RIDING THE EAST TENNESSEE & WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA THROUGH THE DOE RIVER GORGE
RIDING THE EAST TENNESSEE & WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA THROUGH THE DOE RIVER GORGE
By Jack M. Turner
During previous visits to the Tweetsie Railroad
family fun park near Boone, NC we have become interested in the history
of the rail line that inspired that attraction. The East Tennessee and
Western North Carolina Railroad began service between Johnson City, TN
and the iron mines located near Cranberry, NC, a distance of 34 miles,
in 1882. The railroad was nicknamed Tweetsie by residents of the
mountains who said the whistle made a "tweet, tweet" sound. The 1901
Official Guide of the Railways listed two daily (except Sunday)
passenger trains between Johnson City and Cranberry. The trip took
three hours and trains met at Hampton, TN.
By 1918 the narrow gauge line was extended another
31 miles to Boone via Linville. The line was still served by two
daily passenger trains though one of these required a connection in
Linville. The one-way trip took approximately four hours. A
major flood washed out the railroad in 1940 leaving only the section
west of Cranberry in service. Ten years later the railroad
abandoned its line through the mountains and the last train operated on
October 16, 1950.
(Click any photo below to see a double-sized copy on your screen; Click BACK in your browser to return to this page.)
An ET&WNC passenger train stops at Pardee Point in the late 1800s or early 1900s. (Jack Turner collection)
Yet, remnants of the ET&WNC still exist.
Steam locomotive # 12, a 4-6-0 built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in
1917 survived the abandonment and today hauls trains at the popular
Tweetsie Railroad family fun park outside Boone and combine car # 15
survives today at the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer,
NC. Since the late 1960s a short stretch of the old ET&WNC also has
lived on with narrow gauge rails winding through a part of the Doe
River Gorge. At that time Doe River Gorge Playland, a small amusement
park located east of Hampton, TN, laid tracks along three miles of the
gorge to offer a short but scenic train ride to customers. The park was
sold and renamed Hillbilly World sometime around late 1971. When
that park went out of business the rail line was left to deteriorate in
the cool and damp mountain climate.
During the 1980s Terry Maughon, an east Tennessee
pastor, had a dream of opening a Christian youth camp and in 1987 his
vision became reality with the opening of a church youth camp operated
by Doe River Gorge Ministries. The rail line, however, would take some
time to restore as the tracks were badly overgrown with weeds and even
small trees and most of the wooden ties were rotted out. For a short
time small rail bikes (which were human powered) could be used along
with push cars and a small go cart type vehicle. After a few
years of little or no use the wavy rails were deemed basically
unusable. Rail fan Phil Raynes from Ohio came for a visit in the early
1990s, liked the rail line, and a few years later helped design a plan
for restoring the tracks. Mark Milbourne, an administrator at the camp
who liked trains was intrigued by the idea of rebuilding the tracks
through that scenic part of the gorge and the offer of help was gladly
accepted. In December 1998 an area railroad contractor donated 2
1/2 days of labor to replace 200 rotted ties that had made the tracks
unstable. That made it possible to run a Fairmont speeder 3/4 mile to
the second tunnel which was ET&WC Tunnel # 3. "The restoration of
the railroad was definitely a "God thing", stated Mr. Milbourne.
"He definitely brought the right people and resources along at the
right time to get things done. It is just one small example of
how, from day 1, God's fingerprints have been all over this
place. No one person or group of people could have ever
orchestrated the events that made it possible for the gorge property to
be purchased and subsequently developed to this point."
There were no aspirations of running heavy equipment
on the narrow gauge line and only speeders were expected to ever
traverse the short stretch of the ET&WNC. By 1999 track
conditions had improved enough to haul campers to a point where they
could be dropped off to float back downriver on inner tubes. The
year 2000 found another 2000 ties being installed by a rail contractor
which allowed the use of the tracks as far as Pardee Point. The
rails have been improved through the years as more ties have been
replaced and metal bars installed to keep the rails from
spreading. Today over a mile of the railway can handle an 8
ton Plymouth engine pulling a short excursion train composed of a
couple open air coaches acquired from the Six Flags Over Georgia theme
park or a motorcar pulling a trailer car carrying campers and a special
tube car that carries the kids' tubes. Motorcars can travel a
total of about two miles of the line due to their lighter weight.
Doe River Gorge Ministries has an impressive
facility complete with dormitory style accommodations, five former CSX
camp cars converted to lodging facilities, a dining hall, a permanent
tent for worship services, and an inviting lake where kids can enjoy
cool mountain swimming. Zip lines into the gorge, horseback
riding, train rides, and rock climbing are among the activities
awaiting campers who usually come for one week at a time from all over
the southeast and, for that matter, from all over the country.
