'Railroad with a Heart' still inspires passion

Jeff Birchfield • Jan 27, 2019 at 11:33 PM

The East Tennessee & Western North Carolina (ET&WNC) Railroad was known as the "Railroad with a Heart."

Nearly 140 years after it was first operated as a passenger service, the ET&WNC Railroad still holds a special place in many people's hearts.

Such is the case with members of the ET&WNC Railroad Historical Society, a nonprofit organization founded in 1989 by author John Waite and a handful of loyal followers. According to the group's mission statement, they collect and preserve historical data, material and equipment pertaining to the ET&WNC Railroad and Linville River Railway.

Current ET&WNC RRHS President Chris Ford talks about why the railroad that ran 65 miles from Johnson City to Boone, N.C., still has a such an impact on the area.

"It was because of the people. It was a very personable railroad, and a lot of people in Johnson City and the other areas had family or friends that worked for the railroad," Ford said. "It had a positive effect for a lot of people in the area."

The railroad had a direct impact on Johnson City from its beginning, as the city grew from 685 people in 1880 to 4,161 some 10 years later. As a railroad hub, Johnson City was given the nickname the "Gateway to the Land of the Sky."

The ET&WNC RRHS website is full of information and tells how the railroad was originally chartered in 1866 by the Tennessee General Assembly from Johnson's Depot to the iron ore mine at Cranberry, North Carolina. Lacking firm financing, the railroad project was abandoned in 1874.

The Cranberry Iron and Coal Co. acquired the line in 1880, and construction to Cranberry was finished in 1882. With the challenging mountain terrain, it had a narrow gauge design of three feet between the rails, nearly two feet shorter than the standard gauge.

Besides the transportation of iron ore from the Cranberry mines, it also became a tool for hauling timber out of Western North Carolina.

In addition, the ET&WNC, nicknamed the Tweetsie for the sound of its whistle that echoed through the mountains, hauled passengers. Its nickname as the "Railway with a Heart" came from the fact that railroad personnel were known to do shopping for the residents of Roan Mountain and Elk Park, North Carolina, while in Johnson City.

They often carried passengers for free during the Great Depression. Tickets were validated with a heart-shaped punch, according to the Johnson's Depot website.

Railway service was extended to Boone in 1919 and tourism became another function of the railroad.

A 1920s tourism brochure proclaims, "You will search the world over for a country of greater natural beauty and for a more delightful and invigorating summer climate than that of the mountain resort region along the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad and the Linville River Railway.

"These lines, popularly known as "The Narrow Gauge," represent one of the most difficult engineering feats to be found in Eastern America. The trip from Johnson City, Tennesee, to Boone, North Carolina, compresses into about four hours the greatest variety of natural scenery to be found in the Western Hemisphere."

The rail lines helped make Roan Mountain, Linville Falls and Grandfather Mountain popular tourist destinations, which they remain today. A flood washed out the Cranberry to Boone section of the ET&WNC in 1940 and it was never rebuilt.

During World War II, the railroad served the purpose of getting workers from Johnson City and further east to the Bemberg rayon plants in Elizabethton. Railroad service east of Elizabethton ended in 1950, but the railway, which became East Tennessee Railway, continued to serve Elizabethton until 2005.

A small portion of the original route is preserved at the Doe River Gorge, and thousands have experienced the thrill of riding over those tracks.

Also related, the Tweetsie Railroad Theme Park in Blowing Road, N.C., opened in 1957. While it isn't part of the original route, the park's No. 12 narrow-gauge, coal-fired steam locomotive was built in 1917 for the ET&WNC and used in runs from Johnson City to Boone.

Today, the ET&WNC route from Johnson City to Elizabethton has become the Tweetsie Trail and inspired a new kind of passion used for walking, hiking, biking and running. As for the railroad, its memory lives on in the hearts and minds of those in the historical society and all along the route.

"If you talk to people over in that area, they'll tell you which one of their relatives worked for the railroad, or they'll ask if you had anyone with the railroad," Ford said. "It was more than an employer — the railroad was very near and dear to the folks over there and in many ways, changed their lives."

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