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‘Ties to the Railroad’ explores community connections

The Chuckey Depot is currently focusing on person ties to the railroad. (Photos by John Kiener)

By JOHN KIENER

Associate Editor

[email protected]

 “My Ties to the Railroad’ is all about connections.

The exhibit that opened Thursday, March 5, at the Chuckey Depot contains a series of personal artifacts collected by local residents that are “important and meaningful.” 

 “It was cool” said Jonesborough residents Cindy and Anna Coletti who were first time visitors at the Depot. People attending the Thursday opening enjoyed refreshments while talking to a number of the individuals who supplied materials for the displays.

Chad Fred Bailey is just one of the train lovers who has shared his treasures.

The Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society asked the local community to submit their favorite train-related items and share why those items are their favorites. Megan Tewell from the Heritage Alliance and Exhibit Subcommittee Chairman Rick Chinouth, a  Telford resident, spent three months collecting, writing historical labels and putting together stories for inclusion in a collection of display cases.  

Chinouth supplied an Ohio Railroad Map that was a gift from his wife. His knowledge of railroad history is illustrated by the following commentary: “After the creation of the first American railroad in the late 1820s, lines of track spread throughout the country, connecting distant regions and easing the transport of goods and passengers.  Tennessee railroads expanded substantially during the 1880s. In fact, by 1900 the state’s railroad network nearly tripled its antebellum size to an impressive 3,130 miles.  

“At the same time, railroad track and equipment became more sophisticated, which made passenger and freight transportation easier and more efficient.”

Tewell supplied several train photographs, one of a “Firefly,” a Civil War train, and the other a train from the Pittsburgh, Ft. Wayne, and Chicago Railroad Line. She also loaned a copy of “A Treasury of Railroad Folklore,” published in 1956, a collection of short articles of all aspects of railroad history in the United States and “A Family of Outlaws” about some of the nation’s first train robbers. Another contribution was a Louisville Railway Common Stock Certificate. 

Mike Tilley, president of the Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society, was especially proud of the “Tennessee Homecoming Sign” he contributed. “This sign was used on the rear platform of the Tennessee Homecoming Train that operated in May 1986 that traveled from Bristol, Tennessee to Memphis,” he said. Tilley was a passenger on the train along with Minnie Pearl and Alex Haley. Pearl appeared for more than 50 years on the Grand Ole Opry and in the Hee Haw television show from 1969 to 1991.  Haley was the author of “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.”  ABC adapted the book as a television miniseries in 1977.  The book raised public awareness of Black American History and genealogy. 

The rail trip took five days as part of a year-long celebration designed to be “part hoe-down, part history lesson, and part homecoming celebration.”  Tilley was presented the sign after the train arrived in Memphis. He also put on display his Southern Railway Coach Door Step Plate.  This step plate originally came out of Roanoke, Virginia. 

Gary Price shows off his Train Clock, a 1968 Christmas gift from his grandparents.

The train was a Jim Crow segregation coach that would carry both black and white passengers, but in separate compartments. 

Mike’s wife, Lois Tilley, displayed her “Vest with Patches.” “I was given the vest by Wanneta Johnson as a gift. She was a caring friend who knew I was a train fan and would appreciate the work that went into it,” she said.  The vest features several railroad companies including the Seaboard Coastline Railroad, the Clinchfield Railroad, Penn Central, Florida East Coast Railway, the N & W Railway, the Atlantic Coast and CSX Transportation.  Other patches include the Southern Railway and the Chessie System Railroads.  Railway aficionados would – and often do – collect patches in order to demonstrate their enthusiasm for different railroads. 

Chad Fred Bailey, who weekly contributes “Digging for your Roots” to the Herald & Tribune, provided a number of rail ties and railroad pins to the exhibit. He said, “These objects were recovered from the Tweetsie Trail when I helped survey it… for historic buildings and sites and signage.” Originally known as the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad, this former railway was constructed in the late 1800s and connected Johnson City, Tennessee to Cranberry, North Carolina and eventually Boone, North Carolina. It totaled approximately 66 miles and was affectionately nicknamed for the train whistle’s bird-like sounds.

Jean Smith has added to the “Tweetsie” history by loaning an ET&WNC Train Stepstool on display.  Its label reads: “Passengers entering and exiting the train often used step stools, like this one.   They are referred to by many as railroad step box, conductor’s step stool, and Pullman railroad step stool.  Step stools helped all passengers – men, women, and children – board the cars when a raised platform was not available.  Passengers at some depots would congregate outside on the platforms as they waited for their trains, while other depots featured waiting rooms.  These indoor waiting rooms were often divided by gender (male and female) or segregated by race (black and white).”

A narrative by Jimmy Neil Smith provides his personal “Tweetsie Train” experiences beginning with how the stepstool was acquired. “I found this stool in an antique shop and I bought it because of the initials of ET&WNC painted on the side of the stool.  That was evidence that the stool was used on what is affectionately called the ‘Tweetsie.’  Tweetsie was special to me. When I was young, my family and I would visit the Tweetsie Railroad theme park in Blowing Rock.  But more importantly, one of my part-time jobs while in college was managing public relations and marketing program for Doe River Gorge Recreational Park at Hampton. The heart of the park was Doe River Gorge.  The developers of Doe River Gorge Recreational Park rebuilt three miles of the original ET&WNC narrow-gauge railroad, and the tracks ran through the Gorge.  The park was opened as a tourist attraction during the summer of 1968 but soon closed.”

Gary Price of Marion, Virginia brought a Christmas gift for the exhibit that changed his life. The gift was a Train Clock.  He said, “This was a Christmas gift from my maternal grandparents on Christmas Day in 1968. No one knows the reason why they picked a clock in a train as a gift for me, but it significantly guided my direction in childhood.  I would lay in bed, admiring the night-light located in the locomotive’s cab and dream about being an engineer.  It started my love for trains and the railroad and eventually resulted in my career with Norfolk Southern.

This article mentions only a few of the display cases and stories contained in the “My Ties to the Railroad” exhibit. The Chuckey Depot Museum is open during regular hours on Monday, Thursday through Friday, 1 to 5 p.m., Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m.  The museum is located at 110 South 2nd Avenue in Jonesborough.   For more information, call (423) 753-1010. If you have an interest in joining the 400-member Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society and Museum, President Tilley can be reached at (423) 753-5797 or (423) 335-1100.