|City/Town: • Bessemer
|Location Class: • Commercial • Industrial
|Built: • 1904 | Abandoned: • 2017
|Status: • Under Renovation
|Photojournalist: • David Bulit
Located in Bessemer, the Vintage Station was built in 1917 originally as a freight depot for the Southern Railway Company known as the Bessemer Freight Depot. The Southern Railway was a railroad that operated in the Southern United States between 1894 and 1982 when it merged with the Norfolk & Western to form Norfolk Southern. Southern and its predecessors are credited for many firsts in the industry. In 1833, its predecessor, the South Carolina Canal and Railroad, was the first to carry passengers, U.S. troops, mail, and experimented with railroad lighting by using a pine log fire on a flat car covered in sand. Starting in 1939, Southern became the first major railroad in the United States to be fully converted from steam to diesel-powered locomotives by 1953. Southern is widely credited with inventing unit trains for coal and new freight cars and was also one of the first in the United States to utilize bank engines.
Brad Neal Watkins opened the Vintage Station, an architectural salvage, antique, and furniture dealer, in the old freight depot in 2014. The business specialized in furniture and doors made from reclaimed wood and ironwork. Watkins was a born-again Christian after having been arrested in 2006 relating to a scheme to sell adulterated fake drugs that were manufactured in Belize while passing them off as approved drugs from Canada. He used the location as a ministry to teach job and life skills to unemployed men while also providing Christian counseling. On March 27, 2017, a fire damaged much of the building including materials and machinery. Watkins started a GoFundMe account to help rebuild and he wrote:
“Over the last three years, we have worked tirelessly, not just to build beautiful furniture, but the main focus of what we do every day is to pour out our hearts and efforts into the men that work here. Our goal is to grow closer to Christ as a team and as a family. We suffered a catastrophic loss last night. Tuesday, March 27th, we had a fire that has destroyed a large portion of the building, all of our machinery and materials. These are material things. These can all be replaced. It is the growing spiritual lives of the men who work here that are in dire jeopardy. Although we attempted on at least ten occasions to get insurance, we were refused. Tens of thousands of our friends have come through The Vintage Station and we consider all of you our family. We do not have the funds to rebuild. We are asking all of you to give generously. This, although heartbreaking, can be a beautiful story of renewal. A story of the body of Christ putting a marker in the ground and saying loudly, “We will stand! We will not be defeated!”
In the meantime, the furniture building business was moved across the street in order to fill outstanding orders and reopened the store in April 2017. Unfortunately, the business did not last through the end of the year and the Vintage Station closed down. Adding to the tragedy, Brad Watkins was killed in January 2018 when he was fatally struck by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting. The shooting occurred at 10:36 pm as dozens of shots rang out and many of them struck the hotel. Watkins was on the third floor when he was struck by a bullet that penetrated the wall. According to witnesses, the shooting was retaliation for an earlier drive-by shooting in Birmingham and the intended targets were a group of teenagers.
The station was purchased in March 2021 by Brian Giattina, Blox CFO and founder of Bessemer Redevelopment Corps for $140,000. Plans for the former Vintage Station property include a community garden, facilities for art lessons and music classes, and other uses for children and adults.