The focus of all these activities is to develop kids' spiritual life, a
goal the Christian ministry has effectively accomplished.
Former CSX camp cars house some of the campers at the Doe River Gorge camp.
A cool mountain lake and challenging zip line await campers.
Riding the ET&WNC Through the Doe River Gorge
During lunch at the camp's dining hall, our host
Mark Milbourne proudly shows us the miniature ET&WNC train that
circles the dining hall on an elevated track above our heads. The model
train line even has a tunnel that takes it out of sight through a hole
in the wall before exiting around a corner of the room. Indeed, trains
have become a very visible part of the camp as a caboose is displayed
next to the main office and the excursion train can be seen near the
A miniature ET&WNC train circles the dining hall at the Doe River Gorge Ministries camp.
An 8 ton Plymouth engine and two coaches operate on the restored ET&WNC.
Shortly it is time for a ride on one of the
camp's motorcars, a custom built car resembling an S-2 model car (but
built with MT-14 wheels and axles) that looks like a metallic picnic
table on wheels. Another conventional speeder stands ready on a nearby
track, however, it is less comfortable for three people. We depart the
camp at 1:20pm and immediately plunge into ET&WNC Tunnel 2. The
railroad numbered its tunnels from west to east starting with Tunnel 1
closer to Hampton. We exit into a thickly wooded area dominated by
rhododendrons about 150 feet above the Doe River. The profuse foliage
shades us from the sun and keeps the temperature very comfortable
during our one hour roundtrip.
Mark Milbourne with a speeder painted in ET&WNC colors
Entering Tunnel 2
Exiting Tunnel 2
The winding narrow gauge rails offer a great view from a speeder.
The rails pass many rocky areas
In less than five minutes we roll into Tunnel
3, exiting at the lower end of Pardee Point. There is a sweeping left
hand curve on a grade of over 2% as we pass above a high retaining wall
built by the ET&WNC to prevent erosion of the right-of-way. Below
the retaining wall river rapids present a beautiful scene as the river
carves its way between the mountains. We pause at a level spot near the
far end of the curve at a spot known as Pardee Point which was listed
in ET&WNC timetables as a passenger stop. The beauty of this point
led the railroad to frequently run excursion trains from Boone and
Johnson City to Pardee Point even during the 1930s after regular
passenger service had ended.
Rock outcroppings were visible at several points during our ride.
A sweeping curve at Pardee Point. ET&WNC passenger trains made scheduled stops here.
The Doe River at Pardee Point.
Along the tracks we pass a trail where present
day campers get off the train and hike down to the Doe River for a tube
ride back to camp. At other points we pass zip lines that campers
use to pass through the woods and cross the river during adventurous
activities. The train is used to transport campers to each of
these activity sites.
The rails pass another rock outcropping.
A rare siding along the ET&WNC line.
The Doe River flows about 150 feet below the tracks
The author and wife Christine during a stop in their motor car ride.
Enjoying the view of the Doe River.
In a few minutes we pass a huge boulder that
fell down the mountain and smashed the tracks a couple years ago.
We reach the farthest point on our ride at 1:50pm as a derail device
marks the spot to which motorcars can travel safely. Work is in
progress to support the rails on the last 1/2 mile of track which
presently is subject to spreading.
This giant boulder smashed the rails a couple years earlier after falling from the mountain.
The ride back to camp provides a great view of
the retaining wall and river at Pardee Point and we stop for a couple
of minutes to take some photos of the scenery. We stop again at
Tunnel 3 for more photography then pass through the tunnel and tie up
at the Doe River Gorge camp at 2:15pm.
Thick rhododendron bushes line the railway. Note the metal bar holding the rails in place.
Climbing past more rhododendron bushes.
The retaining wall at Pardee Point
Preparing to pass through Tunnel 3.
The public can experience the camp activities
including swimming, zip lining, and horseback riding, as well as riding
the rail line through the Day Quest program which is offered about 12
times per year. The train or a speeder can be chartered at other
times. Contact Doe River Gorge Ministries at (423)725-4010 or
visit the web site listed below for further information about student
summer camps, corporate retreats, and the Day Quest program. Doe River
Gorge camp is located off US 19-E just south of Hampton, TN about an
hour west of Boone, NC and one half hour east of Johnson City, TN. The
original right-of-way can basically be followed along Highway 105 south
of Boone to Linville and later along US 19E from Minneapolis to Elk
Park on to Hampton, TN.
For a Slide Show of all photos from this report in Large Format, Click Here.