Union Station Transports You Back to Nashville’s Opulent Past
One hundred years ago, Union Station was the talk of the South. It presided over the Nashville skyline in majestic elegance, a landmark with soaring towers of locally quarried limestone, picturesque arches, marble floors, carved oak and walnut, intricate sculptures and gold leaf trim.
Black smoke billowed into the sky as steam engines chugged down the tracks, long whistles blowing. The air was filled with the acrid smell of dust and soot ground under steel wheels, the slow screech of brakes, the steam engine’s sigh. Union Station opened on October 9, 1900 to celebration and fanfare, marking the transition from river transport to the new era of rail. The Louisville and Nashville (L & N) Railroad poured money into the magnificent Richardson Romanesque structure, creating an opulent monument to commerce and progress.
In its glory days, it was filled with daily throngs of passengers traveling to the Athens of the South. Families dressed in their Sunday best, luggage stacked high, joined in the bustle of travelers criss-crossing the South, and commerce pouring in from every direction. The longest direct rail line ran from Chicago to Miami, intersecting Nashville about mid-way. Several Presidents passed through Union Station, along with celebrities like Mae West and Rudolph Valentino, who traveled by train to perform at the Ryman, and Al Capone on his way to a Georgia penitentiary.
This historic landmark was a crossroads filled with emotion. The grief of partings and joyful reunions. During World War II nearly 3 million servicemen passed through Union Station, as the Volunteer State gave up its men and women to fight.
Union Station today is still alive with whispered memories, resurrected in recent decades from its complete abandonment in the 70’s, when Amtrak ceased operations in Nashville. Light floods through the 128 stained glass panels of the 65 ft high barrel-vaulted ceiling covering the glittering lobby. At either end of the magnificent lobby restored to perfection, a bas-relief of the Bully steam engine bookends the opposing image of an Egyptian chariot, one of the earliest forms of transport. Flanking both sides of the balcony, 20 bas-relief angels of commerce stand watch, each holding a representation of the varied goods transported by train.
Since being resurrected into a hotel in 1986, Union Station has gone through three changes of ownership. Turnberry Hospitality bought the property in 2007 and poured $11 million into a major renovation, returning the property back to period authenticity, while blending contemporary luxury with period elegance. 90% of the lobby has been maintained as original.
Behind the hotel’s front desk, the original train schedule announces the arrival and departure times of the L & N, and the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis line.
I remember my husband telling stories of riding the Dixie Flyer down from Chicago as a boy to spend his summers on the family farm in Hendersonville. It’s almost a time warp to stand inside the Union Station Hotel today. You expect to hear the rumble of an approaching train and hasten downstairs to the waiting platform. Freight trains still ply the tracks daily, but passenger trains are sadly just a memory.
If you have a yearning to experience the thrill of riding in a real steam train, the Tennessee Central Railway Museum in Nashville is bringing in a steam locomotive for the weekend of May 31-June 1, 2014, and offering special excursions to celebrate their 25th anniversary of passenger excursion trains. Contact their office at (615) 244-9001 for details.
A stay in one of the individually unique hotel rooms is one way you can turn back the clock and imagine life at the turn of the 19th Century. The elegant Prime 108 restaurant, named after the Bully 108 steam engine, is a romantic affair, with a la carte or Prime Tasting Menu served with wine pairings. Dine in old world luxury and enjoy impeccable service in the shadow of soaring ceilings, columns, semi-circular stained glass windows, and early American oil paintings.
If you’d like to sink into pillow-top luxury for a night’s sleep, you can even ask for a room on the train side, and nod off to the distant rumble of freight trains.
Union Station Hotel has recaptured the grandeur of the past, a delight also enjoyed by the many weddings they host. Treat yourself to a little Southern luxury and plan your own visit to Union Station!
Do you have a special memory of Union Station? Share it in the comments section below.