John C. Stanton was a controversial railroad contractor who brought economic prosperity and ruin to Chattanooga in the post-Civil War era. A New Hampshire native, persuasive and energetic, he rose by his wits from the laboring ranks to a position of building contractor. In 1868, backed by New York financiers, he and his brother, D. N. Stanton, came south to exploit the railroad building program created by Alabama’s Reconstruction legislature. With millions in state funds, Stanton organized the Alabama and Chattanooga Railroad, destined to run the width of Alabama, reaching from Chattanooga to Meridian, Mississippi.
In 1869 Stanton moved his headquarters from Montgomery to Chattanooga. The city, which had stood destitute since the war, welcomed Stanton as its savior. Employment and business boomed during the railroad’s construction, and in 1870 Stanton erected “Stanton Town,” a new center of commerce. The downtown addition, located south on Market Street, boasted depots, stores, and a luxury hotel, the Stanton House. This instantaneous prosperity was based upon credit, however, and in 1871, when the interest on Alabama’s bonds came due, Stanton defaulted. The boom went bust.
The bankruptcy “tore Chattanooga from tower to turret.” Thousands of businessmen and unpaid laborers faced ruin and hunger. Over the following years Stanton launched new business schemes while promising to pay his many creditors. In 1879 he ran for mayor under the “Greenback” banner. Representing himself as a friend of the laboring poor, he gained little support except from African Americans. Many citizens considered him a “carpetbagger.” Others defended Stanton, reminded that he had brought the working man a temporary relief and convinced that he had failed through no fault of his own.
After losing the election and still battling a multitude of lawsuits, Stanton left Chattanooga in 1880 and retired in New York City on his proceeds from the South. He died in 1901, at age seventy-six, at his home, the historic Sturtevant house.
John W. Dubose, Alabamas Tragic Decade: Ten Years of Alabama, 1865-1874 (1940); James A. Ward, Southern Railroad Man: Conductor N. J. Bells Recollections of the Civil War Era (1994)