Cy Crumley, conductor, hands the last train order to Walt Anderson, engineer. Fireman Brownie Allison is on the front of the engine and brakeman Mack Luttell is on the right. This photo was taken on Oct. 16, 1950, at Obrien's Crossing in Elizabethton. Con
Hampton’s Ken Riddle has truly lived a life on the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad, or “Tweetsie” railroad, line.
Though its original 36-inch-wide “narrow” track was abandoned just after 1950, after years of winding through the East Tennessee and North Carolina mountains between Johnson City and Boone, N.C., Riddle still takes the time to give tours on a small line of track in Doe River Gorge outside of Elizabethton and reminisces and honors the railroad men of yesteryear.
“There’s a lot of fans of trains and things in this area,” Riddle said of local railroad history. “But these old guys didn’t understand what all the fuss was, but did enjoy the attention.”
The old guys he’s referring to were the men who started their work on the Tweetsie line in the early 1900s and worked well into their later years, never wanting to give up doing what they loved. What connection did Riddle have to these men? At just 57 years old, Riddle, whose family could fairly be categorized as a railroad family, used their family line of work as a way to keep young Riddle occupied and intrigued, almost as a babysitter, having him ride with some of the local pioneers of the Tweetsie railroad.
His great-grandfather, from the Lewis family, began work on the Tweetsie in 1882 during its inception and worked well into his 80s as a wooden bridge superintendent, until his peers were no longer comfortable with the nimble-for-his-age man climbing about the bridge structures and made him retire. Riddle said his great-grandfather got all of his boys jobs with the railroad, and when his mother would drive into Johnson City to shop, she would drop him off with one of his uncles who would be on trains somewhere between Johnson City and Elizabethton.
How early on in his life did he ride the Tweetsie? Riddle said he was riding so early that they needed to hand him up into the engine room, where he would sit behind conductor Brownie Allison’s seat on a cushion, ducking when they’d pass businesses and other places that might take offense to such a young railroader near the engines and open doors.
“They knew I wouldn’t fall out,” Riddle said. “I’d just squat down behind there where they couldn’t see me. I thought I was the biggest man in Tennessee.”
He did this up until about age 13, he said, and had the basis set for a life that would fulfill his love for trains, and specifically the Tweetsie line. He went on to work on railroads in Georgia and other places in the South before returning home, giving him a chance to build on his relationships and history with the local railroads.
Some of the men he got to know extremely well included Cy Crumley, a conductor whom Riddle called “Mr. Tweetsie,” who was a very close friend to his family from an early age and began work on the Tweetsie in 1906. Crumley, Riddle said, was the most content and satisfied man he’d ever met and achieved this status by practicing his personal motto of “making every day his best day.”
Practicing what he preached, Riddle said Crumley, who would leave Western North Carolina at 6 a.m. for Johnson City, a place many of his neighbors had never seen, would take orders from the locals and deliver everything from corsets to a cooking stove when he returned 12 hours later.
Cherishing the time he’s spent with these Old Timers, as he calls them, Riddle said he knows all the stories because they were instilled in him by the Tweetsie pioneers who experienced them first-hand. He said without the men involved, there wouldn’t be a Tweetsie railroad.
The Tweetsie fell on hard times when the primary means of transportation went from narrow rails to asphalt.
It was in a section of the country where the industry standard 56.5-inch track just wouldn’t work, Riddle said.
“It had to be 36 inches to get through these crooked little mountains in Doe River Gorge,” Riddle said.
While the trains really opened up the mountains to the rest of the country and world, the Tweetsie was somewhat short-lived because of the emergence of automobiles, whose trucks were able to operate differently than trains. With that, the Tweetsie lost its mail-carrying contracts and when Highway 19E was being planned around Elizabethton, the Tweetsie wasn’t making money and needed to go out of business in 1950.
Allison, Riddle said, didn’t handle the change so well.
“When they did away with the narrow gauge in 1950, (Allison) didn’t eat for three days. It was his life going away,” Riddle said.
Having been brought up with friends much older than him, Riddle said he’s, unfortunately, had to be a pallbearer seven times for some of this best friends, and while some keep railroad mementos and photographs from times past, he keeps something else.
“These guys were great friends of mine. I have the most valuable thing — the times and stories we shared together.”
More information about the Tweetsie can be found at www.johnsonsdepot.com.