Editor’s Note: In February, “Forgotten Times” presented the first of two articles on Scott County’s railroad history with a look at how the Cincinnati Southern Railroad came to this region. In part two, we look at how the Cincinnati Southern gave rise to several other railroads in Scott County. Parts of this article are sourced from an article written by G. Allen Storey for the FNB Chronicle in 2003.
When RJ Corman officially notified the federal government last month of its intent to abandon the former Tennessee Railroad between Oneida and Devonia, it marked the end of an era in a lot of regards.
The Tennessee Railroad has stood vacant for a decade; not since National Coal Company hauled its last bit of coal over the tracks between Anderson County and Scott County and the Great Recession helped usher a quick end for an excursion railroad that was still in its infancy had the railway been used.
Still, the decision by RJ Corman to abandon the line — which it purchased from National Coal for $3 million — likely spells the end of the old railroad for good. And, when it goes, only the original, the old Cincinnati Southern, will remain.
When the city of Cincinnati constructed its railroad through Scott County in the late 19th century to provide a rail link to the South, a new era dawned for this remote region of the northern Cumberland Plateau. For the first time, it was feasible to harvest the area’s virgin timber and mine its seams of coal on a large scale. Land barons and explorers began doing just that, purchasing large tracts of the rugged land for the natural resources the territory contained. But logging and mining would require more than just the Cincinnati Southern, which passed through the central part of the county.
Though they didn’t all exist at the same time, there were a total of five railroads that were made possible by the north-south links provided by the Cincinnati Southern, in addition to two short branch lines to accommodate mining operations at Helenwood and Glenmary. The Tennessee Railroad was the longest-running of those. And, now, it is also the last.
As G. Allen Storey pointed out in a 2003 article for the FNB Chronicle, there were 14 independent branch line railroads that connected to the Cincinnati Southern after it was constructed in 1880. Half of those were in Scott County, comprising a total of just over one hundred miles of rails.
Knoxville & New River Railroad
The first of those railroads has largely been forgotten. While just about anyone could show you the old railbeds of the ones that came after, few people know the route of the Knoxville & New River Railroad, which was built from Robbins to Brimstone in 1883 — in fact, it’s quite possible that no one would know it ever existed if not for the research of Mike O’Neal.
The K&NR was chartered just 18 months after the Cincinnati Southern was completed. Petitioning the Cincinnati Southern were a group of businessmen who wanted to reach the area where Brimstone Creek empties into New River. Used primarily to move timber from logging operations in the mountains, the K&NR was a 13-mile railroad with 3-ft., narrow gauge rail. It was Scott County’s only narrow gauge railroad.
The plan was for the railroad to eventually be extended across the mountains, to Windrock and Anderson County, where the rails would connect to the Knoxville & Ohio for a direct link to Knoxville. Those plans never materialized, and the railroad only lasted a few years.
The exchange for the K&NR was at Brickyard Hollow in Robbins. From there, it went across the ridge and followed Butchers Creek to the Black Wolf Creek Valley and into Sawdust Hollow. It was eventually extended across the ridge to Indian Fork Creek and on into the Brimstone Creek valley, extending all the way to Cortland — where Lone Mountain Church is now located.
In 1893, the railroad was discontinued — about seven years after its completion. The Panic of 1893, an economic depression that would last four years, spelled its doom.
By the time the K&NR ended, the Paint Rock Coal & Coke Co. Railroad was being built. Originally, the railroad stretched from the interchange at the Cincinnati Southern’s Oneida depot to Morning Glory, located near where Stanley Creek empties into Paint Rock Creek. The purpose of the railroad was to provide access to the large coal deposits that had been discovered along the headwaters of Paint Rock Creek.
The Paint Rock Coal & Coke Co. Railroad would become the Tennessee Railroad. Before it was, however, its builders forged a tunnel east of Oneida, a 402-ft. long, timber-lined tunnel along a grade steep enough to frustrate railroad operators for decades. It gave rise to the name of the Tunnel Hill community east of Oneida.
