Editor’s Note: This month’s Forgotten Times focuses on how Scott County was selected as part of the route for the Cincinnati Southern. Next month’s feature will focus on the railroads that followed because of it.
Earlier this month, RJ Corman officially notified the federal government of its intent to abandon the former Tennessee Railroad between Oneida and Devonia.
While trains haven’t rolled down the tracks between the interchange with Norfolk-Southern in Oneida and the old coal town of Devonia in Anderson County in nearly a decade, RJ Corman’s decision could mean the final nail in the coffin for the historic railroad. If and when that happens, only the Norfolk-Southern — Scott County’s oldest rail line — will remain.
With that in mind, what follows is the first of a two-part history of railroads in Scott County, beginning with the Cincinnati Southern, which would become Norfolk-Southern.
Surprisingly, there have been several railroads in Scott County — some of which most Scott Countians have known about, such as the Oneida & Western Railroad, and some of which relatively few local residents have known about, such as the Knoxville & New River Railroad. But without the construction of the Cincinnati Southern through Scott County, most of them would have never been built.
Information for this article is pulled from several sources, including an article written by G. Allen Storey for the FNB Chronicle in 2003.
The northern Cumberland Plateau was an isolated region in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. The same geographical factors that lended the area to lawlessness during the Civil War caused it to remain a relative wilderness area in the war’s aftermath, as the nation mended itself and the manufacturing connections between the North and South were renewed.
Railroads had long since come to America by the time conflict was growing between the North and the South in the mid 19th century, and rails were proving to be a much preferred alternative to the traditional horse-drawn wagons for transporting goods. But the northern plateau — and a much larger swath of the southern Appalachians — remained a railroad desert. There were no railroads connecting Knoxville and Chattanooga to important economic hubs further north. But that was about to change.
Scott County’s railroads owe their start to the City of Cincinnati, Oh. Without Cincinnati’s initiative in building a north-south railroad to connect itself to Chattanooga, most of Scott County’s other railroads would’ve never been built.
The Railroad Desert
By the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, Cincinnati’s greatest rival — Louisville, Ky. — had accomplished its goal of building a railroad into the south. The Louisville & Nashville Railroad provided a huge economic boost to Louisville, and caused Cincinnati to work harder than ever to build its own rail line into the South, connecting Knoxville and Chattanooga.
In June 1869, the Cincinnati Southern Railroad was chartered in Ohio. By the following January, the State of Tennessee had given its stamp of approval to the proposed rail line between Cincinnati and Chattanooga. Kentucky was originally reluctant, due to its state legislature being dominated by Louisville, which had a vested interest in seeing Cincinnati’s railroad interests thwarted. But Cincinnati fought back by bankrolling legislative opponents in the 1871 election, and enough of Kentucky’s incumbent lawmakers were unseated to help the Cincinnati Southern charter pass in February 1872.
Following Burnside’s Route
As the City of Cincinnati planned its new railroad into the South, it looked at the route taken by Union General William Burnside during the Civil War. Burnside, who liberated Knoxville and East Tennessee from Confederate control during the war, marched tens of thousands of his troops into East Tennessee by way of the Cumberland Plateau — through Scott County.
As Cincinnati considered its options, it hired W.A. Gunn — who had served as Burnside’s chief engineer — to lead its surveying efforts. The surveyors eventually identified 26 potential routes for the new railroad, and Cincinnati chose three finalists from among them.
The first option considered for the Cincinnati Southern would have taken the railroad into Jamestown, then to Crossville, before exiting the Cumberland Plateau to Chattanooga. The second option would take the railroad into Scott County, then to Harriman and Rockwood. The third option would take the railroad into Scott County, then turn into the New River Valley before continuing on to Knoxville and then Chattanooga.
The third option was ultimately eliminated because it would have been the hardest to build, facing the obstacles of the Cumberland Mountains’ highest peaks. Engineers would have had to have designed long tunnels through some of those mountains. On the other hand, the first option would eliminate the mountains, but would also present steep grades to the south of Jamestown.
The second option was ultimately selected because it was the most direct route to Chattanooga. The steepest grade of 60 ft. per mile was not as steep as the steepest grade along the Jamestown route, which was 90 ft. per mile. So, even though a large number of tunnels would have to be constructed to accomplish the route, the plans were finalized.
