Preservation project protects Niota’s city hall, state’s oldest-standing train depot

BY KATE COIL

TML Communications Specialist

Restoration of Tennessee’s oldest train depot are complete after efforts by Niota citizens and city officials worked to save the historic building.

Originally known as the Mouse Creek Station, Niota’s city hall is housed within the former train depot that dates back to 1855. After surviving occupation by both Union and Confederate forces during the Civil War, the depot was sold to the city in 1980 and became Niota City Hall.

Niota Mayor Lois Prees said the building is a strong link to the city’s past.

“It’s our city hall, but trains still go by at least ten times a day,” Prees said. “It is Niota’s claim to fame. We were a railroad community for a while. It is really important that this depot is preserved. The people who live here know the history of the building. People have been in it, walked by it for years, and it’s a part of their lives.”

The former Mouse Creek station is the only remaining train depot from the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad. Originally incorporated as the Hiwassee Rail Company, the ETGC connected Dalton, Ga. and Loudon with further spurs between Loudon and Knoxville and then Chattanooga and Cleveland. The line today is owned by Norfolk Southern.

In 1862, a Union spy recorded the Mouse Creek Depot and the surrounding town in his report of a Confederate company having garrisoned in the depot. When Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside occupied East Tennessee in 1863, he seized the railroad and the Mouse Creek station.

“During the war, they cut gun ports into the side,” Prees said. “They knocked out bricks so they could use them as gun ports. We still get a lot of Civil War buffs who come in and want to learn more about the depot. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and on one of the Civil War trails.”

When the war ended, regular rail service returned to the community of Mouse Creek until 1897. When the community applied for a post office, they were told they were too close to another community called Mossy Creek and it would cause confusion. Postmaster John Boggess then submitted the name “Niota,” the name of a character in a novel he was reading. The name was accepted and the Mouse Creek Station and city became Niota. Mossy Creek would later change its name to Jefferson City.

Regular passenger and freight stops at the Niota Depot ceased in 1972, but the depot was placed on the National Register of Historic Places two years later. After sitting abandoned several years, the depot eventually became Niota’s city hall. While the depot had survived the Civil War and the decline of rail traffic, it had a harder time overcoming the ravages of time.

The Niota Depot was listed on Tennessee Preservation Trust's Ten Most Endangered list in 2009 and again in 2015. That year, a chimney fell through the roof leading some to believe it was time for the building to be demolished. However, the city received a $182,000 grant from the Tennessee Department of Transportation to make the repairs instead.

“We had to repair the inside of the building and the roof,” Prees said. “During that time, we had to relocate to another building. Once those repairs were done we moved back in.”

This second renovation is focusing on the exterior of the building. Prees said the city received a $196,500 Tennessee Department of Transportation enhancement grant for the repairs.

“The depot needed to have the bricks repointed, better drainage and guttering, and new deckings and railings. Its awnings needed to be replaced,” she said. “There is a lot of exterior work. We also had to put in new storm front doors because of the fire marshal. When you renovate a structure like this you have to bring it up to code. That was a condition for the grant money.”

In addition to funding from the state, Prees said county officials and local residents also chipped in to save this piece of local history.

“Our 20 percent match was paid for by the McMinn County Hotel/Motel Tax,” she said. “We cannot thank them enough for us. This is a major tourist attraction for us. The Niota Depot Preservation Committee also helped us pay other fees like for engineering and architecture and roofing repairs we did before this part. None of the cost of this project came out of our citizen’s tax money.

Constructed started in December and Prees said city employees have kept working in the building as the renovations continue.

“Part of the agreement for these repairs is that we didn’t want to move,” she said. “You have to move everything from your phone lines to your internet service. We have been working in the building since the construction began in December. We have a ramp that takes us up into the building. They keep moving it from place to place as the construction continues, but the construction company has been very, very good. We’ve been able to stay open every day. “

The construction on the building is set to finish on April 28. After that, Prees said the city will be showcasing the building at several upcoming events.

“We are having an Eclipse Concert on the new decking on Aug. 21 because we are in the line of the solar eclipse,” she said. “The depot is also the centerpiece of the Sixth Annual Fried Green Tomato Festival on Sept. 10.”