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VOL. 129 | NO. 198 | Friday, October 10, 2014

Central Centennial

Memphis’ Central Station marks 100 years, revival

By Bill Dries

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Central Station is 100 years old, an age that most train stations never reach. And if they do, they get there with some really harrowing years in mid-life.

Central Station is “a monument to economic development in this city,” which could be part of a “renaissance” in passenger rail service in a region where the car is still king.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The landmark at South Main Street and G.E. Patterson Drive marked its centennial this month with hundreds of people taking a look around the now recovered and renovated station as well as Amtrak trains and Canadian National railroad locomotives on the tracks that run by the station.

“Probably there’s a handful of stations across the United States that still have Amtrak service that have reached 100 years,” said Bill Pollard, who has written a recent history of Central Station. “This is a beautiful station now. This is a beautiful restoration. But if you realize how far it had sunk and how bad it was, Memphis was literally recognized as the worst train station in the nation – the absolute worst. I don’t think that’s much exaggeration.”

Pollard came through the station in the 1970s as Downtown in general emptied out and the south end, including the train station, was among the most desolate areas.

“It was the kind of place that you were almost a little bit afraid to wait for a train here,” he said. “In most stations that had that kind of problem, they were torn down and they built a little shack or something.”

In the 1980s, Central Station’s menacing derelict personality was featured in the Jim Jarmusch movie “Mystery Train,” which was a group of intersecting stories all set during the late night hours when the passenger trains used to arrive at and leave the station.

Todd Stennis, director of government affairs for southern region of Amtrak, remembers a train trip in the mid-1980s that included a stop at the station.

“I was amazed at how rough this station was,” he said. “I couldn’t believe how bad the conditions had gotten.”

Just inside the station from where Stennis was standing, the main hall of the train station was being prepared for a wedding reception and the Memphis Farmers Market was drawing a late morning crowd that was discovering the trains on the tracks above the pavilion that the market calls home.

Around it new and relatively new homes have been built and are still being built as development looks primed to jump E.H. Crump Boulevard and spread even further south.

City leaders are working on getting new Amtrak service with Carbondale, Ill., and Little Rock, Ark.

Central Station stands where a train station dating back to the Civil War once stood.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

Stennis called Central Station “a monument to economic development in this city,” which could be part of a “renaissance” in passenger rail service in a region where the car is still king.

He also admitted to a “mystique” about the station and imagining the lives that spent a brief amount of time there on the way to and from other places that no longer exist in times that move beyond memory.

“It’s just the mystique of railroading – the many trains that went through here,” Pollard said. “It’s just a unique location.”

Central Station’s grander neighbor further east on G.E. Patterson, Union Station, was demolished in the 1960s to make way for the U.S. Postal Service’s bulk mail facility.

And the sandstone Poplar Street train station where Casey Jones began the 1900 behind-schedule train ride that ended with his death and became part of American folklore, was demolished before that with only a historical marker on Front Street near the Mud Island parking garage as a reminder.

The land where Central Station stands was home to an earlier train station that dates back to the Civil War era, according to Pollard and others who have explored the history of railroads in Memphis.

Milton Winter remembered trips to Memphis as a child and young adult from his home in Cleveland, Miss., with Central Station as the portal to what was the first and only big city for many families in North Mississippi.

It was a time of 6 a.m. arrivals in a station with lots of different train names and tables and day rooms at the William Len hotel for small town visitors doing all of their shopping in Downtown.

Even then, Memphis and the area around the train station were regarded with some caution and warnings from his parents to beware of “street women” who might try to jump into his cab as he prepared for his first trip to the city alone.

The crowds coming to and from the train stations began to slowly shrink in the mid 1930s when Highway 61, the primary automobile artery from Mississippi to Memphis and back, was paved. Winter buys old train tables on eBay when he spots them and the occasional post card sent by departed travelers from a time that’s now gone.

“You have to tell people about the ruin before you can tell them about the redemption,” Winter, a minister, told a group in the small area by the tracks where today’s passengers buy their tickets and wait for the City of New Orleans.

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