Southern Railway System Train Depot, Huntsville Alabama
The Memphis and Charleston Railroad Depot, built in 1860, is the oldest railway terminal standing in Alabama and one of the last surviving physical evidences of the South's most significant antebellum rail systems. During the Civil War the Depot was used as a temporary Federal prison.
The Memphis and Charleston Railroad was the most important transportation line in the South, in addition to being the most potent factor in the commercial development of Northern Alabama. Originally incorporated under the laws of Tennessee on February 2, 1846, the railway embodied one of the early dreams of the south; to connect the Mississippi River at Memphis with the Atlantic Ocean at Charleston. The merchants and farmers of North Alabama had long suffered from the loss of their cargo in the treacherous Muscle Shoals of the Tennessee River. Thus when a railroad was planned, the citizens of Huntsville were determined to have the line go through their city. By 1849 the citizens had voted $50,000 toward the proposed railroad, and by 1850 it had been decided that the route would definitely go through Huntsville, which would also be the headquarters for the Eastern Division. On January 7, 1850, the company was chartered by the legislature of Alabama as the Memphis and Charleston Railroad Company.
Work on the railroad was begun in Madison County May 21, 1852, and by October 13, 1855 the first train rolled into the temporary Huntsville depot. Between the years 1856 and 1859, a freight depot, an engine house, a machine shop, and two car shops were constructed on the Huntsville yard. In December, 1860, the present passenger depot was completed with ail the latest conveniences.
On April 11, 1862, Federal troops under General O. M. Mitchell captured the city of Huntsville. The express purpose of this raid was the capture of the eastern headquarters of the M & C railroad,, thus breaking the vital east-west artery of the Confederacy. On that date, Mitchell in a wire to Captain J. B. Fry reported: "We have at length succeeded in cutting the great artery of railway inter-communications between the Southern States." In addition to capturing 15 locomotives and a large number of passenger and platform cars, they also captured about 200 Confederate soldiers who were returning by rail to their units. The prisoners were confined within the depot until two made their escape. The remainder of the prisoners were then shipped to Ohio.
As Mrs. William Chadwick reported in her diary, "The M & C did not cease to be operated, it simply changed hands. The workmen employed by the Confederate government either returned in the morning to work for Uncle Sam or were replaced by Yankee mechanics." During the war the M & C served as a base for gathering supplies for Union forces operating in the western theater.
After the war the line was returned to the Memphis and Charleston Co. in deteriorated condition. Of the 155 miles of track within the state in 1861, 140 miles were torn up. The railroad was rebuilt by the owners but never recovered financially, and finally was sold February 26, 1898, to the Southern Railway System.
In 1912 the depot was remodeled, but only the interior was changed.
In 1950, Dr. Werner Von Braun and his team of German rocket scientists arrived in Huntsville at this depot and went on to build the nation's space program.
Passenger service was discontinued in 1967 and the depot was then used as a freight station.