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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
By Emilee Dehmer
Okay, well maybe not the first railroad in Tennessee. The first railroad to operate a train in Tennessee award belongs to the LaGrange and Memphis Railroad who started in 1842. Our railroad for today, the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, was chartered in 1845. We say it is the first railroad in Tennessee because it was the first complete line to operate.
The Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad (N&C) was established in 1845, thanks to the help of John Overton and Representative James Whiteside. While these two men helped get the charter, most of the funding for the company came from Vernon K. Stevenson, who was later named President of the N&C Railroad. He worked very hard to get support for the railroad, sometimes even going door-to-door to sell stock in the company. His efforts paid off and N&C was started in 1848.
3.629: This engine is named after Vernon Stevenson.
The N&C railroad was important because it would help join many of the rail lines already running. It would also let people in Middle Tennessee easily ship their goods to new cities across the South. There was a big problem though! Let’s look at a map of Tennessee between Nashville and Chattanooga. You can see Nashville in the red box and Chattanooga (marked as Ross’s Landing) circled at the bottom. What two big geographic features are between the two cities? The Cumberland Mountains and the Tennessee River! What do you think they did?
Map courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives
“Why, bore a hole through it, of course!” That is the answer Overton gave when asked how they were going to get over the Cumberland Mountains. And bore a hole through it they did.
The Cumberland Tunnel, later to be nicknamed the Cowan Tunnel, was a huge engineering feat. They knew the project would take a long time and began work on the tunnel even before they started putting down rails anywhere else! They hired an engineer named John Edgar Thompson to run the project. Thompson planned out the whole route on horseback and worked for free! Later, to thank him for his service, a locomotive was named after him.
The tunnel was made using enslaved people and Irish immigrants, who were treated very poorly at the time. The Irish immigrants were in charge of the explosives because the company would owe fines if any enslaved people were injured. The excavation of the mountain was a long process and they worked on it all day and all night. Remember, this was happening in the mid-1800’s so they did not have big machines and power tools like we have today. Take a look at the tools they would have used to clear the tunnel.
It took about two years to completely clear the tunnel. It would be another two years before it was opened for train use. On February 22, 1852, the Cumberland Tunnel opened. It was 2,228 feet long and was one of the highest points of the rail line. It was a big accomplishment. However, trains were having trouble getting to the tunnel because the mountain was so steep. They began using “pusher” trains. Pusher trains were extra engines that would help push the train up the mountain. One of the main pusher train cities along the route was Cowan. Today, Cowan is home to the Cowan Railroad Museum. This museum has many artifacts from the early railroad days and is in an old train depot!
Courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives
This is a picture of the Cowan Railroad Station with a train in front.
This is a photo of the Cowan Railroad Station.
A few years later, when coal was discovered in the area, the Sewanee Coal Corporation made a short set of tracks that connected to the main N&C line. The line ran above the Cumberland Tunnel and crossed over the tracks at one of the entrances. This is the only place in the world where something like this happens. When both trains cross at the same time, it makes for some cool pictures, like the one below!
The other main geographic problem the railway had was the Tennessee River. Before the line was complete, the tracks stopped right before the river. To complete the journey to Chattanooga, you would need to transfer to a steamboat and float down the river. So, they built a bridge so the tracks could reach Chattanooga and finish the trip.
Finally, on February 11, 1854, the 152-mile main line track was opened. Four years after it was bought in 1850, the first locomotive Tennessee purchased by N&C was able to run the rails. According to one railroad historian, “N&C Railroad soon became one of the most important railroads in the entire South, and by 1860 operated a total of 37 locomotives on its lines.”
Not even ten years after the railroad was finished, the Civil War began. The war years were not easy on the railroad system. Control started in the hands of the Confederacy with the N&C President Vernon Stevenson, a Major Quartermaster for the South. This did not last long. In February 1862, after the fall of Fort Donelson, Stevenson feared for his life as Union troops marched towards Nashville. He had two special trains pick him and his family up and take them out of the city. They were safe, hundreds of miles away, when the troops arrived in Nashville, easily taking the city without firing a single shot.
