I have never seen the erstwhile Birmingham Terminal Station. It no longer exists. In fact, until recently, I did not know it had ever existed. As a native-gone-expat of Birmingham – once heralded, falsely or truly, as the “Pittsburgh of the South” - this is regrettable. This structure, completed in 1909, was supposed to have been the Grand Central of the Southeast. From the black and white photographs and sepia tone prints of it housed in various dusty archives throughout the state, primarily in the Historical Archive at Linn-Henley Library, it bore a strong resemblance to the architecture of other stations built in the train aesthetic of the time.
The site of the Station occupied two blocks of 26th Street North and 5th Avenue. If you go there today there is only a highway cut. When weary travelers from out of state arrived in the Magic City for the first time, this is what they saw: the waiting room was almost 8,000 square feet. A glass dome, 64 feet in diameter, crowned the center cupola and a skylight beamed moted sun into the waiting room. The lower 16 feet of the walls were masoned in gray blocks of marble quarried in Tennessee. With its Byzantine-style, Beaux Arts train aesthetic and the giant cycloptic clock that tracked the hours of countless arrivals and departures, Birmingham Terminal Station dominated the skyline. Like the Colossus of Rhodes, the opulent Terminal was a structure designed to impress travelers as they arrived in the Magic City.
Long, hand-worked wooden church pews for the transients. A two ton chandelier dangling overhead so opulent it could have been in a Turkish bath house. A waiting room for women only. Smoking room and barber shop. The obligatory “colored” waiting room. These were not enlightened times for the South. An umbrella shed protected passengers waiting on the platform from the natural elements. And by elements is meant mostly rain, for if it ever snows here the trains won’t be running and, even if they were running, there would be no passengers waiting at the platform to board them.
The Station itself went through many incarnations and metamorphoses during its brief use. As with many other public buildings, The Great Depression took a physical toll on the structure, but was revived during World War II. During its most halcyon period, 54 trains per day chugged into the station.
[caption id=”attachment_185″ align=”alignnone” width=”500″ caption=”Magic City welcome sign “][/caption]
1952 was a foreboding year for the Terminal, for in that year the welcome sign – evidently in grave disrepair - was removed. This electric sign, grandiose as it might have been, demonstrated a certain amount of civic pride and its removal, decades after its construction, is a testament to the decline in civic spirit. Urban dwellers cared less about such frivolities because there were few urbanites to care – they went south, to the suburbs.
All the while, there were obscure background forces conspiring to undermine the Terminal. The Eisenhower Interstate System allowed owners of private automobiles to get from point A to point B and back to point A without the hassle of train schedules, but there was a cost that was both externalized and deferred to future generations. The network of interstate highways and the burgeoning economy of air travel were bankrolled and subsidized by the federal government, which lent it a competitive edge over rail travel.
[caption id=”attachment_171″ align=”alignnone” width=”683″ caption=”The Terminal on a busy day”][/caption]
Eisenhower’s insane dream, or nightmare, was to pave the continent with a black ribbon of endless asphalt, connecting cities, facilitating interstate travel and commerce, and providing the country with a dense network of supply lines for national defense in case of a nuclear attack or foreign invasion. Paranoia masquerading as progress.
The interstate highway system precipitated not just the decline of Terminal Station, but rail travel all over the country. The Federal Highway Act passed in 1956, in part due to intense lobbying by major manufacturers of automobiles, after which one can observe a precipitous decline in railway ridership. Only four years later, the Station’s schedule had been reduced to twenty-six trains per day. In 1969, the year of the wrecking ball, the Station logged seven trains on a good day.
In this photo, the welcome sign is gone. It would not be long before the Station too disappeared. The cars depicted in this photograph, and those who drove them, would bring about its downfall. The availability and affordability of private automobiles, tires and oil made railway travel seem quaint and anachronistic.
[caption id=”attachment_179″ align=”alignnone” width=”597″ caption=”Interior of the Terminal just before its demolition “][/caption]
It is no accident that the decline in the Station’s ridership coincided with the litigation that desegregated the waiting rooms. As car ownership among the middle-classes became the norm, it was thought that only poor blacks rode buses or trains. Public transit made middle-class white folks think of the Freedom Rides. Buses in flame. Boycotts. Something called “civil rights.” All of these synergistic forces – desegregation, the subsidized federal highway system and the equally subsidized air travel economy, GE buying up the tracks – contributed to the demise of Terminal Station.