Exploring the Big South Fork Railroads

In a recent excursion to the Big South Fork National Recreation Area, I embarked on a backpacking expedition during a pleasantly sunny weekend. As I traversed the rugged and remote trails, I encountered vestiges of a bygone era in railroad history.

In a recent excursion to the Big South Fork National Recreation Area, I embarked on a backpacking expedition during a pleasantly sunny weekend. As I traversed the rugged and remote trails, I encountered vestiges of a bygone era in railroad history – the Oneida & Western Railroad (O&W).

The O&W once spanned the distance between Jamestown and Oneida, Tennessee, serving as a vital artery for transporting virgin timber and coal from the region’s mines before its abandonment in 1954.

The initial conception of the O&W dates back to the late 19th century, but it was not until October 1912 that the Tennessee Coal and Lumber Company incorporated the Jamestown Railroad Company, setting the plan in motion. The proposed route stretched from Glenmary to Jamestown, though a legal challenge from the Stearns Company of Kentucky questioned the legitimacy of the newly formed entity. In response, the Jamestown Railroad Company secured a charter and amended the alignment on August 5, 1913, establishing the Oneida & Western Railroad’s path from Oneida to Albany, Kentucky, via Jamestown.

Construction commenced on November 4, 1913, at the Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific Railway (Cincinnati Southern) in Oneida, and by June 1915, the line had reached the Big South Fork Cumberland River. By 1930, the O&W had extended over 37 miles to Jamestown.

During its peak operation, the O&W facilitated three daily roundtrips, transporting both passengers and freight. However, by 1936, motorcars had supplanted passenger service, and as the timber reserves dwindled and coal mines became depleted, the railroad’s prospects diminished.

A fleeting hope emerged in 1942 when the proposed Wolf Creek Dam in Tennessee prompted a Chicago-based construction company to propose an extension of the O&W to the dam site to transport construction materials. Unfortunately, the company lost the bid after World War II. By 1953, only two to three trains per week operated on the line, leading to its complete abandonment in 1954.

The O&W offices, situated along U.S. Route 27 in Oneida, later housed the Plateau Electric Cooperative. Subsequently, the junction with the Cincinnati Southern became the site of a coal tipple and crusher yard. Today, the western portion of the O&W from Big South Fork to Jamestown serves as a combination hiking and horse trail, while the eastern section has been converted into a dirt road providing access to the river.

As I departed the Big South Fork Valley, I encountered additional remnants of abandoned railroad infrastructure. The Cincinnati Southern New River Bridge, situated in Scott County, Tennessee, south of Oneida, once carried the Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific Railway (CNO&TP, Cincinnati Southern). This iron modified Fink truss span was constructed in 1879.

The completion of the bridge, along with the associated Tunnel 15 to the south, marked the culmination of the Cincinnati Southern route between Cincinnati and Chattanooga. This alignment, originating from the Brimstone & New River Railroad southward to Robbins, was subsequently bypassed and abandoned following the fourth phase of a modernization project initiated in 1961, eliminating the last of the small-bore tunnels along the CNO&TP. On July 10, 1963, at 12:05 a.m., the new New River bridge was opened to traffic.

While the trackage and approach to the New River crossing were removed, the center span remains intact.

Furthermore, upon inspecting a railroad overpass on U.S. Route 27 east of New River, which I had presumed to be active, I stumbled upon the abandoned Brimstone & New River Railroad (B&NR). The B&NR is a disused railroad that once extended from the Cincinnati, New Orleans and Texas Pacific Railway (CNO&TP, Cincinnati Southern) at New River, Tennessee, southeast to Lone Mountain.

The Brimstone, from Slick Rock northward, was paralleled by the earlier Knoxville and New River Railroad (K&NR). Chartered by the state on May 14, 1883, the K&NR was proposed to run between Robbins, at the CNO&TP near Brickyard Hollow, and the divide of the New River and Brimstone Creek near Lone Mountain. This 13-mile timber narrow-gauge railroad was envisioned to extend south of the Windrock Mountains and into Anderson County, where it would have connected to the Knoxville & Ohio.

The initial alignment, operational in 1885, extended to Slick Rock. However, the railroad’s lifespan was limited to seven years, as depleted timber reserves and financial difficulties forced its default.

The primary purpose of the Brimstone Line was to facilitate the extraction of timber and coal. Two coal mines were located at Hughett and Lone Mountain, with timber being transported to the W.M. Ritter Mill at the railhead in New River.

On July 10, 1963, a new New River crossing for the CNO&TP was completed approximately one mile north of the community of New River, prompting the abandonment of several miles of the CNO&TP. The tracks from Helenwood to New River were retained to allow access by the Brimstone Railroad.

In 1965, the railroad was reorganized as the Brimstone & New River Railroad and again as the New River Railway just one year later, following the merger of the W.M. Ritter Company with Georgia Pacific.

Traffic on the line became sparse during the latter half of the 20th century, as the coal within Scott County was characterized by undesirable high sulfur content.

In 1970, the line was purchased by the CNO&TP, with trackage rights granted to the Southern, which later became part of Norfolk Southern. The rail line remained used for another ten years until its eventual disuse. Today, the railroad stands abandoned, with no active coal mines along the route.


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You can take the road up on the eastern approach by the abandoned rail bridge over US 27 (the one pictured last in this post), park next to the inactive tracks, and walk over. That is the easiest route. There is a tunnel further south that is worth checking out too.

Yesssss!!!! I had wanted to know for so long what that big upside-down-looking-bridge-thing near Scott County was! I had despaired of ever find out. Great post, I am ecstatic. I only wish I could find a way to get up close to it.

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