One hundred and thirty years of railroad history in Scott County could soon be over.
RJ Corman will inform the federal government next week of its intent to abandon the former Tennessee Railroad line from Oneida in Scott County to Devonia in Anderson County.
The Nicholasville, Ky.-based company will file with the Surface Transportation Board in Washington, D.C. a notice that it is going to abandon the 41-mile rail line that once sent trains into the heart of the Cumberland Mountain coal country.
Trains long ago ceased to run on the rails of the rail line, but by filing a notice of abandonment with the federal government, RJ Corman could officially number the days remaining for the historic rail line.
While Scott County has had five railroads, totaling more than 100 miles of track inside the county’s boundaries, the Tennessee Railroad is the longest-running railroad besides the Norfolk-Southern — the latter of which is the only railway still in service in Scott County. The Tennessee Railroad is also the last remaining railroad besides the Norfolk-Southern.
The Oneida-to-Devonia line dates back to 1889, when the Paint Rock Coal & Coke Co. began construction of a short-branch coal railroad from the Oneida depot on what was then the Cincinnati-Southern Railroad — now the Norfolk Southern Railroad — to Morning Glory, near where Stanley Creek empties into Paint Rock Creek. The railroad’s construction began after large coal deposits were discovered along the headwaters of Paint Rock Creek.
The initial construction of what would become the Tennessee Railroad line included the cutting of the tunnel at Tunnel Hill east of Oneida, a 402-ft. long, timber-lined tunnel along a grade that frustrated railroad operators for decades.
In 1902, the Paint Rock Coal & Coke Co. was sold to investors from New York. By that time, the New River Lumber Co. — headquartered in Cincinnati — had opened a mill at Norma to harvest its vast timber reserves in what were known as the Bird Lands in the New River Valley. In 1905, the lumber company purchased the railroad from the coal company, and expansion south from Stanley Junction — located just east of where Cherry Fork Road meets Tunnel Hill Road today — soon began.
By 1912, the rail line had reached Fork Mountain near the Anderson County-Morgan County line, where the Devonia depot would serve as the end of the line. It was 41 miles from the interchange with the Cincinnati-Southern Railroad at the Oneida depot.
For the duration of logging operations in and around Norma, the Tennessee Railroad served as an exclusive means of transporting timber through and out of the mountains. Several branch lines were built along the main route, serving both timber operations in the Bird Lands and the nearby Newlands, while also serving coal mining operations that were beginning to flourish at places like Roach Creek, Montgomery and Clinchmore.
Three locomotives — one owned by the New River company and two more that were leased to the timber company — transported felled timber to the mill at Norma, and finished lumber to the Cincinnati-Southern interchange at Oneida. The trains also used the Tennessee Railroad to continue transporting coal from the mining operations along Paint Rock Creek.
Eventually, the timber played out and the Norma mill closed, and the Tennessee Railroad became primarily a coal railroad once more, serving the extensive mining operations in the Cumberland Mountains, in parts of Scott, Campbell, Anderson and Morgan counties.
The railroad was thought to be severely damaged by the Great Flood of 1929; initial estimates were that it would require six months for repairs to make it serviceable again. But crews had trains rolling along the Oneida-to-Devonia route within two weeks.
In 1955, the first Diesel engine rolled along the Tennessee Railroad, and by 1963 all of the railroad’s steam engines had been scrapped.
The Tennessee Railroad was purchased by the Southern Railway Company — which would become Norfolk-Southern — on February 20, 1973. And so began the last heyday of the rail line, which was by that time nearly 100 years old. As recently as 1980, trains still pulled 125 cars per day along the route, hauling coal from a washer in the mountains to Oneida. Coal continued to be transported via the Tennessee Railroad until 2004, and Norfolk-Southern soon after declared that it was abandoning the line.
In 2006, National Coal Company — which had established mining operations in the New River Valley — purchased the rail line from Norfolk-Southern for $2 million. The newly-established company had purchased the mineral rights to more than 65,000 acres of land between Smokey Junction and Baldwin, and had begun several mining operations.
While National Coal used the rail line sparingly, coal transport by rail was proving impractical, and the few trains that were running eventually ceased entirely. In 2008, an excursion train was established between Huntsville and Devonia. But the New River Scenic Railway never got seriously on its feet before the Great Recession worsened and counted National Coal among its victims.
With its financial woes deepening amid the recession and the waning desire for coal from the Cumberland Mountains due to its relatively high sulphur content, National Coal began quickly liquidating its assets near the end of the 2000s. In 2010, it sold the Tennessee Railroad to RJ Corman for $3 million. The railroad’s owners reportedly disallowed the excursion operation that had been started, and the New River Scenic Railway’s office near Huntsville eventually burned.
While there had been rumors that RJ Corman was interested in using the railroad to transport coal from mining operations in the Cumberlands even before it acquired the line from National Coal, those plans never materialized. The mining operations in the New River Valley never came back at full strength, and the historic rail line has sat vacant for the past decade.
While the Tennessee Railroad line has been abandoned in the past, there has been a major slide along the rail line — between Huntsville and Winona — that would reportedly carry a price tag in the seven digits to repair.
It’s possible that the Tennessee Railroad line could soon meet the same fate as the Brimstone Railroad, which was recently purchased by Oneida businessmen David Brewster and Dwayne King for scrap. The rails, timbers and gravel have since been removed from the Tennessee Railroad, which at the time was one of three rail lines still in place in Scott County, along with the Tennessee and the Norfolk-Southern.
The Oneida & Western Railroad’s rails were taken up in 1954. The end of timber-cutting and mining operations in the Big Survey, much of which is now the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area, spelled the O&W’s doom — just as the end of mining operations on the western side of the Cumberland Mountains would spell the doom of the Brimstone Railroad within a few decades. The O&W was sold and briefly used to transport materials from the Norfolk-Southern Railroad for the building of the Wolf River dam at Celina as Dale Hollow Lake was being constructed, but abandoned shortly thereafter due to its unprofitability.
Other railroads in Scott County’s history include the Knoxville & New River Railroad, a 13-mile narrow gauge line that was build in 1883 from Robbins to Brimstone to service timber-cutting operations along Brimstone Creek. It lasted only a short time before being abandoned and its rails removed; plans to extend the railroad to Windrock Mountain in Anderson County never materialized. The Kentucky & Tennessee Railroad once passed through northwestern Scott County as it served the Stearns company’s timber-cutting operations between Stearns and Jamestown. It was abandoned by the mid 20th century, though a portion of it remains as the Big South Fork Scenic Railway excursion operation between Stearns and Blue Heron in Kentucky. Other railroads in Scott County were essentially short branch lines to accommodate mining operations at Helenwood and at Glenmary and Coal Hill.