Historical Perspective: Tuscumbia Depot – History revived

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Quad-Cities Daily Correspondent, Mary Carton gives our readers a historical perspective on the historic Memphis and Charleston Railroad Depot.

Tuscumbia Railroad Station historical marker

Tuscumbia Railroad Station historical marker

TUSCUMBIA -Early 1800’s Tuscumbia was a bustling town. Residents needed supplies that came up the Tennessee River. They also used the river to ship cotton and other goods downstream to eventually get to the big City of Memphis.   On January 16, 1830 the Tuscumbia Railroad Company received its charter from the Alabama Legislature, making Tuscumbia the site of the first railroad west of the Appalachians. M. Tarver, A Barton, James Elliott, B Merrill, P. G. Godley, John Kennedy, D S Goodloe, John Suterland, Jr. (“Messenger of the Alamo: and author of “The Fall of the Alamo”),  John F Pride, John Haynie, Henry Cook, Thomas Kennan and David Deshler were the first Board of Directors.  Deshler High School is named after David Deshler’s son Brig. Gen. James Deshler who was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga. The tracks were crude by today’s standards. Five-inch to seven-inch oak rails that were capped with two-inch-wide iron running down cedar crossbeams ran for a distance of two miles from the site of the current Tuscumbia Depot to a three story warehouse up on a bluff at Tuscumbia Landing. The freight cars were pulled by horse, mule or oxen to and from the river. Chutes were used to slide cotton bales down to the riverboats, while a horse-powered conveyor belt brought goods up from boats.  It was primitive here in the frontier. Travel could only go downstream toward Memphis, not up-river.


Back then the Tennessee River in our area was not friendly to navigation as it was mostly shoals and rapids.  To take a keelboat through the shoals required a lot of muscle, hence the name of one of the cities in the area known as Muscle Shoals.

Treacherous shoals restricted river traffic on our part of the Tennessee.

Treacherous shoals restricted river traffic on our part of the Tennessee.

A means of getting around the bad stretch of river from Tuscumbia to Decatur was needed.  On January 13, 1832, The Tuscumbia Courtland and Decatur Railroad Company was chartered to build a forty one mile railroad from Rhodes Ferry in Decatur to Tuscumbia.  It was similar in construction to the two mile track from Tuscumbia to Tuscumbia Landing.  Horse locomotion was phased out when the first steam engine was  employed in 1834.  This route was a major avenue of the Trail of Tears. The United States Congress passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830 which forced approximately 100,000 Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles to leave their homeland in the South and suffer a brutal hike to Oklahoma between the years of 1830 to 1850.  Approximately 3,500 Creeks from Alabama died from their struggles during the Great Removal.





Tuscumbia station - "Back in the day."

Tuscumbia station – “Back in the day.”

Tuscumbia became a major railroading town with several tracks running down Railroad Street (5th St.) in and out of town which accounts for the road being wider than other streets in the city.  Trains would stop at the various hotels such as the Franklin house at the corner of 5th and Water.   Buildings along the north side of 5th between Water and Main Streets were commonly called Commercial Row. They were built in the 1830’s and are among the oldest  active commercial buildings in Alabama.

Three depots were located in Tuscumbia. The Southern Railway’s Tuscumbia 1st Street Station was located between 1st Street and North Commons. It was demolished in 1948 after the Shop Pike station in Sheffield was opened.  The Louisville & Nashville Water Street Depot on the site of the Courthouse Annex, was used by the Board of Education for a while after the L&N left town and eventually was torn down in 1955.   The last  remaining depot on 5th St was constructed in 1888 by the Memphis and Charleston Railroad.  A repair shop called, “The Roundhouse”, was constructed. The facility had a means of turning trains around on a “turntable”. Back then, steam engines did not have a reverse; so in order for the locomotive to be turned back in the opposite direction, it was driven onto the turntable which was able to be cranked around by a single man. Now turned around, the engine would be driven off in the direction from which it originally came.

One interesting story I came across was about a ghost that supposedly haunted the Roundhouse.  In the story, a man was either intentionally run over by a train, or killed and thrown on the tracks to be mangled in order to conceal his murder.  Back then Tuscumbia was a frontier town with many bars and other seedy establishments. The victim was buried as an unknown. Shortly thereafter it was said that the image of a man could be seen walking down the tracks each day to the Roundhouse.  One day, the story goes, this ghost so scared the workers of an engine, they ran out and forgot to set the brake on the running locomotive. It landed up in the street.  After that, the Railroad advertised in the paper for an exorcist to get rid of the ghost!

memphis and charleston railroadAs train engines became improved, the need for a turntable was no longer needed and it went the way of stage coaches, ice boxes, the ice man, milk bottles, eight tracks and cassette tapes.  A new depot was built along Shop Pike in Sheffield and the 5th Street Depot was donated to the city in 1948 as a Community Center.

The Depot languished as a community center until the dream of turning it back into a historical railroad center gained momentum.   In 2007 a five foot deep and sixty six feet diameter hole was dug in anticipation of erecting an original turn table donated by Harvey Robbins.  With funding by a transportation enhancement grant; Alabama Department of Transportation grants; and matching funds by the City of Tuscumbia, the roundhouse and turntable construction started in December of 2011 and was finished in late Fall of 2012.  The roundhouse is around 30 feet high.  The doors are 17 feet tall and each weighs around a half ton each.   Wow, imagine attaching the hinges on one of these and getting them to line up! (And I had trouble hanging a screen door.)  Future plans are for the construction of a theater car for audio-visual presentations. The theater will look like a 19th century railroad passenger car inside and out.  Interior windows will be video screens that will simulate views of landscapes passing by the train.

Another group that is dedicated to preserving the Depot is the Memphis and Charleston Railroad Historical Society.  Members donate a lot of their own time and money doing projects and obtaining historical pieces around the Depot .

The Memphis and Charleston Railroad Historical Society will hold the first inaugural “Railroad Heritage Day” on Saturday March 23, 2013 from 10 AM until 5 PM at the Roundhouse and Depot.  Did the railroad find an exorcist or does the ghost walk the tracks to the new turntable and roundhouse?   Maybe one day we will find out!

Mary photographed much if the recent work that has been going on at the Station this past year or two, We present them here.

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1 comment

Truman Kimbrough July 9, 2021 - 4:00 pm

Enjoyed your article. I worked for Southern Railway and live about 1 1/2 miles from the Depot. I came to the Tuscumbia Depot while working on a yard engine before that line was closed.


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