Birmingham’s Biggest Blunder of the 20th Century

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Destruction of the Terminal Station. Sure it was deteriorating, maybe even decaying if you want to use that word.

Did anybody ever look north a little over a 100 miles at a town called Chattanooga, and what is called the Chattanooga Choo-Choo? The hotel complex there and the restaurants and other sites, including an old steam engine, and railroad passenger cars fitted for overnight guests.

When I traveled by car, I often went through Chattanooga just to eat at one of the restaurants at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, so named after the song. It wasn’t out of my way, but a little inconvenient. It was worth it for what Chattanooga had, and Birmingham didn’t.

You can read various accounts of why the Terminal Station in Birmingham is not here anymore, why a group of investors wasn’t found like in Chattanooga where now the large hotel and restaurants and old train engines and old passenger cars fitted for guests are thriving.

You can take this in whatever order you choose. An investor was going to build a new Social Security building on the site of the Birmingham Terminal Station, and that was the reason it was torn down. The Interstate needed the Terminal Station site as a right-of-way. The Terminal Station site was needed for low-income housing.

Some of you may have never eaten at Happy John Bolus’ Restaurant on 5th Avenue, to have eaten his BBQ served with cornbread. That must be a misprint. BBQ with cornbread. The only restaurant I’ve ever known to serve BBQ with cornbread. BBQ enthusiasts say no way. You’re talking to a BBQ enthusiast, and it was good.

You came out of the restaurant, looked east at the sign at the entrance to the tunnel going under the Terminal Station, “Welcome to Birmingham, the Magic City”, and further east to the Terminal Station, a station that would be there forever. Forever wasn’t very long.

I think the housing project is still there, a poor excuse for history. Any other number of locations could have been chosen for that, because people do need a place to live.

There was one aspect that always fascinated me about the Terminal Station, the brickwork. I asked an expert about the curving arches of bricks, something in brickwork that was not easy to accomplish, and was not duplicated much in brickwork elsewhere, if at all. Was the expert I asked an architect? No, it was my stepfather. He was a brick mason. There are brick masons, and there are brick masons. He was a finishing brick mason, which meant if called upon he could have built those arches. He had great respect for what the brick masons who participated in the building of the Terminal Station were able to accomplish.

I was in that terminal station more than once. Watching people leave, watching people come. Crying, laughing, joy, sorrow. Someone seeing someone else for the last time. A young lady coming to Birmingham to meet the family of her husband-to-be. An old lady with the raising of her wrinkled hand, and the waving of a frail goodbye.

There is still dirt at the housing project, dirt that holds history, if you care to pick up a handful. As you pour it from your hand, as you would if you turned an hourglass over, perhaps should you listen closely, maybe the sound of the steam engines might filter out, or the cacophony of miscellaneous voices emanating from within the Terminal Station, maybe even a baby crying because its mother turned away for a moment, not devoting full attention to it. If you listen intently you might even hear the familiar sound only heard in a train station, “All aboard”.

Time does not stop for anyone, and in that movement of time, progress is supposed to be made. Sometimes that progress takes from us a memory, a memory that should not be, because the source of the memory should still be here. We should be able to look at the sign on 5th Avenue, “Welcome to Birmingham, the Magic City”. The magic in the magic city left us for a while, but I think it’s coming back.

But the Terminal Station is gone, forever gone. We who cherished it only have a picture found on the Internet to remind us of its beauty, its importance, what it meant to each of us individually, because a different memory that occurred at different times for different individuals is what made it important to all of us. Different but the same.

And the old lady lifts her wrinkled hand to wave a fragile goodbye.

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