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Riding the rails: Exhibit showcases Clinchfield Railroad history

Orlis Francis shared artifacts with the Depot for the Clinchfield Exhibit;


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“I worked for the Clinchfield Railroad for 42 years,” said Orlis Francis as he walked around the Chuckey Depot Museum at the August opening of a special exhibit about “The Costliest Railroad in America.”

Francis pointed out a number of artifacts he supplied for the display that traces the history of the Clinchfield, the railroad that traversed 277 miles in five states while passing through four mountain ranges.

“I rebuilt locomotives,” Francis continued. “This was during the time the railroad was phasing out passenger cars.” Born and reared in Jonesborough, he worked at the Erwin rail yards where he observed, “The Pullman shop as it was phased out.” Pointing out a train engine in the display known as Model 200, he explained, “It was the only engine that could pull a passenger train. It had a generator that could distribute heat to the passenger cars.”

Francis was one of three former Clinchfield employees who contributed artifacts for the exhibit. As he walked in front of the museum’s display cases, he pointed out “an original Clinchfield ink blotter, a 1947 Time Table, a grease gun and an oil can off Engine No. 1, a steam engine that he helped rebuild. He then stood in front of an engine headlight when requested to pose for a photograph.

This Clinchfield Model Train is owned by Rick Chinouth, chairman of the exhibit subcommittee.

“The Costliest” designation was given to the Clinchfield by the magazine Scientific American in 1909 because it cost $30 million to build (approximately $850 million in 2019). The railroad ran between Elkhorn, Kentucky and Spartanburg, South Carolina. It included 55 tunnels and 80 bridges.

The Clinchfield was developed by George Lafayette Carter who purchased the Ohio River and Charleston Railroad in 1902 and renamed it the Clinchfield Railroad. Carter organized a gigantic construction program with high standards.

With original headquarters in Johnson City, Carter moved the operation to Erwin where he could obtain land for shops and classification yards.

The railroad operated coal, freight and passenger trains during the dates of its operation from 1902 until 1983.

However, most of their traffic was coal trains. For this reason as part of the exhibit, Rick Chinouth, chairman of the Depot’s Exhibit Subcommittee and a Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society member, included his model train set with a string of coal cars. The background for the G-scale train is a photograph of an actual twin-tunnel that was part of the Clinchfield line.

The train in the exhibit appears to be coming out of the tunnel with the engine pulling the coal cars.

“G-scale trains (using a 1.75 inch fixed track gauge) are often purchased by hobbyists for outdoor use. They run off batteries and can be operated by remote control,” Chinouth said. He has owned the model included in the exhibit for 18 years, during which time he has acquired 20 coal and 15 box cars that can be pulled by the scale-model engine.

Chinouth’s Clinchfield model was custom made. It is not possible to purchase a G- scale model with the “Clinchfield” logo. He purchased the engine and cars and then added the appropriate railroad system markings.

The exhibit was put together by the five member Exhibit Subcommittee utilizing artifacts from multiple donors.

One of the subcommittee members was Jacob Simpson of the Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. This exhibit was Simpson’s last project before leaving the Alliance to relocate in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Mike Tilley, President of the Watauga Valley Railroad Historical Society and Museum, expressed his excitement at the exhibit which will run through January 2020.

Tilley said the organization is currently at work on the restoration of former Clinchfield business car No. 100. They hope to complete the project this year by the end of September.

The Clinchfield Railroad ceased functioning as a separate operating company effective January 1, 1983 when it was merged into the Seaboard System Railroad. The line is now owned and operated by CSX Transportation as their Blue Ridge Subdivision (Spartanburg, South Carolina to Erwin) and Kingsport Subdivision (Erwin to Elkhorn City, Kentucky).

For visitors wishing to view the exhibit, The Chuckey Depot Museum’s regular hours are Monday, Thursday-Friday and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For more information, telephone (423) 753-1010. The Chuckey Depot Museum is located at 110 2nd Avenue in Jonesborough.