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Tweetsie Railroad 7/29/2018

by Chris Guenzler

Today we left the Elkhorn Inn after a wonderful one night stay and drove US 52 to Interstate 77 to Hillsville where we gassed up the rental car. I bought package of mini chocolate donuts for a moving breakfast and Robin called David Pressley who would meet us at the Tweetsie Railroad this morning. We then drove on US 221 to Boone then a quick trip down US 321 and pulled into the upper parking lot. As soon as we started walking, here came my good friend David Pressley bearing gifts for Robin and I in the form of two Tweetsie plastic cups. We went inside the ticketing area and picked up our guest ticket then walked out to board the next train of the day which was out on the railroad.

Tweetsie Railroad

Tweetsie Railroad is a family oriented Wild West theme park located between Boone and Blowing Rock, North Carolina. The centerpiece of the park is a three-mile ride on a train pulled by one of Tweetsie Railroad's historic narrow-gauge steam locomotives. The park also features a variety of amusement rides, live shows, a zoo and other attractions geared towards families with children. The park also hosts a variety of special events throughout the year.

Tweetsie Railroad History

Opened in 1957, Tweetsie Railroad began as an excursion train ride pulled by steam locomotive 12, the only surviving narrow gauge engine of the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad (ET&WNC). Built in 1917 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works, 12 is a 3 foot narrow gauge 4-6-0 coal-fired locomotive that was used from 1918 to 1940 to haul passengers and freight over the ET&WNC's 66-mile line running through the Appalachian Mountains from Johnson City to Boone, North Carolina. The name "Tweetsie" was given to the original East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad by area residents who became accustomed to the shrill "tweet, tweet" of the train whistles that echoed through the mountains. The nickname stuck with the railroad and its trains, and became more identifiable than the railroad's original name.

Two years after the 3 foot narrow gauge portion of the ET&WNC ceased operations in 1950, the locomotive was purchased by a group of railroad enthusiasts and taken to Penn Laird, Virginia to operate as the Shenandoah Central Railroad, opened in May 1953. Rains from Hurricane Hazel washed out the Shenandoah Central in October 1954, and Locomotive 12 was once again put up for sale. Cowboy actor and singer Gene Autry optioned the locomotive with the intent to move it to California for use in motion pictures. However, Autry ultimately determined that the transportation and restoration costs made his plan impractical.

Instead, Grover Robbins, an entrepreneur from Blowing Rock, North Carolina, purchased Autry's option and bought the locomotive in August 1955. Robbins moved the 12 locomotive back to its native Blue Ridge Mountains as the centerpiece of a new "Tweetsie Railroad" tourist attraction. One mile of track was constructed near Blowing Rock, North Carolina for the train to run on, and on July 4, 1957, the locomotive made its first public trip over the line. In 1958, the track was extended to a 3-mile loop around the mountain, and the trains at Tweetsie have travelled that loop ever since. Grover Robbins' brothers, Harry and Spencer, were also involved with the operation of Tweetsie Railroad, and the park is still operated by the Robbins family.

Tweetsie Railroad became a popular tourist attraction, and quickly evolved into the first theme park in North Carolina -- and one of the first in the nation. A western town and saloon were built around the original depot area. A train robbery and cowboy-and-Indian show were added to the train ride, playing off the Wild West theme that was very popular at the time on television and in movies. The theme was enhanced by regular visits from Charlotte's WBTV television personality/singing cowboy Fred Kirby, who hosted a popular children's show. In 1961, a chairlift and amusement ride area was constructed on the central mountain inside the rail loop, and over the decades the park has been expanded with additional rides, attractions, shops, zoo, and restaurants.

The Tweetsie Railroad theme park is open from early April through October of each year. In addition to the Wild West train adventure and the amusement rides, Tweetsie Railroad has a variety of live entertainment shows featuring talented performers selected from the immediate area and from the Southeast. The park hosts numerous special events each season, including Letterland-themed days in May for school groups, visits by Thomas the Tank Engine and a very popular nighttime "Ghost Train" Halloween event in October. Beginning in 2017, the park's 60th anniversary season, Tweetsie Railroad announced plans to start a Holiday themed event to be called "Tweetsie Christmas".

