The Mississippi River is more romantic and the airport more technologically marvelous, but the city of Memphis has been shaped by railroads as much as anything else.
It is the third largest rail center in the United States, according to the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, and is one of only four U.S. cities served by five Class I rail systems. Tracks crisscross nearly every corner of Shelby County, but arguably no neighborhood in Memphis is as closely identified with rail transportation as the University District's five neighborhoods and its Southern Avenue tracks.
The Buntyn neighborhoods grew around Buntyn Station
, and the Normal Station neighborhood is named for a depot located on Walker Avenue in front of the University of Memphis. Both stations were demolished in the mid-1900s as the city expanded east and car travel became the dominant transportation.
In the half century since the demise of the passenger lines and the tearing out of the old streetcar system that ran alongside it, most people’s interactions with rail lines in the University District have been trying to avoid them.
Trains traveling along the Norfolk Southern line that runs parallel to Southern Avenue through the heart of the district regularly back up automobile traffic on busy Highland and Goodlett streets and other surrounding roads.
The trains are also a hazard for students rushing to get to class. As recently as 2016, railroad and school officials have warned about rushing to beat trains and climbing over stopped rail cars. The university recently installed barriers and three protected crossings along the tracks and is currently constructing a pedestrian bridge to bypass the tracks all together in hopes to ameliorate the safety concern.
But in an earlier era, rail was not a nuisance to the district. It was a godsend. Though in service for only 36 years, the Normal Depot was key to the early success of the school that would become the University of Memphis and the growth of the neighborhoods around it.
Residents’ memories of the depot conjure images from the golden age of rail in America — platforms packed with bright-eyed young students arriving for the first day of school; Memphians boarding for the Atlantic Ocean, New York City, and other destinations previously undreamt of; and returning soldiers returning trying to rebuild their lives after the carnage of World War II.
“I remember the passenger trains especially,” said Dorene Holman, who lived in Messick-Buntyn from 1951 until 1971.
She recalled how she and her children marveled at the speed of the travel, which made a weekend trip to Knoxville possible for the first time.
“My brother lived in Knoxville … my children and I got on the Tennessean at 10 o’clock Friday night. We got off the train in Knoxville the next morning about six o’clock. We stayed the weekend, went into the Smokey Mountains for a picnic and then Sunday night we got back on the train about 10 o’clock. We got off at Buntyn Station Monday morning at seven o’clock; I went to work and they went to school.”
The Tennessean, the luxury liner that replaced the Memphis Special as the main passenger train on the Southern Railway in 1941. (Memphis Public Libraries)
A Rural Line
The railroad first extended to the area in 1835 just 16 years after the founding of Memphis to the west. It was known as the Memphis-LaGrange line. At the time, the University District was rural and unincorporated, home to little more than a few plantations, family farms and a nearby Native American hunting camp.
In 1846 the line was extended to Charleston, South Carolina and renamed the Memphis and Charleston Railway until the formation of the Southern Railway in 1894.
“In 1912 residents of ‘Old Normal’ still referred to the railway as the Memphis and Charleston,” wrote historian John C. Rea in the 1984 West Tennessee Historical Society Papers.
In 1858, the line marked a milestone when it became the first railway to connect the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Ocean. The occasion was celebrated with a two-day gala called “The Wedding of the Waters
” which culminated in the arrival of a cistern of water from the ocean which was then poured into the Mississippi.
The line, which was for a short time the longest railway in America, was a much-fought-over resource during the Civil War, but the stretch that ran through the University District remain rural and quiet.
An undated lithograph depicting the 1858 "Wedding of the Waters," marking the completion of the first railway connecting the Mississippi to the Atlantic. (Memphis Public Libraries)
By the turn of the century, Memphis was expanding rapidly, and its limits were just two miles to the west of what is now the East Buntyn and Messick-Buntyn neighborhoods. In 1909, the city made a failed annexation bid for the area. That same year, Messick High School opened near Buntyn Station.
Related: “The past and possibility of old Messick High”
Also in 1909, the state legislature made a decision that would kickstart the area’s trajectory towards the district it is today. The vote established three Normal Schools, also known as teachers’ colleges.
After months of competition among communities across the region, the state legislature selected Memphis as the site for the West Tennessee Normal School, now the University of Memphis.
The school was located on 80 acres of former farmland north of the train tracks and east of Highland Street that had already been cleared for subdivisions.
