The foremost promoter of railroads in antebellum Tennessee and the founder and first president of the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, Vernon K. Stevenson arrived in Nashville in 1831 and soon opened a dry goods store. Hoping to ensure his financial success, Stevenson married into prominent Tennessee families. In 1834 he married Elizabeth Childress, who was from an old Nashville family; in 1850 he wed Elizabeth Brown, daughter of Judge M. W. Brown; and, finally, he married in 1854 Maria L. Bass, daughter of John M. Bass and granddaughter of Felix Grundy. The Bass-Grundy connection helped Stevenson in promoting the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, as John M. Bass was the president of Union Bank in Nashville and was a past mayor of the city. The vast land holdings inherited from Felix Grundy provided ample opportunity for financial gain from the speculation of lands located near the proposed line.
In 1838 Vernon K. Stevenson became the most active and vocal proponent of a railroad between Nashville and Chattanooga which would link up with the Western and Atlantic line that connected Chattanooga with Charleston. He envisioned Middle Tennessee as part of a long distance commercial market economy which would produce marketable commodities to cities in the North and South. Stevenson personally solicited stock subscriptions from citizens in Murfreesboro, Nashville, Augusta, and Charleston. He also addressed the Tennessee General Assembly on behalf of the project and argued vehemently that the railroad would benefit all citizens regardless of occupation.
The State of Tennessee granted incorporation and charter for the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad in 1845. Vernon K. Stevenson was elected president of the railroad in 1848 and served in that role until 1862. He and his family owned large portions of land along the railroad that were later sold at substantial profit to town developers in Tullahoma, Decherd, and Stevenson, Alabama. Stevenson also became the major stockholder in several branch railroads.
The most controversial period of his life came during the Civil War. Stevenson was a major in the Quartermaster Department of the Confederate army in Nashville, and General Nathan Bedford Forrest criticized his actions in regard to the fall of Nashville to Union forces on February 23, 1862, because vast supplies of shoes, clothing, and meat were not transported south and instead fell into the hands of Union troops. Stevenson had left Nashville eight days before Union troops entered the city in his own private railroad car with his family, personal belongings, furniture, carriage, and carriage horses, without finishing the transportation of army supplies south. Needless to say, this action did not endear Stevenson to Nashvillians left in the occupied city, nor did they admire the fact that Stevenson made a fortune selling cotton to England by running the Union naval blockade and supplying the Confederate army. At the end of the war, he moved his family and business to New York City.
In 1880 Stevenson again won the ire and dislike of many Nashvillians when the Louisville and Nashville Railroad bought out the expanded Nashville and Chattanooga company, known as the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis, through Stevenson’s secret sale of a majority of stock. Stevenson’s sale ended the existence of an independent railroad headquartered in Nashville.
Stevenson died in New York City on October 18, 1884, leaving an estate valued at five million dollars. He lived the proverbial American dream of starting near the bottom, as a small merchant, and rising to the top of society as a railroad president and a successful millionaire.
Jesse C. Burt Jr., “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)