Tennessee is sort of a funny shaped state. North to South, it is only 116 miles, while East to West it stretches 482 miles. Tennessee has three major cities, Knoxville in the East, Nashville in the Middle, and Memphis in the West. Since a great deal of the traffic through Tennessee is along Interstate 40, these three cities are the hubs for their areas. About 80 miles East of Nashville, and about 100 miles West of Knoxville is my hometown of Cookeville, TN. Being on Interstate 40 helps Cookeville to be the jumping off point for people traveling along the Interstate.
But before the Interstate highway system existed, Cookeville was a stop along the railroad lines. Built in 1909 by the Tennessee Central Railway, Cookeville Depot was a stop for passenger trains for the area. Being rural at that time, having the train depot here helped businesses and people arrive and stay in Cookeville. Farmers that needed to transport their crops to large markets in Nashville and Knoxville used the trains as a lifeline for their families.
Though it was difficult for the rail tracks to be constructed on the uneven terrain, by the 1870’s Tennessee Pacific Railroad had connected Lebanon TN and Nashville TN. Politicians and other interested people believed the railways should be extended eastward to Cookeville and beyond. The Caney Fork River caused problems for the early builders but they added trestles to cross the river at several locations.
By connecting the areas of Middle Tennessee to the Illinois Central Tracks in Hopkinsville, KY travelers could enjoy 10-hour passenger train rides as far away as Minnesota. Just as with many of the earlier means of travel, as bus lines and automobiles became more popular in the area, the passenger train traffic died out. The last passenger train for that era left Cookeville in 1955.
Having the railroad running through Cookeville, helped land values to rise. Growth that developed during the early 1900’s led Cookeville to be the Hub of the Upper Cumberland that it is today. With transportation easily accessible in Cookeville, Dixie College (Later Tennessee Polytechnic Institute and Currently Tennessee Technological University) was established. Students have traveled from all over the world to study Engineering at Tennessee Technological University.
The Cookeville Depot has been restored and is currently a museum. Freight trains travel through Cookeville several times per week. For special events, passenger trains run from Cookeville to Algood TN, Cookeville to Lebanon TN, and Cookeville to Nashville TN but these are for amusement rather than actual train travel.
The Depot Museum has been restored on the outside and inside as a monument to its historical value of this area. Inside wax figures wear costumes to emulate people who waited for the trains in years gone by. The bay window office area person was tasked to watch the tracks and secure tickets. Many items in the bay window office area are authentic items used in that time frame. A 1913 Baldwin engine, freight car, and caboose are on display.
The model train set in the main room of the Depot is a mini-replica of the Cookeville Square during its heyday. Christmas decorating and special events are highlighted yearly at the station.
Though the Interstate Highway shifted the larger portion of businesses to the South of town to be more accessible to automobile travelers, the Downtown area is being preserved and restored to keep the quaint feelings of days gone by for generations to come.
Cookeville TN is gaining some notoriety now as being in the path of the eclipse in August 2017. We are expecting a record number of people to visit the Tennessee Technological University campus for events leading up to the actual eclipse. This is an exciting time for Middle Tennessee.
Darlene R League has lived in Putnam County Tennessee her entire life. She currently works one block North of the Cookeville Depot Museum at the Cookeville Gas Department as a Geographical Information Systems Specialist. She has been a freelance writer for many years and has been published in the Herald-Citizen area newspaper. She lives with her husband William, her cat Missy, and her dog Rouge.