Skip to content Skip to left sidebar Skip to right sidebar Skip to footer

Chuckey Depot: Railroad remnants recall yesteryear

Red and green lanterns pointed the way for early trains.


Associate Editor

[email protected]

Air horns, flags, lanterns, lights and whistles fill up three cases in an exhibit titled “Train Talk” at the Chuckey Depot Museum located at 110 S. 2nd Avenue in Jonesborough.  The exhibit allows exploration in how railroad technicians communicated during the day, at night, across distances and during challenging weather conditions prior to modern electronic communication methods.

Anne G’Fellers Mason, one of seven members of a Chuckey Depot sub-committee that designed the display said, “The group needed a good topic for our first temporary exhibit. We decided how crew members communicated with each other before radios would attract a wide audience. 

“I learned so much about trains” said Mason, who is the special projects coordinator at the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. “I am excited when I learn something new, for example, I was fascinated by the placement of ‘torpedoes’ on the tracks.”

This sign would have hung below a crossing flasher to warn oncoming motorists.

The railway detonator, called a torpedo in North America, is a coin-sized device that is used as a loud warning signal to train drivers – usually as a signal for them to stop.  Placed on top of the rails and usually secured with two straps, it emits a loud bland when the wheels of a train passes over. The device was invented in 1841.

Mason, along with committee member Rachel Conger, Jonesborough’s Parks & Recreation director, took a trip to Fannon’s Train Museum in Duffield, Virginia to inspect many of the items that are included in the exhibit. Kenny Fannon and his grandson, Ruston Fannon, are preserving the history of railroading in Southwest Virginia.  Their depot and museum was used as a prop in the movie “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” a 1980 biographical musical film about the life of Loretta Lynn.

The Fannons, who frequently  provide railroad programs at Natural Tunnel State Park and the Southwest Virginia Museum, graciously loaned the Chuckey Museum artifacts for the temporary display which will run through the end of December.

An opening reception for the exhibit was held on June 28th.  The crowd who attended “were happy and excited,” Mason said.  She added, “This is the type of display we want to use to keep people coming back to the museum.”

Included in the exhibit is a headlight from the front of an engine and a large sign that tells motorists at a railroad crossing to “Stop On Red.” Assisting in putting together the exhibit have been members of the Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society.  The group has partnered with the Alliance and the Town of Jonesborough in recognizing the town’s railroad legacy.  Other members of the Depot sub-committee are Jacob Simpson, Susu Floyd, Jean Smith, Rick Chinouth and Jason Davis. 

Docent staffing at the museum is provided by the WVHS while the Alliance provides training for their volunteer work. “There is a partnership with the Alliance,  town, and railroad historical society that makes the museum the best it can be,” Mason said.  “Our exhibits meet museum standards and all staff members and volunteers follow best practices in doing the research, building displays and in providing educational programs relating to the displays.”

An interesting feature of the museum is the “Virtualrailfan” live camera.  The program utilizes an east and west live webcam to broadcast the action of trains passing through Tennessee’s Oldest Town. The Virtual Railfan Cameras were installed in May of this year. The webcams are monitored by thousands of people around the world.  To access the video, go to  the If you go to “You Tube” just type in Jonesborough and the Cams will come up. A viewer  can stroll the red bar at the bottom of the page and see trains and people going in and out of the depot back four hours. Virtual Railfan currently has 33 cams from three countries.

The Chuckey Depot and Museum is opened from Wednesday through Friday from 1 pm until 5 pm; on Saturday from 11 am until 5 pm and on Sunday from 1 pm until 5 pm.  For more information concerning  Depot programs and use of the depot for events, telephone (423) 791-3869.