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By Jack M. Turner

    Boone, North Carolina and its neighboring community of Blowing Rock, NC have long been favorite summer destinations of Floridians looking for an escape from the summer heat.  These towns, located a mere seven miles apart, are located in the heart of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, within a two hour drive from Charlotte and Asheville and about five hours from Atlanta.

    Boone is the larger of the two as it is home of a major college, Appalachian State University, whose lovely campus is worth a visit.  During the fall, ASU football games are a major draw as the Mountaineers won three Division 1AA national titles during the past decade.  Downtown Boone is home of the iconic Mast General Store and the appetite inspiring Dan'l Boone Inn which are both a must on any visitor's "to do" list.   

    Blowing Rock, on the other hand, is a slower paced town whose main street is about four blocks long and whose city park is a great place to play tennis, let the kids play on the swings, and people watch.  In fact, from my perch on a park bench, I get a kick out of watching people try to parallel park their vehicles, often without much success. Enhancing the experience is a home made waffle cone from Kilwin's ice cream parlor.  A long time attraction in this town is The Blowing Rock, a granite outcropping that hangs out over a deep gorge, the inspiration for many legends dating back over 100 years.

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The Blowing Rock
    Midway between Boone and Blowing Rock adjacent to US 321 one will find Tweetsie Railroad, the area's number one attraction.  Here visitors enjoy a fun three mile train ride powered by one of Tweetsie's two steam locomotives on the property.  Tweetsie's original engine, # 12, a magnificent 4-6-0 built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1917, originally spent 33 years in service on the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad which linked Boone with Johnson City, TN.   Engine # 190, a 2-8-2, was built in 1943 for the Army Corps of Engineers for national defense construction during World War II.  # 190 served on Alaska's White Pass & Yukon Railroad until joining the Tweetsie family in 1961 and today usually hauls trains in the busy July and August peak season which require heavier trains as well as the popular Halloween season "Ghost Train".  Prior to July 4th and after mid-September visitors will usually find # 12 in service on the regular Tweetsie train.

    Tweetsie Railroad's roots date back to 1881 when the ET&WNC began service between Johnson City, TN and the iron mines located near Cranberry, NC, a distance of 34 miles.  In 1918 the narrow gauge line was extended to Boone making the length of the entire line 65 miles.  A devastating flood washed out the railroad in 1940 leaving only a small section of the railroad in service.  Ten years later the railroad closed down and the Tweetsie story appeared to be at its end.  Engine # 12 was sold to the Shenandoah Central Railroad for a new tourist line near Harrisonburg, VA, however, Hurricane Hazel washed out that line two years later rendering the locomotive surplus.  Number 12 was then sold to cowboy actor Gene Autry for a planned amusement park in California but the cost of transporting the venerable engine across the country proved too expensive.  The 4-6-0 was sold to Grover Robbins, Jr. in 1956 for use in his planned Tweetsie Railroad attraction outside Boone, NC.  Number 12 was moved to Hickory, NC for refurbishment then in 1957 hauled up the steep and winding US 321 highway to the site where Tweetsie Railroad now stands.  Number 12 made its first short run on the first mile of the park's track on July 4, 1957 and soon commenced regular service on its present 3 mile loop around Roundhouse Mountain.  The nickname "Tweetsie" actually dated back to the ET&WC when locals described the echoing sound of steam engines' whistles in the mountains as a "tweet, tweet" sound.
   During the 1960s Tweetsie became synonymous with the Blue Ridge Mountains and a visit was a must during most visiting families' stay in the mountains.  In addition to the train ride, a replica western town was constructed complete with various shops and a faux jail.  To attract visitors Tweetsie brought in television child stars of that era such as Jon Provost ("Timmy" on the Lassie show), Jay North of Dennis The Menace fame, Butch Patrick ("Eddie Munster" from The Munsters), Darby Hinton ("Israel Boone" on the Daniel Boone series)", and Johnny Whitaker of Family Affair.  In keeping with the park's western theme, TV stars Fess Parker (title character on Daniel Boone) and Ken Curtis and Milburn Stone ("Festus" and "Doc" from Gunsmoke) made promotional appearances.  Comedian Jerry Clower, guitarist Junior Brown, singer (When You're Hot, You're Hot)/ actor Jerry Reed (Smoky and The Bandit), and George Lindsey (Andy of Mayberry's "Goober") also greeted guests at Tweetsie on special weekends. 

