Etowah’s L&N Depot Today

If you have ever visited the small town of Etowah in east Tennessee, then you most likely recall the grandeur of the town’s iconic L&N Depot. It stands proud next to the CSX railyard with nearby Starr Mountain providing a picturesque backdrop. When traveling in any direction along Tennessee Avenue, the Depot and its well-maintained grounds are impossible to overlook. This historic building now serves as an informative museum, visitors center, and gathering place for community events. It is no surprise that thousands of people are drawn to this amazing and unique destination every year.

A self-guided tour of the Depot Museum is something you definitely want to include in your plans. As you explore the Depot’s many rooms and hear the creaking of the old wood floor beneath your feet, you will be taken back to a time before automobiles were commonplace and trains still ruled. All may be quiet and calm now, but, back in the day, this was far from the case. This Depot once bustled with life and a constant flow of people arriving and departing on passenger trains. The many informative exhibits found throughout the museum attractively explain the story of Etowah and, to be such a small town, there’s some incredible history waiting to be discovered here!

Museum exhibits take visitors back to Etowah’s early days.

In 1902, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (L&N) was on a mission to locate and purchase enough land for a massive rail complex, including an elaborate passenger station, somewhere close to the convergence of the “Old” and “New” Line. According to a museum exhibit, finding suitable land was far more difficult for L&N than originally expected. Their preferred location was Tellico Junction, now known as Englewood, but citizens apparently opposed the plan and it was abandoned. Finally, in 1904, they acquired a sizeable amount of land just north of Wetmore. However, due to its location in the Cane Creek bottoms, the land was very boggy and presented a major challenge for L&N. Canals were built to drain excess water and fill dirt was hauled in from nearby mines to raise the site elevation more than 3 feet before any buildings could be erected.

Courtesy of Etowah Historical Commission.

After the land had been altered and deemed suitable for use, construction began on the passenger station in the newfound community of Etowah. Haywood York brought in his crew from Blue Ridge, GA to oversee this massive undertaking. In 1906, two years after work started, the depot was completed making it the first permanent structure in Etowah. This Victorian style station was designed with fifteen rooms across two levels. The first level housed the passenger station, which was originally segregated, and consisted of two waiting rooms, two tickets windows, an agent’s office, a snack bar, etc. The second level of the building contained many office spaces for L&N’s Atlanta Division Headquarters.

Wooden staircase leading to the second level, which housed L&N’s Atlanta Division Headquarters.

One of the many interesting features of the depot’s layout is the location of the staircase. While one would assume you access the second level from somewhere on the main level, that is not exactly the case here. A separate entrance and doorway was strategically designed from the outside leading to a beautiful, seemingly hidden, wooden staircase. The intent was to prevent passengers and the public from curiously wandering into the Atlanta Division Headquarters and interfering with the important tasks underway there. “How do I get upstairs?” is one of the most common questions asked by patrons to the museum today and creates an opportune time to explain the history.

Ten years after the completion of the depot, in 1916, L&N’s Atlanta Division Headquarters was growing rapidly and needed more office space. To meet their needs, a large addition was made to the front of the depot, which became the engineering department. Today, it is known as the Portico Room and this spacious area can be reserved for weddings, conferences, parties, etc.

Passenger train service was a fundamental part of the town’s existence for many decades. At one time, as many as 14 passenger trains stopped by Etowah in a single day. However, times changed and people became increasingly dependent on automobiles as their primary mode of transportation meaning fewer trains were needed. In 1968, the day many people had been expecting finally became a sad reality as L&N passenger trains rolled away from the Depot for the final time. This marked the end of an era that brought not only prosperity, but a way of life to Etowah and its people.

Original ticket window inside of the Etowah Depot.
L&N ticket claim coupon from the early 1900’s reading Etowah to Farner.

After passenger train service ceased in Etowah, the depot’s primary purpose became obsolete despite continuing to provide office space for railroad employees in the years to come. Finally, in 1974, L&N abandoned the depot entirely and the few remaining employees were relocated to another nearby location. Citizens grew concerned that the old depot, which was a monument to the town’s history, would quickly deteriorate without upkeep. In response, the City of Etowah formed the Etowah Historical Commission to assist in fundraising and oversee the restoration and preservation of the building. In 1981, three years after restoration began, the depot was again ready to serve the wonderful citizens of Etowah that cared about it so much.

