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‘Long Month Short Lines’ will be whistlin’ away at ETSU’s Carter Railroad Museum

Contributed • Feb 23, 2020 at 12:02 AM

For the first time, East Tennessee State University’s George L. Carter Railroad Museum will hold its monthly Heritage Day about America’s railroading industry on Saturday, Feb. 29, leap day.

During this free event, several of the Heritage Day layouts will focus on the simpler days of American railroads. Normally operating less than 200 miles of track, short lines were just what the name implies, railroad companies that ran local and rural train movements.

Some companies operated alone while others were owned by corporations that invested in them to access specific areas. These operations sometimes called for specialized equipment, like unique hill climbing engines and narrower-than-normal track designs.

“These were the sort of things that people might recall from ‘The Little Engine That Could’ children’s story,” said Geoff Stunkard, Heritage Day coordinator. “These were the ‘Little Railroads that Could,’ using whatever means they could to do their work. ‘I think I can’ was the mindset of the employees and the equipment they kept running day in and day out.”

The most important railroad in this region was the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina (Tweetsie) line, built to service ore movements from Cranberry, North Carolina, to a steel mill in Johnson City.

The smaller 36”-width track size required unique railroad cars that could not be sent forward to other places using the standard-gauged American-style 54.8” track size.

This line has been modeled extensively in the HOn3 scale at the museum in the Ken Marsh display hall. It has been featured in nationally distributed periodicals and is considered the largest example in existence in this scale. Other regional short lines formerly ran in the Laurel Fork region.

In the museum is a true-scale model of the original Johnson City steel mill, and a child-friendly G-gauge layout with sound buttons focusing on timber operations, another style of industrial railroading.

The short-line theme carries onto the larger HO scale model railroad owned by the Mountain Empire Model Railroaders Club, whose members serve as volunteers and operate all of the exhibits.

They will be joined by members from the George L. Carter Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. Models of short line and industrial trains will operate on the club’s 24-by-44 HO standard gauge scale operation, on the ET&WNC exhibit and on the G-gauge.

The Carter Railroad Museum is open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Heritage Day is held the last Saturday of each month. There is no admission fee to the museum, but donations are welcome.

The museum is also seeking artifacts for its displays, including the newest addition dedicated to the “Tweetsie,” which is open for guided tours during event days. In addition to the displays, there is also a growing research library and an oral history archive being established as part of the museum's programs. For more information, visit www.etsu.edu/railroad

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