In 1902, the Paint Rock Coal & Coke Co. was sold to investors from New York, and 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. Realizing the need for rail service to maximize its potential, the New River Lumber Co. purchased the old Paint Rock railroad in 1905, and extended it from Stanley Junction, along Paint Rock Creek and along Paint Rock Creek to New River.
By 1912, the Tennessee Railroad had reached Fork Mountain near the Anderson County-Morgan County line. There, the Devonia depot served as the end of the line, 41 miles from the interchange with the Cincinnat iSouthern at Oneida.
The Tennessee Railroad served both logging operations in and around Norma and coal mining operations that were flourishing in places like Roach Creek, Montgomery and Clinchmore. Three locomotives were used to transport coal and lumber from the New River valley for decades. In the 1950s, diesel engines replaced steam engines on the Tennessee Railroad. And, in 1973, the Southern Railway Company purchased the Tennessee Railroad.
As recently as 1980, trains still pulled 125 cars per day along the Tennessee Railroad, hauling coal from the washer in the mountains to the interchange in Oneida. Norfolk-Southern announced in 2004 that it was abandoning the line. National Coal Co. purchased it in 2006 for a price of $2 million. In 2010, it was sold to RJ Corman for $3 million.
Kentucky & Tennessee Railroad
The same year the Paint Rock Coal & Coke Co. was being sold to its New York investors — 1902 — the Stearns Coal & Lumber Co., founded by Justus S. Stearns of Ludington, Mich., was beginning construction of the Kentucky & Tennessee Railroad, which would extend from the interchange at Stearns to the mining camp at Barthell. The line was extended to Yamacraw by 1906, crossing the Big South Fork River on a concrete bridge. By 1914, the tracks reached Difficulty — pronounced Diffick-ulty and later changed to Exodus.
Eventually, the K&T’s terminus was located at Bell Farm, where a logging railroad connected and extended along Rock Creek into Scott County, with a terminus near Jamestown.
The K&T was abandoned in 1948, as the Stearns company’s coal and timber reserves began to play out. However, the track remained along part of its route, and today it is the Big South Fork Scenic Railway, transporting tourists from Stearns to the Blue Heron mining camp in the Big South Fork Natioanl River & Recreation Area.
Oneida & Western Railroad
In 1913, as the Stearns railroad was being etended from Yamacraw to Difficulty, a competing railroad was planned at Glenmary. The owners of the Tennessee Stave & Lumber Co. wanted to build a railroad to link to Jamestown, intending to call it the Jamestown Railroad. But they didn’t have an appropriate charter, and the Stearns company took them to court.
However, the Stearns company’s lawyers mistakenly named the railroad the Oneida & Western Railroad in court documents. When the Tennessee Supreme Court sided with the Stearns Coal & Lumber Co., they also observed that while the O&W had no charter and did not legally exit, the lawsuit had made it a corporate body — thus, it did exist. So the owners of the Jamestown Railroad amended their new charter, and the O&W was born.
Construction of the O&W began in November 1913. Within two years, the railroad had reached the Big South Fork River, a distance of 10.2 miles, by following Pine Creek. A steel whipple truss bridge originally built in the late 1800s was disassembled and moved to Scott County to bridge the river, and it remains in place today as the O&W Bridge.
From the river, the O&W followed North White Oak Creek into Fentress County. By the time it was completed, in 1930, it stretched 38 miles through some of the most rugged terrain of the Cumberland Plateau, and connected Oneida to Jamestown.
The O&W was always a coal and timber railroad, but it also carried passengers. Its most famous passenger was a young Army recruit named Alvin C. York who was pressed into service in World War I and had traveled from his home in Pall Mall to Jamestown, where he caught the train to Oneida and then on to Knoxville as he traveled to basic training in Georgia. He would go on to become America’s biggest hero during the war.
