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Behind the Blackboard: Of Fort Robinson schools, a church, the railroad and romance

Rick Wagner • Jun 18, 2017 at 5:00 PM

KINGSPORT — What do the two demolished schools in the Fort Robinson neighborhood, local railroad history and church organ music have to do with one another?

It turns out they are all well connected and date back to roughly the year of modern Kingsport’s founding.

The column I did about the old Kingsport Academy, a follow-up on a Progress edition article that referenced that school, had already garnered a response from Don Moneyhun about its bell ending up at Parkers Chapel in Beartown, where it still rings today.

However, on June 2, Gary Lowe of Kingsport came forward to share some photos of students in front of both the original 1870s building, circa 1914, and a later building that replaced it. One of the photos included his grandmother, Annie Helena Rogan, among classmates at the Sullivan County school. She in 1916 or so married Campbell Richard Lowe, and they became the grandparents of Gary Lowe.

Fast-forward two generations, when in 1948 Gary Lowe attended first grade part of the year in the county school, by then an elementary, that replaced the old academy building before he and his classmates transferred to the new county school called Fort Robinson Elementary, now Madison House. That was on a different site than the old grades 1-12 academy and old county elementary, near the current day Fort Robinson Baptist Church.

But what does that have to do with railroad history and church organ music?

Annie Helena Rogan and Campbell Richard Lowe might never had met if it weren’t for a train on which Lowe was an engineer having to stop for a signal near the Old Presbyterian Church in the Boatyard community. Gary Lowe said his grandfather’s family moved to the Kingsport area from Giles County, Va., to help start the Clinchfield Railroad.

Gary Lowe said that during one of those stops, which somewhat disrupted the church service because the coal-fired steam engine was spewing smoke and steam and sometimes whistling to relieve boiler pressure, Lowe family lore indicates his grandfather said to the fireman or stoker: “They make some mighty good music coming out of that church.”

The fireman responded that he knew some people at the church and could get the engineer an invitation to a service there. Campbell Richard Lowe, who his grandson said was partly named after an evangelist, got that invitation, attended a service and met the organist whose music his engineering had helped to drown out. She must have not been too upset, however, since the engineer soon married her.

It all reads sort of like a movie script or novel: the engineer of a noisy steam train disrupting a church’s organ music ends up marrying the organist. All this happened within almost throwing distance of the school the bride-to-be attended, and this was circa the incorporation of modern Kingsport in 1917. Ironically, the Fort Robinson area wasn’t in that new incorporation for many years, although the old settlement had included the Boatyard.

So if anybody out there is thinking about doing a movie about Kingsport’s centennial or history, I think I have at least a scene or two for you to consider.

Lesson: A courtship and marriage a century ago started out with the future groom as engineer on a steam train disrupting a church service where the future bride played the organ.

Bonus question: What was the part the steam engine fireman or engine stoker played in connecting the future couple? 

 Rick Wagner is the education reporter for the Kingsport Times-News. Email him at rdavis@timesnews.net.

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