Locomotive # 12 was the main attraction during the author's first visit to Tweetsie Railroad in Summer 1959 with his father (holding brother Steven) and cousin Judy.

The author poses beside # 12 in this Summer 1962 scene.  Note the diamond smokestack added to the engine since the prior photo.

Tweetsie Village had taken shape by the time of this Summer 1964 visit.  Engine # 12 pulled a longer consist at that time than it typically does today.

The author (left) and brother Steven (right) pose with Jon Provost ("Timmy" from the Lassie television series) at Tweetsie Railroad in 1964.

Engine # 190, its tender, and first coach as they appeared in this 1960s postcard.  The new sky lift is above the train.  (Jack Turner collection)

This mid-1960s postcard shows # 12 leading the train over Dead Horse Trestle.  The lead car is a historic ET&WNC combine car while the second coach came from the East Broad Top Railroad.  (Jack Turner collection)

# 12 heads the train in this postcard from the 1960s.  Coach cars are painted differently than today and the water tank is in a different location.  The ET&WNC combine car is parked where Tweetsie's  repair shops are now located. (Jack Turner collection)

4-6-0 # 12 crosses the timber trestle in this 1960s postcard.  (Jack Turner collection)

Tweetsie's two locomotives display different appearances in this vintage photo.  In addition to its diamond stack, # 190 wears silver paint on the front of its boiler.  (Jack Turner collection)
    Through the years Tweetsie Railroad added a family fun section featuring a ferris wheel, spinning rides, a carousel, and miniature race cars plus a sky lift to another part of the park that includes clogging shows, a petting zoo, miniature mining train ride, and other activities.  Despite these additions and various upgrades through the years, Tweetsie has maintained the small park feel of attractions that were so prevalent in the pre-Disney 1960s.

An old promotional brochure shows # 12 with "Tweetsie R.R." on its nose.  (Jack Turner collection)

The longer length of # 190 is evident in this brochure which highlights the then-new western village.  (Jack Turner collection)

# 190 steams through the woods in an autumn scene. (Jack Turner collection)

The shorter length of # 12 is apparent in this postcard view.  (Jack Turner collection)

# 12 shows off a diamond stack, box mounted headlight, and "Tweetsie RR" nose lettering in this Summer 1973 view.

Coach # 5, acquired from East Broad Top Railroad, carries the markers in this 1973 photo.

The author with # 190 in October 1979.  The 2-8-2 has a more traditional smokestack and displays 'Tweetsie R.R." on its nose.

# 12 steams across Dead Horse Trestle on an early 1980s morning.

   Our latest visit to Tweetsie Railroad on an early July 2011 morning begins with a walk around Tweetsie Village and a trip around the mountain behind engine # 190.  This engine was nicknamed Yukon Queen due to her ancestry on the White Pass & Yukon linking Skagway, Alaska and Whitehorse in Canada's Yukon Territory.  Pulling out of Tweetsie village, the fireman on the 190 pours on the coal as the train rounds a curve then tackles 225 foot Dead Horse Trestle.  Soon the train halts for outlaw and indian attacks which have been the highlight of the ride for many a youngster for over 50 years.  The ride itself features plenty of steam engine action as the ruling 5% grade tests the skill of the engineer and fireman alike while pleasant views of rhododendron filled woodlands and rocky cuts offer excellent photo opportunities. 

Kids enjoy Tweetsie Village in July 2011.

This July 2011 scene is not much different from the 1960s.

