By JOHN KIENER
A first-time docent, a first-time railroad conductor and two residents visiting the museum for the first time were gathered at the Chuckey Depot recently during one of this winter’s cold snaps. The first-time docent was Wayne Manning from Morristown, a veteran conductor of 41 years, who was mentoring Thomas Black, soon to report for his first job as a conductor in training for the Norfolk Southern Railway. A graduate of Florida Tech who lives in the Boones Creek area of Washington County, Black will soon be working in Knoxville.
Joining the afternoon group were Jonesborough residents Belinda and John Boggs who were first-time visitors to the Chuckey Depot Museum. They took time off from a walk on the trail adjacent to the Museum to view the exhibits in the restored depot moved to the site in 2010 and dedicated in October 2017.
Manning is a member of the Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society & Museum, a group that has partnered with the Town of Jonesborough and the Heritage Alliance to preserve the historic depot built by the Southern Railway in 1906.
Mike Tilley, president of the society, said the group has 43 volunteers who serve once a month as docents, tour guides at the museum. “Everybody likes to go down there (to the depot),” he said. The society is composed of energetic members who find railroad interesting. For example, Jack Maloney, a society member who never worked for a railroad, was at the depot talking with the group on that cold winter day.
Tilley said attendance usually averages 10 to 15 persons a day during the afternoons the museum is open. There have been several large gatherings at the museum. “We had a ton of people at the Progressive Dinners (Colors of Christmas),” he said.
A total of 1,360 people have visited the museum since Oct. 2017 through Jan. 14, 2018, according to Rachel Conger, Director of Parks and Recreation for the Town of Jonesborough. The statistics show that 422 persons visited the museum during October, 172 in November and 688 in Dec. 2017. Through Jan. 14, 2018, 78 people have gone to the Chuckey Depot. “The huge jump in attendance from November to December,” said Conger “is due to the incorporation of the Depot in some of our special events during December including “At Home With Santa, Colors of Christmas, and Tours of Trees.”
With a former and soon-to-be conductor at the depot, the presence of the restored Southern Railway Caboose No. X450 sitting on rails outside the depot led to this obvious question — where does the conductor ride on the present day freight train passing through Jonesborough? Both Black and Manning explained that today conductors ride in the train’s locomotive with the engineer. “When I was working,” Manning said, “there were a brakeman and a flagman who rode with the conductor in the caboose. Today, trains do not carry a brakeman or a flagman.”
That means the conductor’s duties include those of the former brakeman plus a “whole lot of paperwork. A conductor must know in what cars hazardous materials are being carried. Each car on the train is to be delivered to a specific location,” he said.
The first railroad to enter Washington County was the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad, chartered in 1849 to be built from Knoxville to the Virginia state line at Bristol. Construction did not get underway until 1855, with one construction crew beginning at Bristol and another building out of Knoxville. In 1858, the two construction crews met at a point two miles west of Mosheim in Greene County. The location was named “Midway” with the site keeping the name to this day.
In 1869, the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad merged with the East Tennessee and Georgia Railroad to form the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railroad, operating from Chattanooga to Bristol. The depression of 1893 put the ETV&G Railroad into receivership. In 1894 it was absorbed by the newly created and rapidly expanding Southern Railway System, becoming a part of the latter’s Knoxville Division. In 1982, the Southern Railway merged to create the Norfolk Southern, the railroad that runs through Jonesborough today.
Today’s Chuckey Depot Museum contains more than historic artifacts and photographs from times past. As you enter the depot to the right is a modern computer screen with digital rail lines showing the stations and trains running between Knoxville and Bristol. The Chuckey Depot Museum is clearly indicated on the computer screen and people at the depot watching the screen can tell when Norfolk Southern trains will be passing through the town.
Conductor Manning said three kinds of trains are traveling through Jonesborough at the present time: a local that services businesses in the area; a mixed freight train and an intermodal units that carry containers that can be transferred to highway tractor-trailer trucks.
Manning has a number of fond memories of his days working for the railroad. “I like the run to North Carolina in the winter. I could look out and see the animals, including Bobcats. I had seniority and was a conductor on passenger train excursions, including trips to Bulls Gap and from Knoxville to Asheville.”
The Watauga Valley Railway Society sponsors passenger excursions throughout the year. They include both mainline and short line rail excursions and a few motor coach tours. The train group prefers to use steam power engines but some tours are conducted using diesel locomotive power. President Tilley said, “We are working hard to ensure that the sound of a whistle will continue to echo through the mountains of our region.”
The group is also engaged in the restoration and maintenance of vintage rail cars at their Spring Street Coach Yard in Jonesborough. They have five passenger cars available for lease. The WVRH&SM members engage in public speaking to schools and civic groups. Other interests include model railroading and collecting railroad memorabilia. The group, formed in 1980, has monthly meetings the fourth Monday of every month at the Johnson City Public Library except during the month of December.
Additional information about the Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society and Museum can be obtained on the web at www.wataugavalleyrrhsm.org or by email at [email protected] Their post office address is P. O. Box 432, Johnson City, TN 37605-0432. The society can also be reached by telephone at (423) 753-5797.
Norfolk Southern with headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia operates 21,500 route miles in 22 states and has trackage rights in Canada resulting in a total of 26,300 miles of rails for which it is responsible for maintenance. To gauge how many miles of track NS operates, a comparison with the circumference of earth at the equator puts the number in perspective. The circumference of the earth at the equator is 24,901 miles. The NS trackage would wind around earth at the equator with nearly 1,400 miles to spare. The company has 30,943 employees and is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.