The Tennessee Railroad is a former coal-hauling railroad between Oneida and Fork Mountain, Tennessee. It is also notable for once hosting a passenger excursion train in the 2000s.
In 1888, Dr. Gruno, a physician, was working alongside a construction gang that was heading southward along the New River in Scott County, Tennessee. 3 During a break, Gruno discovered large deposits of coal at the headwaters of Paint Rock Creek. Gruno, along with several investors, founded the Paint Rock Coal & Coke Company and constructed the rudimentary Paint Rock Coal & Coke Company Railroad (PRC&C) between the Cincinnati Southern Railway in Oneida and Morning Glory to haul its coal out of the region in 1889. 1 3
The PRC&C included a 402-foot-long, timber-lined tunnel just south of Oneida which featured a significant 1.93% grade that started in the center of the tunnel and became steeper for 2.6 miles where it became less steep at 1.65% before increasing to 3.56% over an 800-foot-long section. 3 The steep uphill segment required the use of Shat steam locomotives but even then, trains were limited to one or two cars per run.
In 1905, Samuel Spencer, then the president of the Southern Railway, purchased the PRC&C and reorganized the line as the Tennessee Railway (Tenn). 3 Within a year, the line was extended south to the company town of Norma which was operated by the New River Lumber Company of Cincinnati to harvest timber reserves in the Bird Lands of the New River valley. 1 After the death of Spencer in 1907, his son, H.B. Spencer, took over as president of the railroad.
By 1910, the Tennessee had been extended to Newtown, 5½ miles south of Smoky Junction, 3 and to Moores Camp (Devonia) in 1912, with a branch line extended down Smoky Creek. 5 By this time, the railroad had entered Campbell County to Shea.
The Tennessee Railway was in the hands of receivers between July 1913 and June 1918 when it was reorganized as the Tennessee Railroad. 3 During its receivership, Bird M. Robinson, the receiver of the railway, made plans for expansion. 14 On June 20, 1915, the company let a contract with the J.C. Rodes & Company of Franklin for work on an extension of the mainline for 8¼ miles from Charleys Branch to Fork Mountain at the Morgan County line. Another contract was let to the Harriman Construction Company of Harriman for the building of a two-mile branch line up Double Camp Creek and a seven-tenth-mile branch line up Indian Creek with convict labor from Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.
Robinson had his eyes on extending the Tennessee to connect with the Harriman & Northeastern Railroad at Petros, 12 14 which would enable connections with the Southern Railway and Louisville & Nashville Railroad at Olive Springs. 14 It would only require the construction of a few miles of track and a tunnel through Frozen Creek Mountain.
By 1925, the Tennessee had been extended to Fork Mountain in Anderson Company, 44.65 miles from Oneida. Two other branches had been completed to new coal mining operations: the 3½-mile Dean Branch along Roach Creek and the 4½-mile Carbon Hill-Clinchmore Branch along Beech Fork, Stony Fork, and Round Rock Creek.
The Tennessee was severely damaged by floodwaters in 1929. 1 While it was estimated that repairs would take six months to complete, crews had trains rolling across the entire line within two weeks.
Three locomotives, one owned by New River Lumber and two others that were leased to the company, transported timber to the mill at Norma and finished lumber and coal to the Cincinnati Southern interchange at Oneida. 1 In 1955, the company acquired its first diesel, an Alco RS-1, and by 1963, diesel had replaced all of the antiquated steam engines. 1 3 Passenger operations were equally as frugal and initially used a wooden coach and combine, later replaced with a Brill motorcar. 3
The railroad company entered receivership again in July 1959. 1 On February 20, 1973, it was acquired by the Southern Railway and operated as the Tennessee Railway. 1 3 In the years that followed, the Southern upgraded the Tennessee with new ties and heavy rail, daylighted the tunnel near Oneida, and streamlined operations to make it a major coal hauler for the Cumberland Mountain mines.
Between 1973 and 1980, the Tennessee was operating with two runs a day that pulled 125 coal-filled cars out of the New River valley. 1 3 Coal was shipped from a loading facility near Smoky Junction to Oneida until 2004. In that year, Norfolk Southern, Southern Railway’s successor, declared its intention to abandon the Tennessee, citing a lack of originating revenue traffic. 1 3 Coal mines that were once plentiful along the route had all but been economically exhausted.
