The Last Train to Knoxville

The anticlimactic end of an era

That mild August 40 years ago, people were talking about the University of Tennessee, about the huge enrollment, 37,400 for the fall quarter, and especially about the young, untested new football coach, Bill Battle. And about wonderful gasoline. Up and down the streets were cardboard signs touting "Gas War." Some stations were selling it as low as 24.9 cents a gallon. There was plenty of the stuff, America was friendly with the world's oil-producing nations, and stations were trying to get rid of it faster than the guys across the street. The big federally funded interstates were almost complete. Traveling by car had never been so easy.

There were lots of places to drive to. Perhaps taking a hint from the gas wars, restaurants—especially the clean, exciting chain restaurants, such a welcome connection to the great world beyond the valley—were touting All You Can Eat specials. Shoney's was offering their exotic Call of the Sea, all you can eat seafood for $1.39. Al Hirt's new New Orleans place on Market Street, food with a New Orleans flair, all you can eat for $1.25.

Holidays on Ice was in town, in the still-modern-looking Civic Coliseum, Knoxville's annual summer break. Patton was still playing at the Park Theater. Chisum, starring John Wayne, was at the Tennessee, and Cheyenne Social Club was held over at the Riviera. Someone walking down Gay Street toward the old train station would have passed by the Gay Theatre, the porno house, showing a movie called Hedonistic Pleasures.

At some point, almost all Knoxvillians drove home. Many Knoxvillians went to bed after watching Dick Cavett, who was talking to Alain Delon and Elsa Lanchester. Some stayed up to watch Channel 10's late, late show, East of Eden, with James Dean. Maybe some people watched that and stepped out into downtown at 3 a.m., either to enjoy a night stroll in perfect weather, or to witness the arrival of the last passenger train in Knoxville history.

If so, there weren't many. It was hardly even news. Only one of the dailies had announced that it would be the last train ever—a tiny item on page 8—and they got the time wrong. The last passenger train had left the L&N station two years earlier. It hadn't been any big deal, either.

The Southern station's clock showed 3 o'clock when the night train pulled below the Gay Street viaduct and stopped at the 70-year-old depot. It was the Birmingham Special, Southern #18. It came from the southwest, just like the very first train to arrive in Knoxville had, arriving at the same spot 115 years earlier to considerably more excitement. The Birmingham Special pulled eight cars behind three diesel engines; it needed only two engines, but one was, in effect, a passenger, needed in Washington. The coach windows were dark because its few passengers were trying to sleep.

Only 12 boarded in Knoxville. More than the three or four who usually got on the train in the middle of the night. Those eight or nine extra passengers constituted the party that ended an era.

The Birmingham Special had few of the classic amenities of a passenger train. A baggage car and a mail car, of course. No Pullman sleeping coaches, no lounge car. A railroad man said a train with a real dining car hadn't passed through the Southern station since the early '60s.

Some who boarded were taking it to Washington. Two were going all the way to New York; they paid $31.75 each. Washington was $20. The next stop was Morristown, which was just $1.18.

The last person to buy a railroad ticket in Knoxville was an enthusiastic young man. The Southern clerk who sold the ticket, Southern Railway veteran H.W. McRae, said, "I wish I'd got his name. He was a young fellow who rode the train every chance he got. He didn't like buses and he was afraid to fly."

The young man and his wife were riding the Special only as far as Abingdon. They said they'd catch a bus back. McRae said he was staying with Southern, but from now on they'd be dealing with freight only.

There were some comps aboard including, reportedly, Graham Claytor, the 58-year-old World War II hero who was at the time president of Southern Railway. Later secretary of the U.S. Navy, he would be, later still, head of Amtrak and the Federal Railroad Administration. He didn't emerge to speak to the reporters (there were apparently two of them) at the station. Southern was still running some passenger trains, and still running parts of the Birmingham Special's route. They just cut out the East Tennessee stops.

Though the train arrived on time, it pulled out several minutes late. No explanation for why engineer W.B. Keene paused so long in Knoxville, especially considering that the big boss was on board.

Conductor K.P. Yarnell tried to give it a epitaph. "Weep at birth and rejoice at the departure," he said. He said it was biblical, but it sounds more like Montesquieu. He admitted his heart wasn't in it.

Knoxville Journal columnist Dudley Brewer could tell a passenger train from a freight by ear—the passenger train had "a lighter, faster sound," he said. Brewer saw little romance in buses and airplanes. Trains were different, he said, almost like people: "They seemed to be something breathing and alive." But he didn't get on board, either. The departure "was not as sentimental an event as one might have expected," he wrote.

Maybe there was no call for sentimentality. Gas was cheap, and travel had never been easier. "Leave the driving to us," Greyhound said, touting their two-level luxury Scenicruiser. Competing with airlines for the family and business travel market, some deluxe buses carried hostesses. Plans for a much-expanded, modern McGhee Tyson airport promised that airline travel would just get better and faster and safer and easier all the time. It was 1970, after all. Passenger rail was dead.