Bristol Train Station
101 Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard
“I’m a thousand miles away from home just waitin’ for a train.”
–Jimmie Rodgers, “Waitin’ for a train,” 1928
Until it was replaced by the interstate highway system, the railroad was the predominant mode of transportation in the nation for more than a century. For small towns and communities, the train station served as a link with the outside world and, even deeper, as a place of transition. From these stations, children began the transition to adulthood, leaving behind provincial life to pursue opportunities in the larger world. All who left would be changed; some for the better, some for the worse and some would never return.
Still, others would transition from life to death at the very beginning of their journeys: they would find death awaiting them at the train station.
Bristol’s State Street straddles the state line between Tennessee and Virginia, with the street’s north side in Virginia and its south side in Tennessee. Originally part of a large plantation, the land now occupied by the town was developed once the owner was notified that two railroads would be converging at that spot. Joseph R. Anderson—son-in-law to the plantation’s owner—erected a home and business house just south of what is now State Street, directly across the street for what would become the site for the town’s train station.
The first train pulled into the original depot at this site in 1856. With it, the train brought decades of prosperity to the town. Local historian, V. N. “Bud” Phillips, notes that, “there would have been no Bristol had it not been for the coming of the railroad.” The massive brick station that currently stands was constructed in 1902 and is the third building on the site. Once passenger service ended in 1969, the depot was used briefly for shopping and dining but then stood empty for some years. In 1999, the Romanesque structure was purchased by a foundation and renovated into an events facility.
The great country singer, Jimmie Rodgers began his transition here from itinerant musician and railroad employee to the Father of Country Music when he stepped from a train in 1927 and recorded two songs in a makeshift local studio. Those two songs would inspire a recording career that would propel Rodgers into history.
While no longer the scene of arrivals and departures, there remain some lingering spirits from those who made dramatic transitions at this spot.
On the platform of the previous depot, a young lady, Emma Tompkins, stood with her travel bag on the morning of May 5, 1887. Her good-for-nothing husband, “Big Will,” cajoled her to stay. Emma had spent the previous night, like many nights, alone while her husband caroused among the town’s saloons and brothels. In despair, Emma had finally decided to leave her husband and join her sister in Radford, Virginia.
As she marched herself towards the station, Emma encountered her husband and he followed her to the station platform. With the train pulling into the station, Big Will grabbed the arm of his wife and the couple tumbled onto the track. Emma screamed but it was cut short as the train decapitated her. Her husband was cut in half by the train. Emma’s spirit joined the throng of spirits that already flit through the vast halls of the station.
One ghost hunting organization somehow determined that some 68 spirits haunt the building. Besides Emma’s wailing spirit, the spirit of a man by the name of Joseph Chalmers King has been known to appear in the building. Dressed in black pants, a white shirt, bowtie, and derby hat, the spirit is apparently still waiting on his lost lady-love to arrive. King’s spirit was known to appear when southwestern trains would pull into the depot. His last known appearance was in 1969, when the last southwestern train pulled in.
Throughout the building it still seems there is activity from former railroad passengers. In 2008, the building’s manager clearly heard the main door open followed by footsteps across the great hall. Peering down from a balcony near his office, the manager was unable to see anyone present and was shocked to hear a cough from the invisible being. He also reports the sounds of people talking, coins rattling in an unseen pocket, a clock that always stopped at 8:50 PM, and elevators moving without passengers.
The paranormal group, HAUNT Paranormal (Hunting and Understanding National Terrors), investigated the building in 2010, which was documented by a reporter from the Bristol Herald Courier. Apparently, the group captured an EVP of a scream, perhaps the same scream that escaped the throat of Emma Tompkins before her neck was severed by the train’s iron wheels.
A 2011 investigation by Appalachian Truth Seekers was featured on an episode in season four of My Ghost Story: Caught on Camera. The episode concentrates on a few pieces of evidence by that group. The most compelling piece of evidence is a video that was captured by accident. One of the investigators was testing out a video camera in what appears to be one of the station’s main halls. In the few seconds of video, a dark figure moves past an upstairs doorway. At the time, none of the investigators or station staff were upstairs.
While investigating the station’s basement, a female investigator was shoved by something that she claims rushed her. After she became angry and told the spirit to stop, an EVP was captured proclaiming that “I did not do it. Not here, not me.”
While the station has transitioned into its modern usage as an events facility, it seems that the spirits residing there may still be trying to make the transition into the afterlife.
In this blog, I have covered several other locations in Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia. Two theatres on State Street–the Paramount Center for the Performing Arts on the Tennessee side, and the Cameo Theatre on the Virginia side–have been covered in my article, “Phantoms of the Operas, Y’all–13 Haunted Southern Theatres.” I have also covered East Hill Cemetery, which straddles the state line.
- Appalachian Truth Seekers. “Appalachian Truth Seekers Case—Bristol Virginia Train Station Summary.” 3 December 2011.
- “End of the Line.” My Ghost Story: Caught on Camera. Biography Channel. 12 May 2012. Season 4, Episode 6.
- Galofaro, Clare. “Ghost hunters gather at Bristol station.” Bristol Herald Courier. 1 March 2010.
- History. Bristol Train Station. Accessed 5 February 2014.
- Jimmie Rodgers (country singer). Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 5 February 2014.
- Phillips, Bud. “History of Bristol.” org. Accessed 5 February 2014.
- Phillips, Bud. “Tragedy at The Depot Claimed Bristol Couple.” Bristol Herald Courier. 22 March 2009.
- Tennis, Joe. Haunts of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Highlands. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2010.
- Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission Staff. National Register of Historic Places nomination form for the Bristol Union Railway Station. August 1980.