Downtown's Central Station may not be the passenger hub it was in the heyday of train travel, but it's still chugging along.
This weekend, October 3rd through 5th, the Memphis Railroad & Trolley Museum, located inside Central Station, will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the station's 1914 grand opening with live music, a train memorabilia sale, special exhibits, and more.
"We want the younger generation to have an experience that shows them what it might have been like to be alive in Memphis in the 1900s," said Joe Oliver, founding director of the museum. "Rail transport and travel is a big part of the Memphis story, part of our history, and our heritage is in danger of being lost because it isn't as easy to see as it once was."
On Thursday, October 2nd, the celebration will kick off with a show by country band the Grahams at 7:30 p.m.
On Friday, October 3rd, two train exhibit cars will pull into the station — one displaying the history of Amtrak and another displaying that of Norfolk Southern. Both will be open for tours from noon to
5 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
"The Norfolk Southern car will have a locomotive simulator. You're the engineer. You'll see the countryside pass and the tracks as you're rolling down. You'll have to blow the horn when you approach streets," said Bill Strong, director of the Memphis Railroad & Trolley Museum.
On Saturday, October 4th, the official anniversary of the station, the Memphis Rail & Trolley Museum will be open for free. Guest lecturer Milton Winter will talk about the history of Central Station. A train show and sale will be set up in the building's boardroom, peddling all sorts of rail artifacts and collectibles.
Double J Bar-B-Q will be served in the Amtrak parking lot from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Visitors can also board a bus headed to the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) trolley barn on North Main for a tour.
Central Station was constructed for around $1.5 million at the corner of Main and Calhoun (now G.E. Patterson) to replace another train station at that same location. In the station's heyday, numerous rail lines operated passenger trains there.
By the 1960s, many rail lines began discontinuing passenger trains. On
May 1, 1971, Amtrak took over all inter-city passenger train service. Illinois Central, which was headquartered here, moved their offices out of the station by 1989.
"After Illinois Central moved out, the station became a hull. It was at one time referred to as the worst Amtrak station in America," Strong said. "People were scared of the neighborhood, and there were drunks passed out in the street."
In the 1990s, the station was remodeled, and the once-sleazy South Main area was transformed into a thriving arts district.
"In 1991, the Illinois Central railroad sold the station and all the property to the city of Memphis for $10. And the city said, 'MATA, you're going to run this building," Strong said.
Today, Central Station still serves as the Amtrak hub, and it's home to the Memphis Rail & Trolley Museum. The former Illinois Central office space on the upper floors is now apartments, and parts of the bottom floor is rented out for special events.