Standing at the massive stone fireplace of Nashville’s Union Station felt like coming home in so many ways. Decorated for the holidays, the ornate lobby hearth crackled with the fire of a million souls who’d stood in this very spot before me. For decades after its opening in 1900, fresh-faced young soldiers by the thousands said goodbye to loved ones in the warmth and grandeur of Union Station, duffle bags slung over proud shoulders, stepping onto waiting trains that barreled toward an unknown future on foreign soil. Some made it back to that same warm spot months later, flinging themselves into waiting arms – while others did not.
Celebrate Me Home
Photo of Room 711 at Union Station Hotel, Autograph Collection is courtesy of TripAdvisor
Such is the story of Abigail, a young woman in her twenties who waved goodbye to her soldier at Union Station as he headed to France to fight the hellfire of Hitler in World War II. Returning to welcome him home at the end of the war, Abigail rushed to the platform, only to learn that her soldier wasn’t coming back, ever. Killed in action. Overcome with grief, she hurled herself onto the tracks just as a steam locomotive roared into the station, killing her in an anguished flash. Many believe her distraught spirit still lives in the station, which reincarnated itself as Union Station Hotel in the 1980s. Abigail now makes her home in Room 711, which overlooks those same tracks, now silent and abandoned.
Soldiers to Sojourners
The limestone fireplace at Union Station reigns over the lobby of this Victorian Romanesque Revival masterpiece, swathed in light from the striking 65-foot barrel-vaulted ceiling with gold-leaf medallions and 128 century-old Luminous Prism stained-glass panels. Kate Thompson, my hotel host as I roamed the magnificent edifice, tells of the countless “I Do’s” uttered in the flickering firelight of this lobby, starting with rushed wedding ceremonies performed before soldiers shipped off to war. The tradition continues to this day, with the hotel cradling stories of couple after couple who take their first communal steps of life’s journey at the hearth in this grand hotel lobby.
From soldiers to sojourners, wanderers, and rebels, the tales of travelers are etched into the very stones of Union Station. Other than the 125 elegant sleeping rooms and suites for overnight guests, little has changed architecturally since it was a bustling train station in the glory days of rail. It’s easy to see why it holds a listing in the National Register of Historic Places and why millions of Nashville visitors make their way to the grandeur and opulence of this beloved landmark.
Angels of Commerce
Carved angels, bas-relief panels and mythological culture bearers depict the evolution of travel throughout the mezzanine level. Facing one another across the divide, one panel portrays transportation in a horse-drawn chariot, while its counterpart illustrates a steam locomotive from the station’s original L&N Railroad. Statues of “Miss Louisville” and “Miss Nashville” stand guard on either end of the classic mezzanine clock, reaching out to one another across the divide. Even the original materials of this train station-turned-hotel reinforce the symbiotic connection between the two cities, with Tennessee marble and Kentucky limestone cladding the floors, fireplaces and outdoor turrets, arches and soaring clock tower.
Twenty gold-accented bas-relief angels of commerce stand beneath limestone arches every few feet along the entire mezzanine, brandishing individual symbols of Tennessee progress ranging from corn to whiskey, books and wheat. Three shimmering crystal chandeliers cast prisms of the past in every direction. Kate explains to me how, during the renovation from train station to hotel, historic images allowed researchers to track down the makers of the original chandeliers – a family-owned business in Luxembourg that happens to still be in operation. Links from past to present are strong at Union Station, evidenced once again in the re-created magnificence of these delicate dangling crystals.
Travelers in Time
Transportation has always been the explicable cog propelling America’s expansion, making it a given that famous creatures, both human and otherwise, passed through Union Station over the past 100 years. From baby alligators living in track-level ponds to Al Capone being escorted to federal prison and Mae West arriving for a rowdy Nashville theater show in 1930, history has left its mark on this iconic hotel. An estimated 10,000 people crowded Union Station to greet President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934, but that pales in comparison to the three million servicemen who followed the tracks of fate during WWII, just a few years later.
Travelers today linger much longer at Union Station, wrapped in overnight chambers of time and history. Most guest rooms are not original to the station, but the ones on Level Five were once offices occupied by railroad executives and still retain the original 18-foot ceilings. Other rooms feature sweeping arched windows, wood paneling and canopied beds. Abigail’s room on the seventh floor is custom-decorated with 1940s retro design to accommodate her ghostly sensibilities.
Just off the main lobby, what were once separate waiting parlors for male and female rail passengers are now intimate gathering spots for meetings, cocktail parties, conferences and wedding receptions. These spaces harbor two more original limestone fireplaces, along with inlaid marble and tile.
Ticket Booths and Whiskey Flights
What was once the train-station ticket booth now cradles the elegant hotel cocktail bar and Carter’s restaurant. Tables spill out into the grand lobby where guests dine beneath the gold medallions, stained-glass, and glistening chandeliers. As I soaked in the glamour and heritage of Union Station while sipping a locally roasted Honest Coffee espresso drink, Kate pointed out the intricate patterns of the original tile floor, painstakingly restored from remnants unearthed during an 11-million-dollar renovation.
As the sun set and day seeped into evening, it was time to join my fellow time-travelers on a whiskey flight featuring a curated list of 40 specialty pours. But it’s almost sacrilege to be at Union Station and not try their own branded version of Tennessee’s signature Jack Daniels bourbon. Kate explains that Jack Daniels reserved a full barrel of premium whiskey for Union Station, and it’s gradually dissipating, one shot at a time.
Anyone with a penchant for history, architecture and fine spirits can take a tour of the hotel on Wednesday, Friday or Saturday, culminating in a whiskey tasting at Carter’s. Overnight guests may want to appease restless roaming spirits by ordering The Abigail or The Soldier cocktail while enjoying a Thursday-night songwriter’s round of music at the weekly “Riffs on the Rails” session.
A Tear in the Fabric of Time
Many historic hotels weave their tales into unending patterns of time and progress – but some have a hidden aberration that’s almost palpable. Like a tear in the fabric of time, the secret stories of Union Station lie deep within the blood-soaked soil of cornfields lining Dutchman’s Curve about 2.5 miles away.
On July 19th of the year 1918, engineer David Kennedy pulled westbound L&N Railroad train No. 4 out of Union Station in Nashville at 7:07 a.m., exactly seven minutes late. Engineer William Floyd, who was on his final journey before retiring the next day, was guiding engine No. 1 from Memphis along the eastbound tracks, 35 minutes behind schedule. As the double tracks merged into a single track at the steeply graded Dutchman’s Curve, just 2.5 miles from Union Station, the two 80-ton engines crashed head-on at 50 to 60 miles per hour in what remains the deadliest train wreck in American history.
At least 101 souls departed the world that day, many having said their final goodbyes to loved ones at the lobby and platform of Union Station. Among those who perished were farmers who left their fields, families and homes to work in a Tennessee munitions plant supporting World War I. With news of the war dominating newspaper headlines again just two days later, the horrific train wreck was soon forgotten, buried and seldom mentioned until the 100th anniversary in 2018, the same year I stood before the flickering stone fireplace in the lobby of Union Station.
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
A few months earlier, pastors had gathered under a lone tree in a Nashville city cemetery just blocks away, telling stories of African American passengers who perished in the segregated wooden rail cars that telescoped into one another upon impact in the Great Train Wreck of 1918.
As their storied journeys were memorialized through songs such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “This Train is Bound for Glory,” hope rose that those who perished could find a final peace and move on from the tracks of time at Nashville’s Union Station.