George W. Callahan: The man who built railroads

Jim Tumblin
History and Mysteries

George W. Callahan was born on June 11, 1862, the son of James F. and Susan Avery Callahan.

He was born in Chambersburg, Pa., in a city connected with one of the iconic events of the Civil War. On Oct. 10-11 of that year, intrepid Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart led his cavalry on a two-day, 100-mile raid of the city. He attempted to cut Union Gen. George McClellan’s supply lines in a prelude to the Battle of Gettysburg, which would occur the following July.

The Callahan family moved to Knoxville when George was still young, and he received his early education in the Knox County schools. He later attended Powell High School before being employed with the Fenton Marble Co. as a stonecutter.

By 1900, he had his own contracting firm and won the bid for 80 miles of railway track between Cheraw and Columbia, S.C. In 1902-1904 he constructed the 38-mile Louisville and Nashville line from LaFollette to the Kentucky line. He constructed 75 miles of the Atlanta, Birmingham and Atlantic Railway during 1905-1906.
Then he received a large contract to double track the L&N from Nashville to Birmingham in 1913 and another to revise the grades on the Seaboard Air Line Railway in North Carolina in 1916.

After building the Tennessee Central from Lebanon to Nashville and some work for the Southern and the Cincinnati, New Orleans and Texas Pacific Railway, Callahan retired from railroad building in 1917 to concentrate on highway construction.

Callahan was elected city alderman (1892-1893) and became a member of the so-called “Kid Council,” a group of young, progressive business people active in city government. In addition to partnership in several enterprising concerns, Callahan became a director and major stockholder of the City National Bank.
He also became an up-to-date progressive farmer when he acquired the old Callahan homestead (Valley View Farm) on Central Avenue Pike on the northern slope of Black Oak Ridge. He bought more acreage and improved the soil and developed one of the most fertile plantations in the state with grain, grass, vegetables and livestock in abundance.

An undated newspaper article, “Callahan Home Affords Glimpse of Old South,” describes the Callahans’ 24-room mansion (Amberwood Hall):

The house inside is beautifully arranged – a huge reception room on either side of the entrance, a library lined with books, a music room and “parlor,” a dining room with deep seats and built-in china closets with leaded glass doors, a tiled breakfast room one entire side of which is glass with pink climbing roses bobbing against the window panes. Brackets for fern baskets and bird cages are built in the walls. The kitchen has a marble floor and wainscoting.

On the second floor a screened-in sleeping porch goes all across the front of the house and here and there one finds what were called airing porches.

With their hand-wrought iron railings they look more like Romeo and Juliet balconies, but were built for nothing more romantic than to give the bedding a sun bath. Each bedroom has a private bath, dressing room and built-in cedar closet. Little desks are still in the schoolroom where governesses and tutors taught the Callahan children their “three R’s” and carried them to the eighth grade when they were permitted to attend the convent in Nashville.

In one corner of the second floor is the chapel where Cardinal Gibbons said mass on several occasions. … Mr. Callahan has his own gas plant for lighting the house and outbuildings and later installed electric lights but a delightfully old fashioned lamp post still stands supporting a huge gas lamp that makes me think of London streets years and years ago.

The children had a real merry-go-round and a six-room two-story doll house to play in. The tiny furniture is still in the doll house, but dusty and abandoned now. … In the carriage house are two broughams in perfect condition with the family crest painted on the door. … A surrey and a buggy are in the carriage house too and a couple of sleighs that make us realize how much more snow Knoxville must have had in the old days.
A portion of this 1,100-acre estate was set aside as a park where Mr. Callahan had deer and foxes and even buffaloes. There were also many pheasants on the place. The herd of some 50 Jersey cows grazed on acres of rich meadow land and as many acres more were devoted to raising hay to feed the stock in winter. Fruit trees were planted on the hills, vegetables of every sort grew in the garden, large crops of wheat and corn were raised every year. It is estimated that Mr. Callahan spent at least $75,000 on farm implements alone.

George W. Callahan passed away suddenly on Nov. 18, 1927, at 65 years of age. His services were held at the Church of the Holy Ghost and he was interred in the Calvary Cemetery. He was survived by his wife, the former Carolyn Louise Graw of Lancaster, Pa., and his four daughters, including Miss Katherine Callahan, one of the St. Bernard Sisters of Mercy. The Callahan property was later used as a convent for the Sisters (Villa Marie). Also surviving their sibling were his five brothers and one sister who were living in five states from Florida to California.

Callahan’s memory stays alive in a busy road and in a monument in Bethel Cemetery. Atop a tall marble shaft there stands a Confederate soldier, designed by Lloyd Branson to appear life-size when viewed from ground level. Constructed of Tennessee gray marble quarried nearby, it was erected by George W. Callahan and Brothers and measures 12 feet square at the base and 48 feet high. The cost was $4,500, and contributors included both Confederate and Union veterans.

Dr. Tumblin’s latest book, Fountain City: Those Who Made a Difference, is available at Page’s Fountain City Pharmacy, Pratt’s Country Store, the East Tennessee History Center, Union Avenue Books and online.

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