If you have ever visited the small town of Etowah in east Tennessee, then you most likely recall the grandeur of the town’s iconic L&N Depot. It stands proud next to the CSX railyard with nearby Starr Mountain providing a picturesque backdrop. When traveling in any direction along Tennessee Avenue, the Depot and its well-maintained grounds are impossible to overlook. This historic building now serves as an informative museum, visitors center, and gathering place for community events. It is no surprise that thousands of people are drawn to this amazing and unique destination every year.
A self-guided tour of the Depot Museum is something you definitely want to include in your plans. As you explore the Depot’s many rooms and hear the creaking of the old wood floor beneath your feet, you will be taken back to a time before automobiles were commonplace and trains still ruled. All may be quiet and calm now, but, back in the day, this was far from the case. This Depot once bustled with life and a constant flow of people arriving and departing on passenger trains. The many informative exhibits found throughout the museum attractively explain the story of Etowah and, to be such a small town, there’s some incredible history waiting to be discovered here!
In 1902, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (L&N) was on a mission to locate and purchase enough land for a massive rail complex, including an elaborate passenger station, somewhere close to the convergence of the “Old” and “New” Line. According to a museum exhibit, finding suitable land was far more difficult for L&N than originally expected. Their preferred location was Tellico Junction, now known as Englewood, but citizens apparently opposed the plan and it was abandoned. Finally, in 1904, they acquired a sizeable amount of land just north of Wetmore. However, due to its location in the Cane Creek bottoms, the land was very boggy and presented a major challenge for L&N. Canals were built to drain excess water and fill dirt was hauled in from nearby mines to raise the site elevation more than 3 feet before any buildings could be erected.
After the land had been altered and deemed suitable for use, construction began on the passenger station in the newfound community of Etowah. Haywood York brought in his crew from Blue Ridge, GA to oversee this massive undertaking. In 1906, two years after work started, the depot was completed making it the first permanent structure in Etowah. This Victorian style station was designed with fifteen rooms across two levels. The first level housed the passenger station, which was originally segregated, and consisted of two waiting rooms, two tickets windows, an agent’s office, a snack bar, etc. The second level of the building contained many office spaces for L&N’s Atlanta Division Headquarters.
One of the many interesting features of the depot’s layout is the location of the staircase. While one would assume you access the second level from somewhere on the main level, that is not exactly the case here. A separate entrance and doorway was strategically designed from the outside leading to a beautiful, seemingly hidden, wooden staircase. The intent was to prevent passengers and the public from curiously wandering into the Atlanta Division Headquarters and interfering with the important tasks underway there. “How do I get upstairs?” is one of the most common questions asked by patrons to the museum today and creates an opportune time to explain the history.
Ten years after the completion of the depot, in 1916, L&N’s Atlanta Division Headquarters was growing rapidly and needed more office space. To meet their needs, a large addition was made to the front of the depot, which became the engineering department. Today, it is known as the Portico Room and this spacious area can be reserved for weddings, conferences, parties, etc.
Passenger train service was a fundamental part of the town’s existence for many decades. At one time, as many as 14 passenger trains stopped by Etowah in a single day. However, times changed and people became increasingly dependent on automobiles as their primary mode of transportation meaning fewer trains were needed. In 1968, the day many people had been expecting finally became a sad reality as L&N passenger trains rolled away from the Depot for the final time. This marked the end of an era that brought not only prosperity, but a way of life to Etowah and its people.
After passenger train service ceased in Etowah, the depot’s primary purpose became obsolete despite continuing to provide office space for railroad employees in the years to come. Finally, in 1974, L&N abandoned the depot entirely and the few remaining employees were relocated to another nearby location. Citizens grew concerned that the old depot, which was a monument to the town’s history, would quickly deteriorate without upkeep. In response, the City of Etowah formed the Etowah Historical Commission to assist in fundraising and oversee the restoration and preservation of the building. In 1981, three years after restoration began, the depot was again ready to serve the wonderful citizens of Etowah that cared about it so much.
If you are ever presented with the opportunity to visit this wonderful depot, I highly recommend that you do! Countless other depots along with all of the history and stories they had to offer have been lost because their value wasn’t appreciated or they had been neglected beyond repair. Thankfully, the people of Etowah cared enough about this gem and realized the potential hidden behind what it was becoming to not allow it to suffer the same fate as so many others.