If you are ever presented with the opportunity to visit this wonderful depot, I highly recommend that you do! Countless other depots along with all of the history and stories they had to offer have been lost because their value wasn’t appreciated or they had been neglected beyond repair. Thankfully, the people of Etowah cared enough about this gem and realized the potential hidden behind what it was becoming to not allow it to suffer the same fate as so many others.

L&N embossed doorknobs, like the one seen here, can be spotted throughout the Depot by the observant eye. What will you discover here?

A Morning in the Sequatchie Valley

I know this isn’t a typical post about railroad history, but I really want to share some of my recent photos with you from an early morning adventure to Pikeville, TN in the Sequatchie Valley. (This area does have some rather interesting railroad history and I’m sure there will be a future post about that). To me, there is nothing better than starting the day very early and watching the sun cast its first golden rays out from behind a mountain still lightly blanketed with fog or across an open field covered in dew. Experiencing the sunrise is something I look forward to every morning, weather permitting, either during my long drive to work or on a relaxing ride through the country on my day off. I have a fear of wasting my life and missing out on interesting things, so I am normally awake early and eager to see what the day has in store. I hope you enjoy these photos and if you’re one of those people who find it difficult to get out of bed early, then I hope you are inspired to get out and enjoy a nice sunrise sometime soon! It will give you a renewed outlook!

What could be better than a beautiful sunrise to start the day?
I have always been partial to old red barns.
One thing I enjoy is taking black and white photos that appear vintage.
I’m not certain of the history at this location, but the scenery did make a great photo opportunity.
A view of the crystal clear Sequatchie River near its head at the north end of the valley.
I thought this moss-covered tree next to the river made for an interesting shot.

Finding Nemo in Tennessee

Join me on a short trip to find Nemo… We’ve all seen or heard of the Disney movie “Finding Nemo” before, right? Well, all joking aside, there is a unique destination in Tennessee called Nemo and it is very much worth the time to see. It is located in Morgan County just a short drive from the town of Wartburg. I have frequented this place for several years and it is easily one of my favorite places to watch trains (known as railfanning). Some people visit for the swimming and water activities in the Emory River, while others enjoy taking their Jeeps through the abandoned railroad tunnels and along the areas numerous primitive roads. If you’re like me, however, then it’s all about the history and trains!

Nemo is along the Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific (CNO&TP) mainline, which extends from Cincinnati, OH to Chattanooga, TN. It is also part of what was nicknamed the Rathole Division of the former Southern Railway. If you know anything about this area, then you can understand how it earned that name. There are plenty of ratholes, or tunnels, to be found. More used to exist, but many were daylighted or bypassed to allow for larger trains and improved efficiency. Today, Norfolk Southern operates this very active line and it’s not uncommon to see several trains pass by within an hour timespan. I personally enjoy setting up my camera and a fold-up chair near the newer Tunnel 24 and just watch trains all day. This is especially true during fall when the weather is cooler and there’s some nice color in the gorge. It’s the best!

Regardless of the reason for visiting, there’s something for everyone at Nemo. Take a look through my photos and then plan your trip.

This is the old Tunnel 24 at Nemo which was bored in 1878 and currently abandoned. The tunnel was bypassed by a larger one during the 1960’s (“new” Tunnel 24) located within walking distance. Adventurous people enjoy taking their Jeeps through the old tunnel. I’ve been once, but it’s been a long time ago. While it was very fascinating experience, it was also a bit creepy.
Concrete marker with the tunnel number (24) just above the south portal.
This preserved steel truss bridge was rebuilt after the flood of 1929. It parallels the modern-day road bridge and is used by hikers to view the Emory River from above.
Another view of the steel walking bridge at Nemo from the Emory River level.
Any way you look at it, it’s “steel chaos.” LOL This picture turned out great in my opinion. There’s just something appealing about the disorder and craziness from this view.
The cool water of the Emory River beckons you on a hot summer day! It’s no wonder why so many people enjoy Nemo for the water.
Beautiful wildflowers can be found in abundance. Nemo is close to the Catoosa Wildlife Management Area, which offers miles of dirt roads and trails through the mountains.
This orange daylily is one of my favorite flower types. I always look forward to the time of the year when they can be found blooming in abundance.

Waldensia

As you may know, I make frequent trips to the eastern Kentucky coalfields researching and exploring old mining sites and railroads. I knew that Tennessee also had its share of coal mining back in the day, but I was surprised to learn about a sizeable operation just down the road from my house near the community of Westel in Cumberland County. It was called the Waldensia Coal and Coke Company and even had a double line of beehive coke ovens, which I will talk more about soon. Mainly, I learned that sometimes you don’t need to venture very far from your own backyard to find something of interest.