A Much Different Scott County
When construction of the Cincinnati Southern began in 1879, there were only two existing communities in Scott County that the railroad would pass through: Isham, near modern-day Winfield, and Rugby Road, at modern-day Elgin. All of the communities that later came to define Scott County — Winfield, Oneida, Robbins, Elgin and Glenmary, from north to south — came about because of the Cincinnati Southern, due to the location of the sidings that were built in accordance with the railroad’s time tables.
When construction started, crews simultaneously began working their way north from Chattanooga, and south from King’s Mountain. The plan was for them to meet just north of New River.
As construction reached the Cumberland Plateau, the names of several locales in Scott County were assigned by the construction crews. High Point, just south of what would eventually become Oneida, was named because it was the highest elevation along the Cincinnati Southern route between Cincinnati and Chattanooga. Reportedly, the name High Point was chosen instead of Summit to avoid conflict with Somerset, further north in Kentucky.
When construction proceeded south of Isham, a siding and branch line switch were constructed in an open meadow south of Bear Creek. One of the Cincinnati Southern’s lawyers, Charles D. McGuffy, decided to name the siding for his hometown — which was Oneida, Oh.
When the crews working their way north got to the planned siding at Rugby Road, which led to the newly-established English colony just to the west, they reportedly named it Elgin instead of Rugby Road because they didn’t want to confuse the name with Rockwood, a name that had been given to another siding further down the line in Roane County.
The rugged terrain of the Cumberland Plateau presented many obstacles for the Cincinnati Southern construction crews. The railroad was designed to be operated in three divisions, with facilities constructed between each one. The first division was from Cincinnati to Danville, Ky., the second division from Danville to Rockwood, and the third division from Rockwood to Chattanooga.
The second division, a 100-mile stretch between Danville and Rockwood, required 27 tunnels to be cut. The combination of tunnels, bridges and tight curves between steep hills led the engineers operating the trains to describe it as a feeling of a rat running through ratholes. That’s how the stretch of the Cincinnati Southern from Danville to Rockwood earned its famous nickname: The Rathole Division.
If placed back-to-back, those 27 tunnels would stretch a whopping five miles. The longest was the Kings Mountain tunnel, stretching 3,984 feet, and all of them were assigned numbers. Number 15 was the Robbins tunnel, which was later bypassed. It was inside Tunnel Number 15 that the construction crews working their way south and north finally met, three feet south of mile post 216, and the construction of the Cincinnati Southern was complete.
The Cincinnati Southern costed many millions of dollars, and six years, to complete. Point-to-point train service commenced on December 19, 1879. Passenger service began the following February.
In all, the railroad stretched 336 miles. It also included what was the world’s longest bridge at the time, the 5,100-ft.-long Ohio River Bridge, and the world’s tallest bridge at the time, the 275-ft.-tall High Bridge, across the Kentucky River north of Danville.
By comparison, the 930-ft.-long New River bridge in Scott County was neither high or long, but it was the Cincinnati Southern’s largest bridge in Scott County.
After just one year, Cincinnati decided that its new railroad was not financially feasible, and advertised for bids from private operators to lease the line.
The Erlanger Company, established by German railroad baron Emile Erlanger, eventually won a 99-year lease on the Cincinnati Southern, paying the city rent of $1.25 million per year. As a result, the Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific Railroad (CNO&TP) was created, and became immensely successful. Eventually, Southern Railway took over operations of the railroad.
In 1941, the first diesel engine ran along the CNO&TP route through Scott County. By 1953, the Southern Railroad had become the first railroad in the United States to replace all of its steam engines with diesel engines. Later, the railroad became the first in the nation to use a centralized traffic control system, with electric light signals on signal bridges.
In the 1960s, the Southern Railroad began to open up the 27 tunnels along the Rathole Division by either removing their roofs or rerouting the track around them. As a result, the new 330-ft.-tall New River Bridge was constructed as the railroad was rerouted through Mountain View to avoid Tunnel No. 15.
In the 1980s, the Southern merged with the Norfolk & Western Railway to become Norfolk-Southern.