A branch line extended from Stockton near East Jamestown north to the Wolf River valley to serve the Tennessee Stave & Lumber Co.’s operations there. The logs would be carried up an incline from the Wolf River, freighted along the O&W to Oneida, and then south on the Cincinnati Southern to the company’s mill at Glenmary. The Glenmary mill eventually burned, and a new mill was built at Verdun, near Oneida.
Another spur was planned on the east side of the O&W Bridge, intended to access the Anderson Branch mining operation south of Leatherwood Ford. However, construction didn’t make it far and the idea was abandoned.
The O&W was well past its peak by the 1930s, and in 1938 it was purchased by the Crown-Healy Company. The company had been awarded a government bid to construct the Wolf Creek Dam along the Cumberland River as Lake Cumberland was being formed. World War II interrupted those plans, but the dam was eventually built, and the O&W was used to transport concrete for the construction of the dam.
The Jewell Ridge Coal Company of Virginia purchased the O&W in 1946, but its profitable days were over, and the railroad was abandoned. Its tracks were removed in 1954.
The entirety of the O&W route remained open to motor vehicles until the 1990s, when it became the source of consternation between Scott County and the National Park Service. The NPS planned to close the old railroad bed at the river, while Scott County objected to those plans. Eventually, an agreement was struck in the early 2000s, and the federal government agreed to leave open the road to the Scott County line at North White Oak Creek, a couple of miles beyond the bridge. It was closed at that point, and the remainder of the route through the national park is used as an equestrian trail.
The only steam locomotive built especially for the O&W Railroad — O&W No. 20, built by Baldwin Locomotive Works and put into service in 1916 — is on display today at Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton, Pa. It was sold by the O&W to the Rahway Valley Railroad in New Jersey in 1937. It made its last run in 1953 and was later donated to F. Nelson Blount, who restored it. It was used for various purposes, and was filmed in “The Cardinal,” a 1963 film distributed by Columbia Pictures. A decade later, it blew a boiler tube, rendering it inoperable.
In May 1942, the last of Scott County’s independent railroads was chartered. The Brimstone Railroad was built along Brimstone Creek from New River to Lone Mountain. From Slick Rock on to its terminus near the head of Brimstone, the railroad followed the original course of the Knoxville & New River Railroad.
Chartered by the W.M. Ritter Co. after it purchased the New River Lumber Co., the Brimstone Railroad was a coal and logging railroad for decades. The shay locomotives that were operated by the railroad — three of them in total — were somewhat famous. They appeared in railroad magazines for years.
The Brimstone Railroad was eventually sold when the Ritter company merged with Georgia Pacific. Eventually, the New River mill was sold by Georgia Pacific, the coal being mined in Brimstone fell out of favor due to its high sulfur content, and the Interstate Commerce Commission, a federal agency, declared the Brimstone Railroad’s shay locomotives to be unsafe for operation.
At that point, the New River Railroad, as it was then known, was sold to Southern Railroad. The Southern operated the line for another 10 years, and eventually filed for abandonment. In recent years, the railroad was purchased for scrap by Oneida businessmen David Brewster and Dwayne King. The rails and timbers were removed. There was some interest among local tourism promoters in using the route of the old railroad for a rails-to-trails program that would see a bicycling trail built from Lone Mountain to New River. However, that plan was scrapped due to objection from neighboring landowners.
One of the three shay locomotives that operated on the Brimstone line, the Brimstone #35, eventually wound up in California, and has recently been sold to a company in Australia. The engine, built in 1910, was sold to the Eskbank Locomotive Depot & Museum, which is using it in a display dedicated to the Commonwealth Oil Corporation in New South Wales. Another of the railroad’s locomotives, Brimstone #36, is now in Cass, W.V., where it awaits restoration at the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, which operates an 11-mile excursion railroad.
Glenmary and Helenwood spurs
The other two railroads dependent on the Cincinnati Southern were located in Glenmary and Helenwood. The Glenmary Coal & Coke Co. constructed a 1.5-mile line to move coal from its mines at Coal Hill and coke from its ovens in Glenmary. Soon after, a branch line was built in Helenwood to transport coal from the mining operations to the east of town.