Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Brownsville train depot, gone but not forgotten

(Photo from David Duke)

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The Brownsville Depot

A photo of the L&N train depot in Brownsville, Tennessee posted by David Duke in the Facebook group “You grew up in Brownsville, Tennessee if…” generated many posts of memories of the old train station and piqued my curiosity about this piece of Haywood County, Tennessee history.

If you check out the posts by those who shared their memories, you’ll see it was more than just a building. From family trips to visit relatives in nearby towns like Milan, Bells, Stanton and Memphis to experiencing a train ride with a Cub Scout pack or school group or just gathering with friends and family to watch the train come into the station, the depot made a real impact on many who can still remember hearing the whistle blow in person.

(Photo by H. E. Clement)

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Hand-tinted art by H.E. Clement from postcard of
the Brownsville depot

I discovered the depot has an interesting history.

By 1855, the first twenty-five miles of the Memphis and Ohio Railroad (M&O) had been completed. However, according to Maury Klein in “History of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad,” deciding the location of the tracks was not an easy task.
“Ironically, the Memphis & Ohio faced a rather unique problem for its day: the indifference and outright hostility of citizens living along the route. Standing aloof from the commercial aspirations of the terminal cities, they saw no advantage for themselves in the coming Iron Horse. In 1856 the picture brightened considerably. After another long debate the Memphis & Ohio board decided to locate the road directly to Paris (Tennessee) via Brownsville.” Page 20
The tracks, which would eventually connect Memphis to Louisville, made it to Brownsville in late 1856. Eventually, the Louisville & Nashville Railroad (L&N), which had begun in 1850 in Kentucky as a way of allowing Louisville to become more competitive with Cincinnati, absorbed the M&O.

(Photo by H.E. Clement)

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Hand-tinted art by H.E. Clement from postcard of
the Brownsville depot

During the Civil War, both the Union and the Confederacy used the L&N to transport soldiers and provisions. Eventually, the Union Army operated all the key sections of the L&N which contributed to their ultimate victory.

(Photo from Pope's Manual of Railroads of the United States)

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Southern tracks of the L&N Railroad in 1901

According to “Heart of the Tennessee Delta,” (for sale at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center) construction did not begin on the depot in Brownsville until Sept. 1905 and was completed in five months.

The Brownsville depot remained a hub of activity for more than six decades as the L&N remained a significant source of transportation of freight and passenger trains.

Kathy Mattea, "The L&N Don't Stop Here Anymore"

By the late 1960s, an increase in automobile ownership and affordable airplane travel made the passenger train business much less profitable. In 1968, the last passenger train pulled out of the depot and that part of Brownsville's history came to a close. The L&N didn't stop there anymore, as the song goes. The old depot, which I assume was in horrible shape, was sold to an individual who had it torn down in 1974.

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Approximate location of The Brownsville Depot

Although the depot is gone and there is not a single trace it ever existed, there are a few ways you can go back in time and catch a quick glimpse.

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Screen captures from
"The Liberation of L.B. Jones"

The opening and closing scenes of "The Liberation of L.B. Jones" were filmed at the depot shortly before it was torn down. The movie was acclaimed director William Wyler’s final movie and was based on the best-selling 1965 novel, “The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones.” The novel was inspired by an actual murder that took place outside Humboldt, Tennessee in 1955.

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"All Aboard with Mr. Bee."

According to a comment on the Facebook post, the children’s program “All Aboard with Mr. Be” included b-roll of the Brownsville depot in the opening. The show aired on Memphis’ WKNO Channel 10 in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I actually remember the show but can’t remember the opening and there are no clips online.

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Opening scene of "In the Heat of the Night"

Some also believe the opening scene from the original "In The Heat Of The Night" starring Rod Steiger and Sydney Potier were also filmed at the Brownsville depot. The fact that Sydney Potier actually arrives "in the heat of the night" makes it's difficult to tell for sure if this was filmed at the depot, but it certainly could have been. 

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Photo of the Brownsville depot on the wall
at Hometown Drugs in Brownsville

As you can read on the Facebook post, the single photo of the depot created an opportunity for many to share memories and stories of times with friends, learning opportunities with Cub Scout and school groups, departing for vacations to other cities and times spent with family who have long passed away.

Just imagine if it had been possible to restore the depot or move it to another location where it could be a part of the community today. I hope we can work together to find ways to make sure other historic sites like this one are preserved for future generations.

For more blog entries, visit my Blog Home Page or to check out the genealogy research about my specific family lines, go to my Haywood County Line Genealogy Website. 

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