We began last Sunday morning along the banks of the Emory River north of Harriman, TN. After a few hours of scavenging and exploring, we decided to locate the former coal mining operation of Waldensia. We had read about it for the very first time only a few hours earlier. First, it was a short ride into Harriman for lunch and… to deal with an unexpected low tire. I added some air at a convenience store and gave it a thorough inspection. I couldn’t find a foreign object in it nor did I notice anything unusual (side note: from experience, I am a magnet for picking up items in my tire). I figured adding air would resolve the issue, so we continued on. We made it about half way to the destination when I was alerted by the tire sensor that I, again, had a low tire. Luckily, there was another convenience store nearby. At that point, I was certain there was some kind of an issue. We tried that trick where you wet the tire with soapy water and watch for the bubbling from a potential air leak. It didn’t take long to discover a small puncture in my tire. I desperately ran inside the store to inquire about a plugging kit and, thankfully, they had one left in stock. Once the tire was plugged and refilled with air we, yet again, continued on our way.

Amid the overgrown vegetation, one can find the remains of old coke ovens and rockwork while exploring Waldensia. I believe fall and winter will be be the best times for visiting again.

When we finally arrived at Waldensia, we were greeted by the sound of Mammy’s Creek rushing over a small dam in the nearby woods. This dam, and associated lake, was built by the Waldensia Coal & Coke Company to provide a source of water for washing the coal from local mines. Sadly, this part is located on private property and cannot be seen from the road due to hemlocks and other vegetation blocking the view. I plan on trying to get permission in the future for some pictures.

One of the beehive coke ovens found at Waldensia.

The double line of beehive coke ovens was built in the early 1900’s to convert the mined bituminous coal to industrial coke, which was then used in smelting iron ore. The ovens are mostly preserved despite being old and overgrown. This is likely due to so few people knowing about their existence. They are a very short walk from a pull-off on the side of the road, but knowing exactly where to go always helps. We quickly found out that spring and summer is probably not the best time to visit. I am not just referring to the swarms of mosquitos and steamy Tennessee weather either. Since this place isn’t in a park or any other kind of designated area, it is almost completely unkept. I remained constantly aware of my surroundings because the last thing I wanted was to run upon a snake or even be bitten. I can imagine that in the fall and winter you are able to see and explore so much more of this area with far less critters to worry about. I will be visiting again and doing a follow-up blog with more information and pictures then.

What I believe may be the old school in the community of Westel, TN near Waldensia. One source stated it may have been one of the facilities built by the coal company.
Honeysuckle in bloom along the old road. One of my favorite smells in the world!

The L&N Railroad in World War II

During one of the most uncertain times in the history of our nation, America’s great railroads worked around the clock for Uncle Sam to transport troops, weapons, and other resources to ports where they could be taken to the front lines. Each and every train carrying military assets was vital to victory. The Louisville and Nashville Railroad, (L&N), was one of the elite performers of the World War II era. However, the demand exacted on them by the government combined with their unwavering commitment to prioritizing equipment and right-of-way for military trains came with many inconveniences. Among those bearing these inconveniences was the general public, who still heavily relied on passenger trains for transportation. Those attempting to travel during this wartime period could expect crowded cars, hefty delays, and limited supplies. Again, it was necessary for the L&N to prioritize the movement of military personnel and war materials over regular passenger trains. Uncle Sam truly had the right-of-way and, ultimately, it was a very small sacrifice to ensure victory.

WWII era passenger ticket envelope

While the L&N was successful in maintaining reliable and efficient operations during WWII, there was one very tragic incident that is still well-known to this day. On July 6, 1944 an L&N Troop Train carrying over 1,000 U.S. soldiers derailed and plunged into the water of the Clear Fork River. This section of railroad, now owned and used by CSX Transportation, is familiar to many as “The Narrows” and is located near Jellico, TN. Unfortunately, 34 people lost their lives, including an engineer based out of Etowah, and over 100 others sustained injuries. Reportedly, the last words of the fireman, also based out of Etowah, at the Jellico hospital was “she jumped the track.” (Information courtesy of Etowah Historical Commission)

Picture shows approximate site of the 1944 L&N Troop Train wreck taken during the winter

Below are some scans of World War II era L&N time tables and employee magazines. Note that they all maintained a common theme which was stressing the importance of prioritizing military trains over others and emphasizing the crucial role of the railroads in wartime transportation. They also sought to unify everyone behind a common cause and to assure that victory would soon come.

