Facebook Page


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 lake.

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.

Tunnel 3

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.


Doe River Gorge Ministries
Tweetsie Railroad  


[ Top of this Report | Jack Turner's other reports | Depot Inn & Suites | | Silver Rails Country ]