UNICOI — The last operating Clinchfield Railroad caboose is coming to the town of Unicoi.
On Monday, the Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted to accept the Clinchfield Railroad Museum Board of Directors’ gift of Clinchfield Caboose No. 1111.
Known on the railroad as the “Eleven Eleven,” the caboose will be placed at the Unicoi Tourist Information Center, where it will be visible from the west-bound traffic lanes of Interstate 26.
Martha Erwin, curator of the Clinchfield Railroad Museum and the Unicoi County Heritage Museum, located on the Erwin National Fish Hatchery property in Erwin, made an impassioned plea for the board to keep the caboose in Unicoi County.
Erwin told the board it has always been her dream and the dream of the railroad museum board to have the caboose and to place it next to the railroad museum as a showpiece important to the history of the community that sprang up around the Clinchfield headquarters and railroad yard in Erwin.
When CSX Transportation, which bought the Clinchfield in the early 1980s, finally yielded to her long-running request for the caboose on Sept. 16, Erwin said the National Fish Hatchery office in Atlanta would not allow her to bring it to the museum property.
As a result, the museum board initially offered it as a gift to the town of Erwin along with an estimate of almost $9,000 to have it moved from an undisclosed location on the CSX rail yard to the a spot next to the former Clinchfield Depot, which now serves as the county library.
The Erwin Board of Mayor and Aldermen twice delayed action on the offer until it could gather more information about the caboose. And under pressure from the railroad to “get it off the rails,” Erwin said the museum board voted to offer the caboose to Unicoi.
Erwin said, “We watched our Clinchfiled No. 1 (steam engine) leave Unicoi County. It’s in Baltimore, Maryland. Mike Kelly, (of Jonesborough) is trying to get it back, but it will not come back here. It will go to Jonesbrough where they rebuilt the Chuckey Depot. They have that little red caboose (at the Chuckey Depot) or they would try to get this one also. And they have a Clinchfield car in the Santa Train.’
“This is an attraction and it will bring people here to see it,” Erwin said.
Under questioning from the Unicoi board, Erwin and other board members and friends of the museum said the caboose is about 40 years old, in need of sanding and painting, but without holes, solid and in otherwise good condition. Asked about its location, Erwin said the caboose “is in hiding” on CSX property.
“I have a passion for it. I think of it more as a person than a caboose. I would hate to watch it leave Unicoi County.”
The Unicoi board was receptive with the motion to accept the caboose — made by Alderman Kathy Bullen and simultaneously seconded by Aldermen Wanda Radford and Jeff Linville — approved by a unanimous 4-0 vote with Vice Mayor Doug Hopson absent.