April 16, 1944 L&N timetable
July 12, 1942 L&N timetable
October 10, 1942 L&N timetable
June 1, 1943 L&N timetable
July 1943 L&N Magazine
January 1944 L&N Magazine

Scatter Tags, Anyone?

Until just a few months ago, I had no idea coal scatter tags even existed! Most of us have at least heard of coal scrip before, which are tokens of varying denominations that could only be used to pay for items at the company store. However, scatter tags are completely different. Most are made of aluminum or cardboard and are about the size of a quarter. They were mixed in with the coal as it was loaded on rail cars at the mine. Many coal mining companies used scatter tags with their branding on them as a form of advertisement from the 1920’s through the 1950’s. This allowed customers to recognize their preferred coal source since it all looked the same.

My collection of coal scatter tags in their display case.

How I first learned about coal scatter tags is an interesting story from one of our many trips to the Harlan, KY area. As I was metal detecting along an abandoned L&N mine spur, a curious local stopped and asked what I was looking for. I told him about my fascination with the area’s history and collecting railroad artifacts. He seemed very intrigued by this and told me about finding scatter tags along the railroad as a child. I probably had a puzzled expression on my face when I asked, “scatter tags, what are those!?” I was a bit shocked that something, apparently common in the early coal mining scene, could have evaded my ears for so long. Needless to say, most of my spare time in the coming days was spent researching what they were and how to find them. I think learning about scatter tags may have started something, because now I can’t seem to get enough!

Scatter tags found in Kentucky. Note the difference in quality.

If you are serious about collecting coal scatter tags and want to obtain a displayable collection, then you are probably better off purchasing them. Luckily, they are fairly inexpensive. If you prefer to be adventurous and find them, then that is also an option. Keep in mind that the scatter tags you find will likely not be the same quality as those you buy due to their prolonged exposure to the elements. But, should you choose to look for them, make sure to consider location and equipment. Always be mindful of not trespassing on private property or putting yourself in danger when deciding where to search. Remember that just because a railroad track appears abandoned does not always guarantee that it is. Do your research first with a reputable source. For equipment, you are going to need, at minimum, a functioning metal detector and something durable to dig with. A handheld pinpointer is also a good investment as it will guide you to an object’s precise location. We use an ACE 350 and AT Pro as primary metal detectors and also a Garrett pinpointer some refer to as a “carrot.”.

Below is a gallery of individual scatter tags from my collection. In the caption, you will find each respective mine’s location.

Laurel Snow: Where Coal Mining History Entwines with Nature

If learning about Tennessee coal mining history while surrounded by nature sounds appealing to you, then consider adding Laurel Snow State Natural Area to your bucket list. It is only a short drive from downtown Dayton, (which is known for the Scopes Trial), to the parking area and trailhead. The history buff will be taken back by the old mine openings, railroad remnants, and reservoir. The nature lover will also feel at home since Laurel Snow is home to many pristine creeks and streams, unusual plants, breathtaking overlooks, and towering waterfalls.

The mining history of this area dates back to 1877 when Sir Titus Salt, of England, acquired 40,000 acres of land in Georgia and Tennessee. Included in this purchase was 800 acres that became Dayton Coal and Iron Company and, eventually, the Laurel Snow State Natural Area of today. In 1887, Titus Salt Jr. took over the project in Tennessee until his death at age 44 of the same year. For the next 38 years, which brought an end to the mining operations, it was under the control of British and Scottish successors. During peak production, up to 1,200 men earned their living here. Over the course of their existence, the Company built and operated 7 coal mines, 375 coke ovens, 2 blast furnaces, 17 miles of rail, and around 200 employee houses in the area.

The last time I visited Laurel Snow I was lucky enough to have a conversation with a local historian. He was eager to share his wealth of knowledge about the area with me and I was fascinated by the interesting stories he had. My favorite was probably the one about the mules. In the very original days, mules were used to pull carloads of coal out of the mines and transport them to the furnaces and ovens. Apparently, some of these mules stayed in the mines continuously and, due to the darkness, went blind. They were still able to continue their duties, despite not being able to see, because they had performed the same job for so long and could remember exactly where to go. When I heard this story it absolutely blew my mind!

