By JOHN KIENER
The sound of the “Tweetsie” has promised commerce, fun and — in Jonesborough today — history of a railroad that has traveled “As fast as birds can fly.”
Executive Director of the Heritage Alliance Anne G’Fellers-Mason took Facebook viewers on a virtual tour of the latest exhibit at the Chuckey Depot Museum Thursday evening, March 4.
The exhibit is titled “Ás Fast as Birds Can Fly: The ET&WNC (Tweetsie) Railroad.”
Mason explained that the narrow gauge (three-foot-wide) line was in operation in North Carolina and Tennessee from 1882 until 1950. “Tweetsie” approximated the mellow toot of the company’s engines while fulfilling Oliver Evans’ quote in 1800 that: “The time will come when people will travel in stages moved by steam engines from one city to another as fast as birds can fly.”
It would take four hours for the “Tweetsie” to travel the 66 miles from Boone, North Carolina to Johnson City, Tennessee with multiple stops along the way. According to Mason, the railroad had a “carefree and community nature with people asking for favors and hopping on the train wherever Conductor Cy G. Crumley would spot them.”
Soon dubbed the “Railway with a Heart” because railroad personnel often performed errands for the locals, its tickets were validated with a heart-shaped punch. During the Great Depression, passengers were allowed to ride for free. Besides passengers, the “Tweetsie” hauled lumber from the Cranberry mines, pig iron and lumber from the forests of North Carolina.
Operation of the railroad tackled a number of obstacles according to the Heritage Director including tracks and bridges that washed out in the 1930s, heavy track damage from a flood in 1940 and declining business after World War II. The ET&WNC narrow gauge lines officially ceased operations on October 16, 1950.
However, the company purchased three standard gauge locomotives to be used to switch cars throughout Johnson City and to keep 10 miles to Elizabethton active a while longer for textile transport from the rayon plants in Carter County. In 2012 those remaining 10 miles between Johnson City and Elizabethton were removed as part of a “Rails to Trails” conversion project. By August 2015 the conversion had been completed and the “Tweetsie” is now a popular walking trail.
“The highest railroad in eastern America” according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel, Mason detailed a number of the exhibits in addition to showing archival photographs. The ET&WNC had five Baldwin Locomotive Works Ten Wheeler Steam Engines. They were engines #9 (1911), #10 (1916), #11 (1916), #12 (1917) and #14 (1919). All the engines were painted black but Clarence Hobbs chose to paint them green to resemble the Southern Railway standard gauge engines.
“In the 1940s” Mason said, “two engines sent to the White Pass & Yukon Route Railroad in Alaska to help with the war effort were destroyed at the roundhouse.” Engines #9 and 11 were put up for sale after narrow gauge operations ceased but when the sales of the engines were not finalized, they were scrapped.
Engine #12 was purchased by a group of railroad enthusiasts and later purchased by movie cowboy Gene Autry. Intended for use in the movies, after restoration the engine was sold together with some rolling stock to a group of North Carolina investors. It is today the only surviving narrow gauge “Tweetsie” steam engine. The engine is now a centerpiece of the Tweetsie Railroad Amusement Park in nearby Watauga County, North Carolina taking visitors to the park on a three-mile ride. The theme park, located between Boone and Blowing Rock, opened on July 4, 1957.
Mason said “The family oriented heritage park is Wild West themed.” The amusement park’s web site states the park is slated to open this year on Friday, April 2nd. She also said that people can experience part of the “Tweetsie’s” legacy at Doe River Gorge. The Director explained, “The passage over the Doe River is a scenic part of an excursion, rebuilt in 1998. A train now runs to Pardee Point, the historic lookout as part of ‘Adventure Quest at the Gorge.’”
Some of the artifacts now available for viewing at the Chuckey Depot Museum include conductors’ hats, switch locks, Ted Laws’ paintings, and a model train. While the museum does not accept the donation of items for its collections, it does welcome items that are loaned for its changing exhibits. A number of items for the “Tweetsie” Exhibit were received from Mike Hardin and Mike Dowdy.
Mike Dowdy sent several photographs from his father James Dowdy and Great Uncle who worked on the ET&WNC. Dowdy works as part of the staff at the Doe River Gorge.
The Chuckey Depot Museum is currently open on Thursday through Sunday from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m. Follow the museum on Facebook to stay up to date with all the exhibits and events. The “Tweetsie” exhibit will be on display through the end of August. The Museum is located at 210 S. 2nd Avenue in Jonesborough next to the Southern Railroad tracks. For additional information about the exhibit, the Depot’s telephone number is (423) 753-5797.