Northeast Alabama was once an important railroad hub for the country and part of the South’s only continuous route from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River. While the glory days of the railroad have passed, today you can take a tour of Northeast Alabama’s railroad history and ride aboard a classic train. Begin your rail tour in the northeastern tip of the state at Bridgeport, southwest of Chattanooga, just off U.S. 72. The Bridgeport depot dates back to 1917; built in a Spanish architectural style, the depot’s tracks are still in use. CSX Railroad Company gave the depot deed to the town in 1992 and restoration began. The depot is open to the public Thursday-Monday. Collections of artifacts include photos from the Civil War era to the present, Civil War records and newspapers. Also on display is a restored CSX caboose and the Bridgeport Ferry Tug The Calvin Smith. Nearby is The Bridgeport Bridge, in use by the railroad before the Civil War. Although burned and rebuilt twice, the original limestone piers remain. Information: Greater Jackson County Chamber, 1-800-259-5508, 256/259-5500.
Next, head south on 72 to Stevenson. The Stevenson Depot and Hotel, first constructed in 1853, was burned after the Civil War. The current brick depot and hotel were built in 1872. Located on Main Street, the depot was the town’s center of activity. Trains stopped at mealtimes and passengers ate in hotel dining rooms. Some passengers spent the night in the hotel, which is so close to the tracks it was said the trains “opened the hotel windows and pulled the covers off the beds.” Citizens saved the depot in 1976, when the last railroad office closed in Stevenson. Renovated as a community museum, the depot reopened in 1982. Open Monday-Friday, 8:30-4:30; call for Saturday schedule (256/437-3012). Free admission. The Choo Choo Restaurant occupies the hotel and offers “down home Southern” meals seven days a week.
Head southwest on 72 to Huntsville to visit the North Alabama Railroad Museum, 10 minutes east of the downtown. More than 30 pieces of railroad equipment are housed in the museum. Two types of tours are available: a free self-guided walking tour of the Chase Depot or a guided tour (with a small charge) with an audio-visual presentation and walk through the museum’s Railway Post Office car, passenger coach, Pullman sleeping car and caboose. A 1926 Boxcab diesel locomotive, said to be one of the earliest of its type, is on display. Train rides are available on the museum’s Mercury & Chase Railroad. The 10-mile, 90-minute round trip carries visitors in vintage railroad coaches. (Information: Call for museum hours and train ride reservations 256/851-6276, www.suncompsvc.com/narm; Location: 694 Chase Road N.E.)
Head west to downtown Huntsville and spend the day at the Huntsville Depot & Museum, Alabama’s only antebellum depot. When local merchants and farmers heard of a proposed railroad between the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Ocean, they were determined that the railroad come through Huntsville to allow them to bypass the town of Muscle Shoals, where crops and goods were reportedly frequently lost. The three-story brick depot, completed in 1860, was a target during the Civil War as were other Southern depots. Features included first floor separate waiting rooms for men and women, baggage room and ticket office. Train crews used bunk rooms on the third floor; railroad offices were located on the second floor. After passenger service left in the 1960s, the City of Huntsville purchased the depot and restored it to its original configuration.
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Directions: Take I-565 to exit 19a toward downtown Huntsville, continue south, turn right at the first light, 320 Church Street. Information: 256/564-8100, www.earlyworks.com.
For a rail map of Alabama, call 1-800-ALABAMA or visit their website