    My next ride around the mountain (now known as Miner's Mountain) comes in the cab of the 190 courtesy of a friend in Tweetsie's management.  Engineer Tim Smith and fireman David Bradley have already made two trips around the mountain this morning and anticipate a steady day given the volume of guests who are boarding their train at this mid-morning hour.  As soon as the prior trip ended, Bradley hopped to the ground and made his usual inspections of the engine.  With the locomotive serviced, the head end crew waits for the conductor's call over the intercom: "Casey, we're ready to roll."  Smith gives the whistle cord a couple of sharp tugs, the brass bell begins to ring, and soon the powerful locomotive inches forward.  As the staccato sound of steam being forced from her stack builds, the 190 tackles the curved track leaving Tweetsie station as excited onlookers wave at the engine crew and the passengers in the five brightly painted coaches.  Fireman Bradley shovels coal into the firebox while engineer Smith keeps a sharp eye on the track ahead.  In a moment Dead Horse Trestle comes into view and back in the coaches, first time riders are probably amazed at the sight of the steep drop off to a ravine below the wooden trestle. 

# 190 prepares for its next run on July 5, 2011.

Fireman David Bradley shovels coal as # 190 begins its trip around the mountain.

Engineer Tim Smith keeps the 190 on schedule.

# 190 steams across Dead Horse Trestle on July 5, 2011.

A later trip across the trestle is not as smoky.
    In the next few minutes our train will be held up by outlaws and halted by indians who have captured the local military outpost much to the amusement of children wearing cowboy hats and toy gun holsters.  During these stops the crew has time to tell me about their years of service with Tweetsie which obviously is a passion for them as well as a job.  Asked whether anyone had ever taken Tweetsie's motorcar on a reverse loop of the mountain, both Smith and Bradley laugh as they recall a Hollywood film crew's visit during filming of a movie.  The film crew needed some scenes of the train running in reverse and the train crew obliged by backing down from Tweetsie village to the military fort where we are presently paused.  It was an interesting experience as the crew had to educate the filmmakers about the operational abilities of the antique steam engine. 

Looking over # 190's coal-laden tender during the attack at Fort Boone.

Engineer Tim Smith (left) and Fireman David Bradley during the stop at Fort Boone.

    Soon the attack is repelled and the fort is secured.  Smith tugs on the whistle cord again and we are underway for the last lap of our journey.  As US Highway 321 comes into view below, we pass the Tweetsie shops where # 12 is stored while not in use.  The engine's bell announces our arrival back at the station and a trainload of happy passengers detrain, soon to be replaced by a new crowd.

The 190 rounds the curve past the engine house as it arrives at Tweetsie Village.

Fireman David Bradley watches ahead as 190 passes the train shop

The brightly colored coaches at the end of another run.
    Tweetsie Railroad is open daily during the summer months and maintains a weekend schedule in the shoulder season (late April-late May and late August-late October).  The attraction is closed during the winter thus it is best to check ahead by visiting the Tweetsie web site (see link below).  Arriving early in the day allows visitors ample time to enjoy the park and the unlimited train rides that are included with the price of admission.  A guest who arrives at the park's opening could enjoy as many as a dozen trips around the mountain.  One hint: sit on the right hand side of the train looking forward for best views of the engine as most curves are to the right.  Additionally, most of the action during the hold ups are on that side of the train.  Families with children should make sure to visit the top of the mountain by either ski lift or shuttle bus for activities certain to appeal to the little ones.  Special events including a visit by Thomas the Tank Engine and Barney, spectacular 4th of July fireworks, a performing dog act, the ghost train, and the annual rail fan weekend are special draws to the park.

    The Blue Ridge Parkway, which runs from a point near Charlottesville, VA to Cherokee, NC, slices across US 321 between Boone and Blowing Rock.  The parkway is one of America's most scenic highways and the drive to Asheville is especially awe inspiring as it passes over Linn Cove Viaduct skirting Grandfather Mountain and passes Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the eastern United States.  Within 10 minutes of Boone and Blowing Rock the Blue Ridge Parkway passes beautiful Price Lake where rowboats can be rented in summer and skirts a nearby picnic area set among the rhododendron bushes beside the rippling Boone Fork River.  An especially scenic time to drive on the parkway is in autumn when the mountains are ablaze with colorful leaves.

Price Lake stands in front of Grandfather Mountain.

Linn Cove Viaduct hangs over the edge of the mountain.