“This site was especially desirable as its location on the Southern Railway afforded direct railroad transportation,” wrote John Chris Stathis in a 1956 history of the school. “Two trains ran past the spot daily. Also, the Memphis Street Railway Company had promised an extension of the Buntyn streetcar line to the grounds.”
The School and the station
West Tennessee Normal School opened September 9, 1912, with 17 teachers and a little over 200 students. Complementing the new school was the Normal Depot located along Walker Avenue near Echles.
The Normal Depot became particularly busy at the beginning of a new term. Dozens and then hundreds of out-of-town students would arrive in the days before classes. A mule-drawn carriage was supplied by the school to transport trunks and baggage but could rarely handle the influx. According to Rea in “The Normal Depot of the Southern Railway,” enterprising students were quick to fill the gap.
“A few enterprising males arrived on the scene with two-wheel pushcarts,” he wrote.
They could earn part of the $10 tuition fee carrying trunks to the dormitory and try to impress the young women in the hopes of future courting.
According to Rea, Normal Depot was a small but well appointed and fully staffed station. In addition to the train, the depot was the terminus for an extension of the Memphis streetcar, which shadowed the train tracks along Southern Avenue. In 1912, the fare was 7 cents to travel from Normal Depot to Downtown’s Main Street.
According to Caroline Carrico, a curator at the Pink Palace Museum who specializes in local history, the streetcar was pivotal.
“Streetcars enabled city residents to move east away from Downtown, especially in a period before widespread car ownership,” she said. “Basically, they let people live away from where they worked and shopped.”
A view of the Buntyn neighborhood circa. the turn of the century. In the lower half of the picture, you can make out a train and a streetcar working their ways along Southern Avenue. (Memphis Public Libraries)
life on the line
The new stop quickly lent its name to the budding neighborhood to the south of the tracks, which became known as Normal Station.
In the first half of the 20th century, new subdivisions sprang up all around the school, as well as commercial development including grocery stores, two barber shops, a drug store and a post office.
Though all of it ran the romance of train travel.
In his 1976 memoir, “I Remember Normal,” Dr. James A Wallace recalled the trains speed by his family’s home, located next door to his father’s private psychiatric hospital on Southern near present-day Audubon Park.
There was the Newsboy, a short train that carried The Commercial Appeal newspaper and ice cream to the surrounding countryside and returned with fresh milk. More alluring to adults was the Memphis Special, a luxury passenger train that launched in 1909. For $43.35 round trip, it whisked travelers from Memphis to New York in just two days.
Related: Rising to new Heights: The history and current climb of Memphis' streetcar suburb
The station quickly became a touchstone marking the important events in residents’ lives.
“In 1935, I boarded the Memphis Special at the Normal Depot for the trip to the University of Virginia,” wrote Wallace in his memoir. “In 1943, I left Normal to go to Pennsylvania to enter the Army Medical Corps in World War II.”
Indeed, the war saw some of Normal Depot’s darkest and busiest days.
The Tennessean, the renamed and upgraded passenger train that replaced the Memphis Special, carried thousands of veterans to the nearby Kennedy General Hospital on the site of what is today the University’s South Campus at Park Avenue and Getwell Road. It opened in 1943, and by 1946 some 44,000 soldiers were treated at Kennedy. In better days, those young men might have come to Normal Depot to go to school.
They would be some of the last passengers to pass through Normal Depot.
End of the Line
Suburban flight and the rise of the automobile spelled the end for both passenger rail and streetcar.
The Normal Depot closed in 1949. The college bought the property for $200 and promptly tore it down. Passenger service along the line ended altogether in 1968. Today it is a freight-only line operated since 1982 by the merged Norfolk Southern Railway.
Normal Depot historical marker along Walker Avenue. (Memphis Public Libraries)
The Memphis Street Railway, whose franchise with the city expired in 1945, switched from streetcars to trolleybuses in 1947 and in 1960 discontinued those as the company was dissolved and absorbed into the publicly-owned Memphis Transit Authority in 1961.
“Once widespread car ownership occurred, the system became less viable,” says Carrico.
For years, students at Memphis State University and later University of Memphis could still spy the remnants of the district’s rail past in the faded brick outline of the old depot along Walker.
The school’s $35 million pedestrian bridge
, slated for completion in summer 2019, now runs above the site.
The school has done some light restoration on the faded foundation as its brick outline is now filled with crushed gravel.
The foundation combined with historical accounts, a nearby historical marker and the names that live on in the unique neighborhoods — Normal Station, Messick-Buntyn and East Buntyn — is what’s left to mark where and how the University District of today got its start.