Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad

The Nashville and Chattanooga (N&C) Railroad created new towns, new wealth, and a new corporate landscape as it brought the industrial age to Middle Tennessee. The railroad was the first complete line to operate in Tennessee in 1854 and was one of the few railroads in Tennessee that did not fall into receivership after the Civil War.

Nashville merchants, bankers, and large landowners in Middle Tennessee were the first to articulate the vision of a railroad that would allow the conversion of the natural resources of Middle Tennessee into valuable marketable commodities. They seized the opportunity to develop a railroad when the Western and Atlantic Railroad chose Ross's Landing (Chattanooga) as the terminus for its planned line to the Tennessee River in 1838. A railroad from Nashville to Chattanooga would provide a link to the Western and Atlantic Road, which traveled through Georgia to Augusta on to Charleston, South Carolina. Vernon K. Stevenson, the founding president of the N&C, and other Nashville merchants and landholders successfully promoted the railroad as a means of increasing prosperity among the citizens of Middle Tennessee by providing a cheaper access to lucrative long distance markets. New Orleans no longer had to serve Middle Tennessee as the primary exchange center; now ports on the Atlantic could fulfill these services, especially Charleston. Middle Tennesseans could market grains and livestock to the cotton belt to the south via the new railroad.

Stock subscriptions went on sale in 1845 with cities such as Nashville, Murfreesboro, Shelbyville, Winchester, and Charleston, South Carolina, supplying substantial investments. The construction of the railroad began in 1849 and created considerable opportunities for landholders along the route to reap the benefits of land speculation. The siting of railroad depots produced new towns and engendered a rapid rise in land prices. Railroad officials estimated land prices rose from five to fifteen dollars per acre. Larger new towns along the line were Smyrna, Bell Buckle, Wartrace, Tullahoma, Decherd, Cowan, and Chattanooga. These new towns offered a new spatial town alignment with corporate space–meaning the railroad depot–becoming the central organizing focal point. The traditional town square pattern gave way to businesses located parallel to the railroad tracks, or perpendicular from the railroad depot. Homebuilders chose to build parallel to the railroad right of way to give visitors and passengers an impression of wealth and prestige. The goal was to project an image of the town as experienced through the windows of a train, or from the depot, that would be communicated to others as promotion for town development.

The real work of altering the landscape to accommodate the requirements of the railroad was provided largely by African American slaves contracted out to the railroad and Irish laborers. The Irish were important in the construction of the Cowan Tunnel, especially in the blasting, because owners of contracted slaves would expect recompense if they were harmed, while the Irish were considered expendable. Many of the Irish railroad workers settled in Cowan permanently and their descendants still live in the area. Once in full operation on February 11, 1854, the railroad immediately altered the conception of time and space as it reduced the old stage journey of twenty-two hours between Nashville and Chattanooga to nine hours by rail. The railroad flourished until the Civil War divided operation and management.

After the fall of Nashville in February 1862 to Union forces, the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad came under the control of the U.S. Army, while Vernon K. Stevenson and Edmund Cole operated the portion of the railroad located in Confederate-held territory. The N&C was a vital link in supplying the Union army, with a critical connection to the Louisville and Nashville (L&N) Railroad and Union army supplies stockpiled in Louisville. Confederate cavalry conducted several skirmishes in efforts to destroy this important rail connection. The Union army attempted to protect the line by constructing several blockhouses and stockades along the railroad, fortifications like Fortress Rosecrans in Murfreesboro. It spent a considerable amount of time in repairing torn-up rails. The railroad also had a critical role in supplying Union forces in the battles of Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga, and ultimately General William T. Sherman's Atlanta Campaign.

The end of the Civil War and Reconstruction brought a great deal of hardship to southern railroads, yet the N&C proved a very resilient corporation. The old guard of management regained control when Edmund Cole was elected president in 1868, which in turn provided needed stability for the future. The turmoil of the 1870s included destructive floods, cholera outbreaks, economic depressions, fierce rate wars among railroads, increased competition from consolidated railroad lines, and governmental attempts at regulation. The N&C developed a policy of expansion as a way to combat the designs of the major railroads such as the Baltimore and Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois Central, and L&N to control southeastern markets. Additional spur lines were developed to reach the rich coal deposits along the Cumberland Plateau. In 1873 the name of the Nashville and Chattanooga was changed to the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis (NC&St.L) to reflect the railroad's goal of becoming a major trunk line. The NC&St.L purchased the Owensboro, Kentucky, to Nashville line in 1879 and acquired entry into St. Louis from the St. Louis and Southeastern Railway via Evansville, Indiana, to East St. Louis. This expansion began to alarm the corporate hierarchy of the L&N who wished for sole control of this southeastern corridor. When Edmund Cole began negotiating for the Western and Atlantic and Central Georgia railroads, the L&N made their move to extinguish the expansion dreams of the NC&St.L. In a secretive maneuver involving the major stockholder of the NC&St.L and former president Vernon K. Stevenson, the L&N bought controlling interest in the NC&St.L. without Edmund Cole's knowledge on January 18, 1880. The action shocked Nashvillians as they realized that the city of Nashville could no longer claim importance as the headquarters of a major corporation, but was now denigrated to a large city along the line. Citizens of Middle Tennessee voiced feelings of betrayal that helped persuade the L&N to leave the NC&St.L operating as an independent division with its own president and officers, which continued until the companies formally merged in 1957. However, the major decisions of the NC&St.L were now based on the needs of the L&N corporation as it strove to control the southeastern railroad markets.

Suggested Reading

Jesse C. Burt Jr., “The History of the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad 1873-1916” (Ph.D. diss., Vanderbilt University, 1950) and “The Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad 1854-1872: The Era of Transition,” East Tennessee Historical Society Publications 23 (1951): 58-76; Bonnie L. Gamble, “The Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad, 1845-1880: Preservation of a Railroad Landscape,” (M.A. thesis, Middle Tennessee State University, 1993)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 21, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018