The Blue Ridge Parkway appears to float in the clouds at Linn Cove Viaduct.

Rhododendron blooms at Wilson Creek Overlook.

Boone Fork streams lined with rhododendron are favorite picnic grounds.

Rhododendron brighten the side of the Blue Ridge Parkway in summer.

    Lodging is plentiful in both Boone and Blowing Rock with Boone offering several chain hotels and Blowing Rock mostly the dominion of smaller, neat family run motels.  The Holiday Inn Express hotel in Boone is hard to beat for comfortable lodging close to a variety of restaurants and stores.  The complimentary breakfast buffet is headlined by that hotel brand's trademarked cinnamon buns and the ski lodge feel of the breakfast area sets the tone for a visit to the region.

Holiday Inn Express - Boone, NC

Living room in a suite at Holiday Inn Express in Boone.

    Winter has become another popular season in this region as area ski resorts offer some of the south's best slopes.  Flatlanders will enjoy snow tubing at Hawksnest Resort in nearby Seven Devils, NC where the thrill of riding giant inner tubes down a slope requires little skill yet offers vivid memories.  Driving to Hawksnest, one will find numerous interesting antique shops along Highway 105 which follows the general route of the ET&WNC from Boone to Linville via Shulls Mills and Foscoe.

Snow tubing at Hawksnest in Seven Devils, NC.

The tubing runs at Hawksnest in December 2008.

   While the Holiday Inn Express and other Boone hotels offer excellent lodging all year, the winter visitor may want to consider the Chetola Resort in Blowing Rock which offers beautifully furnished condominiums as well as hotel rooms.  The atmosphere of this lodge somehow is enhanced by cold winter weather.  The expansive Chetola grounds offer solitude with their lakeside trails and rich woodlands in close proximity to downtown Blowing Rock which slows to a very relaxed pace with the departure of summer tourists.  Chetola's Manor House restaurant serves delicious cuisine including an amazing Christmas buffet.

Chetola Resort - Blowing Rock, NC.  The lodge is at front with condo units on the hill above.

Tastefully furnished condos at Chetola Resort are perfect winter retreats.

Blowing Rock Park, Christmas Day 2008
    Amtrak's New York to New Orleans Crescent offers the most options for accessing the Boone/Blowing Rock area as its nocturnal stops in Charlotte and Gastonia are each within a couple hour drive while Greensboro, NC and Greenville and Spartanburg, SC are about three hours away.  Atlanta is under five hours by highway.  Several other North Carolina cities are served by the Crescent and by the Piedmont and the Carolinian which also travel to Greensboro and Charlotte.  Rental cars are available in most of these cities though it is best to confirm availability and hours of operation before finalizing plans.  In addition, Boone's AppalCART transportation system offers bus and van connections to Amtrak trains in Greensboro, Charlotte, and Gastonia as well as to Amtrak Thruway busses in Winston-Salem.  Again, it is important to check connection times.

    No rail lines serve Boone or Blowing Rock, however, rail fans can get a hearty dose of rail activity in nearby Spruce Pine where CSX operates the busy former Clinchfield line that hosts numerous daily coal trains.  The mountainous line crests the Blue Ridge Mountains beneath the Blue Ridge Parkway and a parkway overlook called "The Loops" offers distant views of trains navigating the winding railway.  Another fairly busy freight line is the Norfolk Southern route through Hickory, NC about an hour south of Blowing Rock.  That line links Asheville with points east and sees occasional excursion passenger train service.  Despite its lack of mainline railroading, the Boone/Blowing Rock area is a great place to visit and Tweetsie Railroad is an attraction well worth visiting.

A CSX freight (lower right) as seen from The Loops.

The same freight train seen a couple minutes later (upper left) at The Loops.

For a Slide Show of all photos from this report in Large Format, Click Here.


Tweetsie Railroad                                        
Holiday Inn Express (Boone, NC)               

AppalCART (connecting bus service)           

Dan'l Boone Inn (Boone, NC restaurant)   

Chetola Resort     (Blowing Rock, NC)       

Blue Ridge Parkway                                   

Hawksnest Resort (snow tubing)           

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