If all things locomotive interest you, there are multiple opportunities in East Tennessee to explore train history in our area. Some favorites are mentioned here, starting closest geographically to your Smokies rental cabin, and moving outward.
1. The Little River Railroad and Lumber Company Museum in Townsend features the mountain logging industry and the historic railroad operations supporting it. The exhibits here document the lumber company’s ascent with the lucrative business of “timber mining” local hillsides. This same railroad shortline was also used by Knoxville tourists to access their Elkmont community vacation homes via the L&N (Louisville & Nashville) line. Volunteer docents bring the details of the exhibits to life, and recount how the logging industry changed the area, along with its eventual industry demise here. In addition, the establishment of the the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and World War II are also explained regarding their impact on the life of the Smoky Mountain community. Definitely interesting, donation admission only, and worth a whistlestop!
For more information, see http://www.littleriverrailroad.org
2.The Dollywood Express in Pigeon Forge. If you plan to visit the Dollywood theme park, carve out some time to ride the park-based steam train called the Dollywood Express. Original to the theme park all the way back to the original Rebel Railroad in the 1960’s, the 20 minute, 5 mile open-air ride gives passengers a sweet taste of train travel flavor in the steam locomotive era. Our tip for riding is to sit farther back in the train, and wear sunglasses to avoid stray airborne ash cinders. So whether being pulled by Klondike Katie or Cinderella, this easy-access rail ride is enjoyable for the entire family, and included in your park admission price. Have your camera ready to photograph the engine where the track curves along the way.
3. For an afternoon day trip, consider the Three Rivers Rambler in Knoxville. This steam train ride originates at the University Commons depot, accessible from I-40, Alcoa Highway from Maryville, and Kingston Pike at the western edge of the University of Tennessee Knoxville campus. The Commons retail area was originally the Fulton Bellows Foundry industrial site that operated from 1917 to 2005. The Rambler (3RR) trip traverses 11 miles and 90 minutes of scenery in the Knoxville countryside, and is operated by the Knoxville & Holston River Railroad (KXHR). Excursions fill quickly, so plan ahead to ride the Hoot ’n’ Holler Autumn Express, or the holiday-themed Christmas Lantern Express. Some families make this ride an annual tradition.
The John Henry Number 150 steam locomotive is also on display, having just arrived this past July. This memorable piece of history is named for the American folk hero, and was the source of the John Henry song.
For trip schedules and ticketing, get more details at http://www.threeriversrambler.com
4. Should you be a serious train enthusiast, you must take a day trip to the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, just north of Chattanooga. Located not far off I-75 South, the trip can be easily driven from your Wears Valley cabin rental to the museum in about 2.5 hours of mostly interstate driving. The train yard at the museum is fascinating and allows for many photo opportunities. There are also multiple excursion trips to choose from.
My family’s absolute favorite is the Missionary Ridge Local trip. It is roughly an hour long, goes through a mountain Civil War-era tunnel, and stops at a turntable to rotate the the engine locomotive for the return trip. Passengers can choose to disembark to observe this feat, and absolutely should! It is exciting and educational for all ages to see early 19th century industrial technology, and realize that digital may not just be all there is. This trip is well worth the time commitment to learn and enjoy!
So choose which visits are right for your family, and find that there is still so much to learn about in the mountains of east Tennessee. All aboard!