The Tweetsie rolls again: Museum's model to showcase historic role railroad played

Marci Gore • Apr 15, 2013 at 9:44 AM

Fred Alsop says the beloved Tweetsie Railroad holds a special place in our area’s history.

"There could be no greater railroad to model than Tweetsie," said Alsop, who serves as director of the George L. Carter Railroad Museum on the campus of East Tennessee State University.

For more than a year now, area railroad enthusiasts have been working together to recreate, in miniature, what some call the most famous narrow gauge railroad east of the Mississippi.

The East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad (ET&WNC), more commonly known as "Tweetsie," connected the major railroads in Johnson City with the rich magnetic iron deposits along Cranberry Creek, N.C. The narrow three-foot gauge rails wound around the small valley towns of Appalachia and followed the river-edged gorges of the Doe River along the 35 miles of uphill climb to the iron mines. Later, additional tracks were laid to Boone, N.C., and in 1919 rail service extended to that mountain community. The new line added passenger service to the formerly isolated area, and brought lumber out of the mountains.

According to Tweetsie's website, the name "Tweetsie" was given to the railroad by local folks who became accustomed to the shrill "tweet, tweet" train whistles that echoed through the hills. The name stuck, and the train became forever known as Tweetsie.

"The Tweetsie started in Johnson City and ran to Cranberry, N.C. It was built in order to bring some high-grade iron ore out of North Carolina that they were actually smelting down at the mines in Cranberry," Alsop said. "They could bring it out here and put it on the larger railroads where it could be distributed to various places in the country. Eventually, a smelter was built here in Johnson City so they were able to bring out the iron ore [from North Carolina] and actually render it in Johnson City for a long period of time."

The Tweetsie line also brought workers to factories in Elizabethton. And, thanks to Tweetsie, children who lived in the more isolated parts of the mountains were brought down to attend schools in Carter County. Railroad crews even arranged to deliver groceries to those who lived along the tracks.

Members of the Mountain Empire Model Railroaders (MEMRR) have spent several months recreating a mini-Tweetsie Railroad within the museum. The Tweetsie model will encompass the better part of the 1,300-square-foot Ken Marsh Gallery in the museum.

Currently, the mountain background that contained the underground tunnels of the iron mine at Cranberry has been assembled and is being "forested" with miniature trees. And the coal transfer trestle in the ET&WNC Johnson City yard is already in place.

Although much work has already been done on the model, much is still left to do. Alsop hesitates to say when the project will be completed, and adds that the public is already curious about what the museum’s miniature Tweetsie will look like.

"We’ve had a lot of interest in our Tweetsie re-creation. Lots of people have come through and wanted to see how Tweetsie is coming," Alsop said.

Museum volunteers are recreating the Tweetsie in HO scale, where one foot equals 87 feet. The track and cars are smaller to reflect the narrow-gauge width.

Alsop says there are no kits for most of the structures planned for the layout. Everything will be created from scratch, using photos, drawings and observations as guides.

The model layout of Tweetsie will begin its journey in a miniature Johnson City, shown as it was in 1925, when the Tweetsie was in its heyday. The track will pass the coal chute outside Elizabethton, cross the Doe River on bridges at the town of Valley Forge and the covered deck bridge west of Hampton before entering the first tunnel and exiting across the covered bridge at Hampton. Trains will begin their ascent through two more tunnels and into Doe River Gorge and through Pardee Point, the most photographed site on the railroad.

Continuing through the gorge, engines will go over two more bridges and through two more tunnels, and then over the bridge at Blevins. After visiting Crabtree, Roan Mountain, Shell Creek and Elk Park, the model trains will pull into a replica of the mining community of Cranberry.

"While the distances between landmarks on the model layout have to be compressed, we are depicting 35 railroad miles folded into eight scale miles, with all the bridges and five tunnels built to scale length," said Alsop. "The layout has been divided into nine major sections at least 20 feet long. Each of these sections will contain major features of the railway."

Alsop says each section is available for sponsorship. A minimum donation of $1,000 will support one of the nine sections of the railroad. Donations are tax-deductible and donors will have their names designated on plaques near their sponsored sections. The funds donated will be used to purchase the materials needed to build the operating Tweetsie layout.

Of the nine railroad sections, four sections have already been sponsored. Five sections remain available for sponsorship.

The George L. Carter Railroad Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturdays. Admission is free, but donations are always welcome to support museum programs. The museum is located in the ETSU Campus Center Building, 100 Ross Drive, and can be identified by a flashing railroad crossing signal over the back entrance to the Campus Center Building.

Visitors should enter ETSU’s campus from State of Franklin Road onto John Robert Bell Drive and turn left onto Ross Drive.

For more information about the museum, including the miniature Tweetsie Railroad, call Alsop at (423) 439-6838.

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