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History of the ET&WNC Railroad and the Linville River Railway

A Short History of the ET&WNC Railroad
By Johnny Graybeal

The story of the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad actually begins when our country was formed. Reuben White bought a plot of land from the State of North Carolina in 1790 that held an outcropping of iron ore that would come to be known as the Cranberry Iron Ore Belt. Others bought land around White as the news of the discovery got out. Legend has it that the Perkins Brothers discovered the iron ore vein but they did not come along until 30 years later. They did end up operating a forge at Cranberry, earning bounty lands from the State for encouraging iron production. The Cranberry Forge did provide iron for the Confederacy, but its remote location limited its contribution.

After the war, the 5’ gauge ET&WNC was chartered to connect the mine with the growing railroad network. After some construction the work stopped due to some shady financial dealings and some funds that turned up missing. After years of investigations and a foreclosure sale, the mine property and the railroad ended up in the hands of the Cranberry Iron & Coal Company, which was controlled by northern investors. The railroad was finished as a 3’ narrow gauge line, and opened for business in July 1882, connecting Johnson City, TN and Cranberry, NC. It passed through the rugged Doe River Gorge, where cliffs start at the river and rise vertically for hundreds of feet. The mine owners opened an iron furnace in 1884 at the mine, thus limiting the amount of material carried by the railroad. The railroad suffered financially during the Eighties and Nineties, ending up in deep debt to the parent company and near bankruptcy.

This began to change early in the Twentieth Century. W.M. Ritter bought the failed Linville River Railroad in 1898 and completed the now Linville River Railway from Cranberry to Pineola, NC in 1900. Ritter was a lumber baron and Pineola was one of his early operations. The ET&WNC made money carrying his lumber to the outside world. In other developments, some of the investors in the mine had leased a modern furnace in Johnson City and began hauling iron ore to that hungry market. Almost overnight the ET&WNC was successful and profitable. For the years 1901 through 1929, the railroad ran freight trains six days a week carrying ore to the Cranberry Furnace in Johnson City, and coal and other materials back to the busy mine. When Ritter ran out of timber, he sold the LR to CI&C in April 1913. The company used the LR to extend into virgin railroad and lumber territory; first to Shulls Mills for a William S. Whiting band mill in 1916, and finally an extension to Boone, NC in 1919.

The combined railroads were 67 miles long and highly profitable. During the busy years of expansion and growth, the ET&WNC purchased Ten-Wheeler locomotives that became their trademark. They also owned enclosed vestibule passenger cars, giving them the finest narrow gauge passenger train in the country at the time. One of those seven locomotives, No. 12, was built in 1917 and still serves today at the Tweetsie Railroad Theme Park at the ripe young age of 101. Over the years, the two railroads owned seventeen locomotives, 29 passenger cars, and hundreds of freight cars. Of those, one ET and one LR locomotive still exist, along with one passenger car, No. 15 - a unique triple combination car (mail/baggage/passengers) and part of that famous enclosed vestibule train set, two boxcars, and one caboose. The company did very well during the first 25 years of the Twentieth Century, opening up the area to tourism, industry, and economic development.

By the mid Twenties however, dark clouds were on the horizon. The automobile was invading the solitude of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the timber was running out on the mountainsides. The Cranberry Mine and Furnace shut down in November 1929, at the beginning of the Great Depression. A large rayon producing complex was built along the line in the mid-Twenties, but that was in standard gauge territory. The company remained profitable, but the narrow gauge slowly withered on the vine. Service dwindled down to one mixed train Daily except Sunday, which ran out of Boone in the morning, taking all day to make the 67 mile trip to Johnson City and back.

The narrow gauge did gain popularity during the Thirties when it began hauling tourists on excursion trains on summer Sundays. Hundreds of people every other week would ride the rails solely for the opportunity to see the scenery. It was during these years that the railroad earned a nickname - The Tweetsie. Named by a coach at Appalachian State, the nickname gradually caught on and was used in a Universal Studios film short in 1939, called Tennessee Tweetsie. Through this and other events, the narrow gauge gained nationwide attention.

A hurricane-induced flood washed out the Linville River Railway in August 1940. The rest of the narrow gauge continued to suffer, as highways and buses had taken most of the business away. The railroad did find a reprieve during WWII, when the few remaining passenger cars carried workers to the rayon plants for seven days a week, round-the-clock shifts. After the war, the narrow gauge was cut back to Elizabethton-Cranberry, and the writing was on the wall. The narrow gauge section closed in October 1950 and that portion of the railroad’s history came to an end.

The standard gauge section between Johnson City and Elizabethton continued to thrive for another half century. Two ex-Southern locomotives kept steam alive in TN until replaced by diesels in 1967. Southern Railway traded two Alco RS-3s for the steamers, now badly wanted for excursion train service. The increasingly rare Alcos kept rail fans coming to see the railroad for another 20 years, until replaced by even more rare RS-32s. The ET&WNC became the East Tennessee Railway in 1985.

One by one, the industries the railroad served in Elizabethton closed down in the late Twentieth Century. The railroad made its last run to Elizabethton in 2005, the rails sat for several years before being taken up, with the right-of-way becoming the Tweetsie Trail hiking trail. The ET Railway survives as the switching company for the other railroads in Johnson City.

When the narrow gauge closed in 1950, one locomotive and two passenger cars survived to be sold to three Virginia rail fans, who formed the Shenandoah Central Tourist Line in 1953. They operated for two years at Penn Laird, VA, near Harrisonburg, until Hurricane Hazel washed them out in October 1954. Fortunately the equipment was saved to form the nucleus of the Tweetsie Railroad Theme Park in 1957. That Park has now celebrated over 60 years in business. The memory of the ET&WNC Railroad is alive and well.

The ET&WNC Railroad Historical Society
PO Box 70697
Johnson City, TN 37614