In 2006, the National Coal Company, which had established new mining operations and acquired more than 65,000 acres of mineral rights between Smoky Junction and Baldwin in the New River region, purchased the Tennessee from Norfolk Southern for $2 million. 1 National Coal then spent $2 million to restore the railroad into operating condition and expended $3 million to upgrade the Baldwin coal preparation plant at Devonia. 9 The company struggled as it found few buyers for its higher sulfur coal that required more environmental remediation measures at power plants.
In 2008, the New River Scenic Railway, a passenger excursion train, was established between Huntsville and Indian Fork by Scotty Phillips, owner of the New River General Store at Devonia, and business partner Jimmy Byrge of Knoxville. 4 5 The operation suffered from a broader economic recession and a lack of passengers. 1
By 2009, the Baldwin facility at Devonia was loading only one unit train per week destined for Georgia Power. 1 National Coal was on the verge of bankruptcy in April 2010 and it sold its Baldwin plant and mining operations to Ranger Energy for $11.8 million 2 7 and the Tennessee Railroad to RJ Corman for $3 million in May. 1 6 The company continued to own and operate one preparation plant and one unit train loading facility serviced by Norfolk Southern elsewhere. 6
In its new ownership, RJ Corman disallowed the New River Scenic Railway from operating over its tracks because of liability concerns. 1 Ultimately, a former locomotive and two passenger railcars were left embargoed on a siding behind the Baldwin plant and became heavily vandalized over the years. 4
In December 2011, the Baldwin facility was taken over by Premium Coal, a subsidiary of the Southern Coal Corporation, and the facility was closed in January 2012 after more than a million gallons of untreated water and coal waste were illegally discharged into the New River. 8 10 All underground and surface mining operations out of the Fork Mountain area closed on May 25, 2013. 5
In March 2020, RJ Corman filed a notice with the Surface Transportation Board (STB) that it intended to abandon the Tennessee Railway, citing a major slide along the railbed between Huntsville and Winona that would cost over $1 million to repair and the fact that it has no major customers on the line to service. 1 5 In reply, the Arkansas-Oklahoma Railroad filed with the STB with a notice of intent to file an offer of financial assistance to purchase the line from RJ Corman for $2.75 million, but the company missed a filing deadline in April to make good on its offer, blaming the coronavirus shutdowns and the failure of RJ Corman to provide details about the line so that it could make a determination on its value. 5 Subsequently, the STB authorized the use of the railroad bed as a trail under control of the Cumberland Trail Conference if RJ Corman abandons it.
Baldwin Coal Preparation Plant
- “Railroad company to file for abandonment of former Tennessee Railroad line.” Independent Herald, 11 Feb. 2020.
- Marcum, Ed. “National Coal Corporation’s doors shut.” Knoxville News Sentinel, 4 Jan. 2011.
- Bartman. “Re: Last Call for New River Scenic RS3 & Coaches in Tenn.” Railway Preservation News, 7 Jul. 2020.
- Mitchell IV, Alexander D. “Last Call for New River Scenic RS3 & Coaches in Tenn.” Railway Preservation News, 7 Jul. 2020.
- Williams III, G. Chambers. “Pushing to get back on the right track.” Courier News, 3 Jun. 2020.
- “National Coal sells Tennessee line to R.J. Corman; Boise Valley Railroad lands city agreements.” Progressive Railroading, 21 May 2010.
- “UNAUDITED PRO FORMA CONDENSED CONSOLIDATED FINANCIAL INFORMATION.” National Coal Corp.
- Fowler, Bob. “Coal operation shut down after discharge in New River.” Knoxville News-Sentinel, 10 Jan. 2012, p. 9A.
- “National Coal purchases 42-mile railroad line.” Knoxville News-Sentinel, 2 Mar. 2006, p. C1.
- Fowler, Bob. “Coal firm fined for spill.” Knoxville News-Sentinel, 28 Mar. 2012, pp. A1-A9.
- Glenn, L.C. “Transportation.” The Northern Tennessee Coal Field, 1925, pp. 4–5.
- “Tennessee Railway.” Railway Age Gazette, 9 Jul. 1915, p. 81.