In 1960, Tweetsie acquired another coal-fired steam locomotive, USATC S118 Class 2-8-2 190, the "Yukon Queen" from Alaska's White Pass and Yukon Route. Also built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1943 for the US Army, the engine was part of an 11-locomotive fleet of "MacArthur" 2-8-2s originally purchased for use overseas. During World War II, the locomotives were sent to Alaska for use on the White Pass and Yukon.

In 1961, Grover and Harry Robbins built another train ride and tourist attraction called "Rebel Railroad" in the Smoky Mountains near Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Originally featuring a Civil War theme, the park was renamed "Goldrush Junction" in 1966 and re-themed to a Wild West concept very similar to Tweetsie Railroad. The Robbins brothers sold Goldrush Junction in the late 1960s, and it subsequently went through various owners. In 1976, Jack and Pete Herschend of Branson, Missouri bought the Pigeon Forge facility and redeveloped it as "Silver Dollar City". In 1986, country music star Dolly Parton became a part owner with the Herschends, and the theme park became today's Dollywood.

On February 9, 2017, Locomotive 12 celebrated its 100th Birthday. An official ceremony was held for the locomotive during Tweetsie's Railroad Heritage Weekend.

Tweetsie Railroad's operating season is from the 1st Friday in April to the last weekend in October, then from Thanksgiving Weekend to the end of December for Tweetsie Christmas. The park is open weekends in the spring and autumn, and daily from the weekend after Memorial Day weekend until Mid August. In addition, the park is open on Friday and Saturday nights in from Late September through October for the very popular "Ghost Train" event. The park is also open for "Tweetsie Christmas" on Friday and Saturday Nights from Black Friday to late December. Other special events are held throughout the season, including Railroad Heritage Weekend in August, that focuses on the history of the narrow gauge locomotives, and a large fireworks display on Independence Day.

Tweetsie Railroad is located on US 321 between Boone and Blowing Rock, North Carolina.

Our Visit

We waited for the train to return to the station area.

The train pulled into the station. Passengers detraine at the rear of their cars and once they were all off, we boarded the last car of the train and took the last two seats of seats on the left side of the train.

The station where you enter the park.

The shop area of the railroad.

Chris and Robin making their first trip aboard the Tweetsie Railroad.

The station area.

The inside of Tweetsie car 16.

The cowboys are actors during the train trip.

With a toot of the whistle and bells ringing, we started to roll down the tracks.

The train took the first curve.

The train crossed the only major trestle on this railroad.

The train took another curve in the park.

Clear shots of the engine are hard to get in most places along our route.

This is the first stop on the Wild West Show they do on every trip. At this one the cowboys meet the outlaw and then the fun begins for children of all ages.

The train took another curve before we arrived at an Army Fort. More fun here with the cowboys, army soldier, the outlaw and the Indians all performing their act in this show.

Scenes from the Fort Show. Once it was done, we headed straight back to the boarding area.

The train took this curve with no view of the engine.

The train enters a deep rock cut.

We then came upon a miner's cabin.

The train took this open curve.

Then another curve to get to the mine.

The water wheel and sluice.

The train took another curve. We returned to the boarding area and I thanked our conductor for the nice trip on the Tweetsie Railroad. I walked down to the engine.

Tweetsie Railroad 4-6-0 12 built by Baldwin in 1917, the only surviving narrow gauge engine of the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad. We then went to the refreshment stand and filled our cups with Coca-Cola.

David told me to get a picture from the plaform, so I did. Then we set up on a porch out of the sun and would watch the train leave.

The next trip leaves on its journey around the park.

The Tweetsie water tower.

That train now has returned to the boarding area.

Tweetsie Railroad 4-6-0 12 pulls the trains around the park today. At this point we then walked out of the exit, I put our cups in our rental car then David drove Robin and I over to a vantage point to take pictures of the train crossing the high trestle.

The photo location we will use.

Zip line riders who are not part of the park.

The train crossed the high trestle at the Tweetsie Railroad Park. We thanked David for bringing us out to get the pictures on the high trestle. I would like to thank the Tweetsie Railroad for having us visit today and a very special thank you to the entire train crew of the Tweetsie Railroad Park. Next David would follow us to Newton, North Carolina.