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All aboard! From Clinchfield to Carter, railways shaped Johnson City's history

Jessica Fuller • Jan 26, 2019 at 12:30 PM

Johnson City’s history is woven with railroads. 

Chartered in 1849, the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad was the first to lay tracks across East Tennessee. It was followed by the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina (also known as the Tweetsie Railroad) in 1886. 

But the Clinchfield Railroad was the one to blow engineering standards out of the water. 

Dubbed “The Costliest Railway in America” in its time, the estimated cost of the project was projected at about $21 million, which equals about $586 million today. Fred Alsop, director of East Tennessee State University’s George L. Carter Railroad Museum, said the dream was for the railroad’s headquarters, Johnson City, to become a boomtown.

That’s what Gen. George Wilder thought, anyway, a former Union soldier who said that “Everyone thought if you could get the coal from Kentucky to Johnson City, and if you could get iron ore out of North Carolina to Johnson City, that Johnson City would boom,” Alsop said. 

Plans for the railway got moving in 1886 with the birth of the Charleston, Cincinnati, and Chicago Railroad Co., and the tracks began to stretch out from Johnson City as portions were completed from Marion, Virginia, to Kingville, North Carolina and from Johnson City to Chestoa, North Carolina.

Then, Alsop said, Europe’s economy crashed in the late 1800s. That, coupled with a recession in the U.S., resulted in funding for the “Triple C” railroad drying up and progress on the railroad halting in the 1880s.

The assets of the failed “Triple C” railway were sold at a foreclosure of about for $550,000, which is equal to $15 million today. The new owners renamed the railroad the Ohio River and Charleston Railroad, and while construction continued, owners were selling off the railroad in segments. 

As the dream of an Appalachian Railway begins to fade, enter George L. Carter. 

Carter’s name is one appears over and over in Johnson City history. He was born in Hillsville, Virginia, and would become a major player in the development of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. His accomplishments include

• Establishing a teacher’s college that would become East Tennessee State University. 

• Establishing the Clinchfield Coal Co., which spanned 300,000 acres in southwest Virginia.

• Created northeast Tennessee’s “model city,” which would become known as Kingsport. 

• Planning the Tree Streets neighborhood in Johnson City 

And, perhaps most notably, his purchase and completion of the Carolina, Clinchfield and Ohio Railway, which he named the Clinchfield Railroad. 

He purchased the railroad in 1902, naming it after the region in Virginia that held Carter’s coal company. Construction completed in 1909, and the stretch of railway across the Blue Ridge Mountains was celebrated at length at the Carnegie Hotel, author and historian Alf Peoples said. 

“Johnson City wouldn’t be anything if it wasn’t for George Carter,” Peoples said. “His decisions affected the whole area.” 

For its time, the railroad was an engineering marvel, planned by Chief Engineer Martin J. Caples to construction standards that were unheard of at the time, according to johnsonsdepot.com. 

“He had really built a railroad for the future,” Alsop said. 

While headquarters and a train yard were originally planned for Johnson City, Peoples said Carter ran into conflict with landowners at the time and couldn’t secure land for the train yard. That’s why the plans moved up the road to Erwin, where the train yard is still in used today by CSX. 

The Clinchfield pioneered the “Santa Claus Special" in 1943 in Kingsport, a tradition that has endured the years and is known today as The Santa Train, a yearly tradition of 15 tons of goods donated to thousands of people. 

The Clinchfield name dissolved in the 1970s when it came under “The Family Lines” banner, and is today owned and operated by CSX Transportation. 

Johnson City’s history was molded by Carter and his decision to complete the railroad. Carter’s legacy and the history of the railroad lives on in many ways, including the George L. Carter Museum, where parts of history are celebrated monthly during the museum’s heritage day. 

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Saturday, and admission is free. Heritage Day is always the last Saturday of the month. 

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