing surface. The entire wheel assembly was known as a “truck.” This caboose has old-styled “Bettendorf’ trucks. Modem railroads use roller bearing and axle ends that are exposed.
Couplings are what hook cars together. The automatic version used today was invented in 1873 to replace the old “link and pin” coupling. This kind of coupling was in general use until around 1900 when the courts forced the railroads to adopt the automatic version.
Cabooses are no longer used by railroads. Instead, at the rear of the train, on the very last coup li ng, is a computerized device with a radio inside. This “End-of-the-Train” unit provides information to the engineer and in effect replaces the caboose. Modem diesels provide an office for the conductor and brakeman inside the cab.
The turntable at southeast of the depot is a real, working turntable. It was built in 1937 and came to the depot from Oakdale, Tennessee. The rotating portion is about 80 feet long and is turned by electric motors located below the control booth. It can tum a locomotive completely around or turn it to go into any of the five bays of the roundhouse.
The engine on the turntable is a three-quarter replica of a typical 4 x 4 x 0 “American” class engine that was used during the Civil War. A famous engine of this type was the General. The General was involved in what came to be known as the “Great Civil War Train Chase.” The original General is in a museum in Kennasaw, Georgia.
The roundhouse is a replica. It is authentic in size, shape, and building materials. An actual roundhouse would have tracks leading to each bay. Beneath the tracks in that bay would be a pit which would enable mechanics to get beneath the locomotive and work on it.
The track that encircles the grounds is used by the museum’s trolley car and can be used by guests to complete their depot experience.
Timeline of Important Events
1850 – Memphis & Charleston Railroad is chartered in Alabama. 1850 – 1855 – Huntsville businessmen buy stock in M&CRR
1855 – First track reaches Huntsville. First train, the General Garth arrives at the temporary station on October 13. Regular freight ser vice between Decatur and Huntsville begins on October 22.
1856 – The brick freight house is built. (The cost is not given in the annual report). This was, until it burned in March 2004, the oldest railroad building still in existence in Alabama. As a railroad facility, the building had only two owners: the Memphis & Charleston Railroad Company, 1856 – 1898, and Southern Railway System, 1898 – 1981.
The telegraph comes to Huntsville, giving Madison County contact with Memphis and Montgomery. The North Alabama Telegraph Company completes the lines. The first telegraph office is located at the land office on Eustis Street until it was moved in 1860 to the new Huntsville Depot.
Venable Hotel is built at a cost of $2,376. Additions were made after 1857 to enlarge the hotel. The hotel was gone by the late 1890s when it was replaced by a lumberyard.
1857 – A storehouse is built on depot grounds for $3,000. The location is unknown.
Large brick engine house and machine shop are built for $19,466. (These structures are no longer standing.)
– Turntable and shop machinery is purchased and installed for a total of $7,000.
1859 – A ticket office is built. No cost is given. It was a wooden, temporary structure.
1860 – The passenger house of brick is built for $10,500. The ticket office at Huntsville was moved and a passenger shed built for $430. The passenger depot was not completed until December, 1860, but was far enough along to have the ticket office and telegraph equipment moved into it by July 1860.
– A car shop of brick is completed in February for $6,169.49.
1861 – A store house for railroad stores is built for $1,500. This building, the last built before the Civil War, is located just east of the freight depot. It was brick and in the early 1900s was rented to the Cudahy Packing Company. It was tom down in 1910.
1862 – Union General Ormsby M. Mitchel captures Huntsville.
CIVIL WAR -There was no construction by the railroad company and no destruction by the Federal Army.
1868 – A new lumber shed is constructed.
1869 -A passenger car shed, 35′ x 126′ is built for sheltering coaches.
1870 – Platform scales are put in.
1875 – The Huntsville Shops are completely shut down and moved to Tuscumbia in 1876. All the shop buildings remained vacant until 1881 when they were rented to an oil company.
– The 13-bay roundhouse is dismantled and the bricks sold to homes being built on Clinton Street.
1883 – “Railroad Time” is established – time zones, standard times.
1886 – Trains are converted from wood to coal for the next several years.
1887 -American railroads adopt standard spacing or gauge of 4′ 8 ½”.
– Extensive repairs are made to the passenger station, including painting.
– This time the first “colored waiting room” is provided and major changes are made to the interior first floor of the passenger station. These changes are made in order to conform to the requirements of the Alabama Railroad Commission.
1888 – A new 50,000 gallon water tank is built for $596.
1895 – The Station Buildings Report states that the Huntsville buildings are in “good condition.”
1898 – Southern Railway purchases depot from M&C RR.
1912 – 1913 – Southern Railway renovates the building and removes stairs from first floor.
1968 – The last passenger train came through Huntsville.
1971 – The City of Huntsville purchases the building from Southern Railway. The building is placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
1972 – The Depot is placed on the list of National Historic Landmarks. Remodeling begins.
1978 – First floor stairway is restored.
Dunnavant, Robert, Jr. Spurs, Sabers and Steam Engines, Athens, Alabama: Pearidge Press, I 994.
Gilliam, Catherine. “Huntsville Depot Tour Presentation,” date unknown.
Various documents prepared during the city’s acquisition and restoration of the Huntsville Historic Depot – provided by Huntsville Historic Depot.
Harncourt, Paul. The Planters Railway, Arab, Alabama: Heritage Publishing Company, 1995.
Heritage Room of the Huntsville Public Library – Archive Files – “Huntsville Railroad.”
“Huntsville Depot Museum Tour Presentation,” 1991
Huntsville Historic Depot Files and Archives.
Memphis and Charleston Legal Documents and Annual Reports – provided by the Huntsville Historic Depot.
Laslo, Greg. “Saratoga of the South.” Huntsville Times. Date unknown.
Gray, Jacquelyn Procter. “A Place in History.” Old Tennessee Valley Magazine. Decatur, Alabama: Great Southern Publishing Company, 2003.
Record, James and Tom McDonald, eds. Commemorative Album Huntsville’s Sesquicentennial, Nashville: Benson Printing Company, 1955.
Southern Railway Legal Documents and Annual Reports – provided by the Huntsville Historic Depot.
Tidwell, Bryon. “Huntsville Depot Museum Tour Presentation,” 1986.
And special thanks to Roianne Little, without whose obsessive/compulsive tendencies to collect information, this task would have been a much more difficult.