In the early 1880s the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad (ET&WNC) built their narrow gauge line from Johnson City, TN through the mountains to reach a source of high-grade iron ore in Cranberry, NC. The Doe River Gorge provided passage through the first range but not without serious challenge. An entirely cut-and-fill route had to be blasted through the gorge above the rushing Doe River, hugging narrow ledges, squeezing through tight tunnels and crossing the river several times – an amazing civil engineering feat at the time.
The narrow gauge line opened to Cranberry on July 3, 1882 and began hauling the iron ore as well as passengers and other freight. Later, the line was extended to Boone, NC and served the region for many years as a faithful little train that endeared itself to its people, eventually earning the nickname “Tweetsie.”
The iron ore traffic died in the late 1920s, but the tenacious little line held on with meager trains of mixed freight and the mail contract. But as highways through the mountains improved, competition from trucks finally caught up with the beloved little narrow gauge. The last revenue train ran October 16, 1950 and the rails were pulled up in 1951. The standard gauge portion between Johnson City and Elizabethton continued to operate, becoming the East Tennessee Railway in 1983. Traffic to Elizabethton ceased in 2003, but the ET Railway still handles local Johnson City traffic and continues to maintain two diesel locomotives in the original enginehouse (that still has narrow gauge service pits).
A few enthusiasts managed to save engine #12, combine car #15, and excursion car #11. After a season as the Shenandoah Central in Virginia, the equipment was purchased and came back “home” in 1957 to form the basis of the Tweetsie Railroad, just a few miles from the end of the old line in Boone, NC. #12 still operates there today and the Tweetsie crew keeps her in fine form.
The lure of the beautiful gorge and the lore of the ET&WNC remained in the hearts of many on the Tennessee side as well. In the late 1960s, about 2.5 miles of rail were re-laid on the gorge right-of-way and a train ran again as part of an amusement park. It operated until about 1974 and then again briefly around 1977.
Doe River Gorge Ministries was formed and acquired the gorge property in 1987. By the summer of 1995 the facilities were sufficiently developed to begin the current Adventure Quest youth programs. The railbed remained and provided hiking access to adventure activities in the gorge. A few homebuilt pedal and gas powered railbikes or “go-carts” were tried out, but in many places the crossties had rotted to non-existence and by 1996 the track was totally unusable.
In 1998 a small group of volunteers began to restore the track with the goal of operating railbikes, small gas-powered motorcars and other light rail equipment again to provide logistical support to Adventure Quest and other DRG program activities in the gorge. By the summer of 2000, the little orange Fairmont motorcar and trailer could reach Pardee Point and hauled hundreds of kids there to jump in the river for white-water inner-tubing.
About this time a certain Ken Riddle started coming by and offered his considerable railroad experience and connections. In late summer of 2000, he arranged for several loads of new railroad ties and a contractor to install them. By late September the track to Pardee Point (about 1.3 miles) was totally refurbished to accommodate heavier equipment. He’d also been sniffing out equipment and found steam locomotive “Rachel” which had been in storage since the 1997 closure of Nashville’s Opryland USA. Somehow he convinced Gaylord Entertainment to put her on loan. She arrived in late September and operated a few times that fall, just in time to mark the 50th anniversary of the last ET&WNC narrow gauge train in style! The hunt continued and he found some retired open passenger cars at Six Flags in Atlanta that they kindly donated in early 2001.
The cars were mechanically intact, but had much rotten wood, peeling paint and needed topside refurbishment. One was stripped down and rebuilt with new decking, sides and benches just in time for the 2001 season. The second made it through the season with a few repairs and was entirely rebuilt in the spring of 2002.
During the 3 years of Rachel’s tenure, thousands enjoyed the unique thrill of a steam train excursion into the breathtaking beauty of the Doe River Gorge. Old timers affectionately recalled trips on the Tweetsie while younger folk saw a glimpse of the past as they experienced a bit of the “steam generation.” Rachel returned to Nashville in the fall of 2003.
Trains continued to operate again in March 2004 with a completely overhauled 1977 Plymouth diesel locomotive. In 2005 and 2006, two more motorcars came into service, giving the little orange Fairmont a much-needed break. The motorcars, with their trailers, and the diesel train both provide ready access to points of scenic interest and Adventure Quest activities in the Doe River Gorge.
More about the ET&WNC:
The Blue Ridge Stemwinder by John Waite
The largest and best single book about the ET&WNC from start to present day.
Along the ET&WNC by Johnny Graybeal; An ongoing detailed multi-volume series about the ET&WNC locomotives, rolling stock, structures and more.