Below I will give you a “picture tour” showing some of the significant places and things you will see while visiting Laurel Snow. Enjoy!

This entrance is hard to miss and is only a short walk down the trail. According to the historian, it was actually built as a ventilation shaft for the nearby Dixon Slope Mine. While it may be tempting to venture inside, mines can present real dangers and this one contains a lot of water.
This stone arch marks the now-collapsed main entrance to the Dixon Slope Mine and is located just off the trail and up the hill. Its purpose was to intersect a highly productive coal seam an explosion in another nearby mine (Nelson Mine) had sealed off. Despite great efforts, it never actually reached the seam.
This mine is accessible directly from the parking area, but isn’t on an established trail. According to the historian, this was known as the Easy Money Mine. Now, I wish I had asked why it was called that.
This picture, taken during fall, shows the old railroad trestle piers crossing Richland Creek in the direction of the North Pole Mine.
Old stonework and walls for stabilization are a common site, especially since the trail follows what was once a railroad.
This small reservoir once served as the water supply for Dayton. As you walk the trail, you may still notice some of the old metal pipe that was used to carry water towards town. Today, its only use is for recreation.
Laurel Falls, seen here, is the larger of the of two waterfalls you can hike to. The other is called Snow Falls. A combination of their names is how the Natural Area received its name.
In spring, vibrant wildflowers can be found in abundance. These are a type of “catchfly.”
Always take the path less traveled… and thank you for reading!!!

Laying Tracks for a Railroad Blog

L&N passenger train, The Southland, crossing a trestle near Chatsworth, Georgia (May 1954)

This is my first ever blog post! It feels like such an accomplishment to be making this dream a reality at last. I am eager to see how far this takes me and I cannot thank you enough for your support. In return, I hope to post material that you find engaging and informative. Anyway, the purpose of this post, which is really a test to resolve any issues or glitches, is to discuss my blog in general. I will explain some of the reasons for creating it along with other details. My plan is to publish one post per week on Wednesday’s by 7 pm ET. Be sure to subscribe by email on the main page so you don’t miss out! Ask friends and family that may be interested to do the same.

Blogging about the rich history of railroading in the Southland is something I have always wanted to do, but never acted on… until now. My goal is to explore and write about everything that made railroading in the South so great. From the once prosperous coalfields of eastern Kentucky to the intriguing railroad loop tucked away in the Tennessee hills, there is a lot of ground to cover. This blog will allow me to share details and photos from my adventures, showcase my collection of railroad treasures, and provide useful information.

1944 L&N passenger train time table showing The Southland’s schedule

You may be wondering if there is a reason for the name and logo I chose. The answer is yes. In fact, I devoted a lot of time and thought towards making it all fit together perfectly. If you’re a true L&N fan, like myself, then you may have already caught the reference to the passenger train The Southland in the name. This train’s route would have passed through eastern Kentucky and Tennessee as it traveled from Chicago, IL towards the sunshine and warmth of Florida. These areas are some of my favorite along the L&N system and I often wish passenger service was still available for us to experience the scenery by train. To honor this, I decided to reference The Southland in the name of my blog. Since the majority of my posts will be on the broader topic of railroad history in the South, the name is also appropriate in that regard. Next, we will discuss the logo in more detail…

Official logo for the blog

The logo also has a few interesting features of its own worthy of mention. Most of this has to do with the colors. No, they were not chosen at random. These colors are actually the same as those used on L&N rail equipment. By using the appropriate hex code, I could make certain the logo’s colors were very close to the real thing. Think of those blue L&N boxcars with the yellow lettering on them. Those same colors inspired this logo and can also be found on many other features throughout my homepage. (On a side note, the shade of blue used on L&N passenger equipment was not the same. It was much darker). Since blue is calming, I wanted it to be the primary color/background for the logo. The yellow in the lettering of “Stories” contrasted perfectly against this background; exactly how it was intended. The font I chose wasn’t special aside from its vintage appearance. The finishing touch was the section of railroad track seen as part of the background. In a very quaint way, this lets the viewer know the blog is railroad-related.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read! As I mentioned in the beginning, this post was meant as a test. We all know how crazy things can be in the beginning stages. Nonetheless, I am looking forward to sharing another post with you next Wednesday evening. I hope you will join me. Spoiler alert! The post will be about the old days of passenger train service in Etowah, TN.

Have a fantastic rest of your week!!! – Craig