By David Sher
I recently wrote a column about my all-time favorite Birmingham restaurant, Joy Young.
Reminiscing is fun so I began my search for my next topic.
Then I drove past the Rotary Trail sign in downtown Birmingham and the idea hit me.
The Rotary Trail and sign should be celebrated, but the sign is a reminder of one of the biggest disappointments in Birmingham history.
The demolition of our downtown Terminal Train Station.
The Rotary trail sign is a replica and tribute to a giant electric sign erected in 1926 outside the Terminal Station at the west end of the 5th Avenue North underpass.
Originally reading ‘Welcome to Birmingham, the Magic City‘, it was later shortened to just ‘Birmingham, the Magic City.’
In March of 2016, a new sign was erected by the Rotary Club of Birmingham at the entrance of the Rotary Trail that reads ‘Rotary Trail in the Magic City.’
When I think about the demolition of the Terminal Station, it makes me want to cry.
When I was a child in the ‘50’s, any time we had visitors from out of state, my family drove to the Terminal Station to pick them up.
What a building! What an experience!
To me as a kid, the Terminal Station was a place of awe. It was a massive building—and a madhouse of activity as trains came and left the station. Outside of the station were ten tracks, designed to accommodate 44 daily passenger trains.
According to Bhamwiki, The Terminal Station opened in 1909. “It was built in a Byzantine style and featured a domed central waiting room with a skylight, two 130-foot towers at the north and south wings, and many amenities.”
It was demolished in 1969.
It was such a grand structure that Gizmodo compiled a list of the “Nine most beautiful buildings we ever tore down.” Our Terminal Station was listed second behind the Singer Building in New York—the tallest building in the world for a time.
Birmingham missed a once in a lifetime opportunity to save one of the most grand structures in America. Many other cities redeveloped their train stations into magnificent facilities such as Grand Central Station in New York, Washington Union Station, and St. Louis Union Station.
I’m sure many of you have visited the Chattanooga Choo-Choo in Chattanooga. The original Chattanooga Terminal Station was nothing special and certainly a lot smaller than our Terminal Station. And there never was a train called the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Yet investors converted it into a hotel and developed the rail yard into event space and condominiums.
How Birmingham can overcome the loss of the Terminal Station
We can wring our hands all we want, but we are not going to bring back the Terminal Station.
Before the demolition, there were efforts to develop the Terminal Station for other purposes, but the redevelopment plans failed. The site ultimately became part of the right-of-way for the Red Mountain Expressway, connecting U.S. Highway 31 and U.S. Highway 280 with I-59/20.
Ironically the cut in the Red Mountain Expressway created Birmingham’s next opportunity.
According to trekBirmingham, the Red Mountain cut has “likely more geologic history than any other road cut in the U.S.”
When the Red Mountain Expressway sliced through Red Mountain, the project removed around two million cubic yards of Red Mountain ridge, which exposed over 190 million years of geologic strata dating back over 500 million years.
“The cut was recognized in 1987 as a National Natural Landmark, an area that’s a significant example of the nation’s natural heritage.”
I drive down the Elton B. Stephens Expressway through the cut regularly, and quite frankly, I usually take it for granted.
It’s time we take notice of this incredible marvel and turn it into a regional attraction.
There have been discussions since the Red Mountain Expressway was built to take advantage of this valuable landmark. But to date, nothing much has happened.
If done right, however, the cut could easily become a major tourist attraction and identifier for our Birmingham region.
We may have lost our one of a kind Terminal Station—and that is a shame—but we have an amazing opportunity with a one-of-a-kind priceless treasure.
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
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