Throughout the war, the rail line was destroyed and rebuilt many times. Complete control of the line went to the Union in April 1862. By July 12 of that year, they had rebuilt 113 miles of track that had been previously destroyed. One day later, on July 13, these lines were destroyed again by the Confederacy. This would be the start of an almost constant battle of repairs and destruction between the two sides.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad Depot, March 1864
Railyard and depot in Nashville during the Civil War. The Capitol is in the background.
If the dates on this photo is correct, it was taken during the Battle of Nashville.
In February of 1864, N&C was turned over to the United States Military Railroad and remained in their control until the end of the war. Over the course of the war, the Union would rebuild 2,200 liner feet of bridges and hundreds of miles of railroad tracks. When N&C was finally returned to its owners in September of 1865, they found themselves in major debt for all the repair work the Federal Government had overseen.
While this debt was a big challenge, the company was able to repay it and continued strong in their operations. They leased out the Nashville & Northwest Railroad, eventually buying them and continued creating more lines in the South. In 1873, the Nashville and Chattanooga changed its name to the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis (NC&St.L). This was done to show the company’s new goals of reaching westward and connecting their lines to the gateway of the west, St. Louis. With the name change it ended the story of the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, the first railroad in Tennessee.
Chartered - A document which declares that a city, town, school, or corporation has been established.
Goods - Products that are made for sale.
Geographic Feature - The natural features of an area (lakes, mountains, rivers, etc.).
Bore –To make your way through, make a hole in something.
Feat – An achievement that needs a lot of courage, strength, or skill.
Excavation - To make a hole, or hollow out
Think About It
What year did the N&C Railroad start?
How long was the Cumberland Tunnel when it opened?
Why would the Confederacy want to keep destroying the railroad lines during the war?
How did railroads impact people’s lives in Tennessee? How do they impact Tennesseans today?
Now You Try It
Watch as a modern-day train passes through the Cowan Tunnel that was completed in 1853.
CSX Chattanooga Sub: Harsh Light + Harsh Grades on the Cumberland Plateau - YouTube
What are goods that trains might have transported back when the tunnel was made in 1853?
What are goods that trains might transport through the tunnel today?
Ask an adult to help you research the answers and see if you were right!
Tennessee State Social Studies Standard:
3.04- Examine major political features on globes and maps, including: railroads.
3.12- Locate the following cities and physical features in Tennessee:
Cities- Chattanooga, Nashville
Mountains- Great Smoky Mountains
3.13- Explain how geographic challenges are met with: Tunnels
3.18- Analyze how people interact with their environment to satisfy basic needs and wants, including: transportation
8.40- Analyze the development of roads, canals, railroads, and steamboats throughout the U.S.
Storm on Cumberland Mountain: The Story of the Cowan Pusher District (mtsu.edu)
The Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railway: History and Steam Locomotives
The Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railway: History and Steam Locomotives - Richard E. Prince - Google Books
Nashville, Chattanooga & St Louis Railway: Map & History (american-rails.com)
Four Decades of the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway, 1873-1916 on JSTOR (mtsu.edu)
History – NASHVILLE STEAM
The Way We Worked Smithsonian Exhibit coming to Cowan TN (cowanrailroadmuseum.org)
Cowan Railroad Museum
Railroads | Tennessee Encyclopedia
Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad | Tennessee Encyclopedia
Cowan Railroad Station - Looking Back at Tennessee Photographs - Tennessee Virtual Archive (oclc.org)
Cowan Tunnel - Looking Back at Tennessee Photographs - Tennessee Virtual Archive (oclc.org)
Cowan Railroad - Looking Back at Tennessee Photographs - Tennessee Virtual Archive (oclc.org)
Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad Depot, Nashville, Tenn., March, 1864 | Library of Congress (loc.gov)
[Nashville, Tenn. Railroad yard and depot with locomotives; the Capitol in distance] - digital file from original neg. of left half | Library of Congress
Tennessee (1825) - Maps at the Tennessee State Library and Archives - Tennessee Virtual Archive (oclc.org)