Jerry Summers: Cowan's Railroad Museum

Sunday, July 19, 2020 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

Traveling down Highway 41A from Sewanee is the little town of Cowan which is seven miles from the domain of the University of the South and is six miles from the county seat of Winchester in Franklin County, Tennessee.  Nestled at the foot of the Cumberland Mountains, Cowan is a village that exists because of the railroad.  Since 1849, when construction began on boring a railroad tunnel through the mountain two miles northeast of the town,  the railroad has been an integral part of Cowan.

The Cumberland Mountain Tunnel was finished in 1852 before the railroad actually made it to Cowan from Nashville.  In the 1840s a group of investors organized what would be the first railroad in Tennessee linking Nashville and Chattanooga.  It was originally called the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad.  Later when the railroad expanded to Memphis and St. Louis, it was popularly known as the NC&StL Railroad. 

In the 1850s engineers decided to dig a tunnel through the Cumberland Mountain because it costs a lot more to lay track over or through mountains than it does to lay track on flat land.  The actual construction began in 1847.  The digging of the 2,200-foot tunnel was the most difficult part of the project.  The work was done mostly by either Irish immigrants or slaves leased to the railroad.  The conditions were hard with the work being performed all day and the workers sleeping in makeshift shelters or on the ground.  Three continuous shifts were employed to complete the project.  All the work was done by hand and many workers died doing the tunnel project.

The railroad was completed in May 1851 and it was considered an important date in the development of the State of Tennessee.  Cowan was not the only town to come into existence as a result of the railroad being built.  Decherd, Tullahoma and Stevenson, Alabama all owe their existence to the railroad.  During the Civil War the Union Army followed the Nashville and Chattanooga southeast through Murfreesboro from Nashville to Bridgeport and Stevenson, Alabama and then into Chattanooga. 

The railroad line also led to the development of coal mining in Tracy City and other parts of Grundy County and the Sewanee area as well as the creation of the University of the South in 1858.  A wooden frame depot was built in 1904 and that building is where the museum houses its collection.  With decline of railroad passenger service, the NC&StL merged with the Louisville and Nashville (L&N) and would eventually become part of the CSX Railway system.

Also present at Cowan was an engine and car repair facility in support of the steam-powered pusher engines that hauled trains up and over the Cumberland Mountain because of the steep grade and sharp curves.  Prior to the demise of passenger trains in the 1960s, the pusher (or helper) engines would be attached by coupling on to the front whereas freight trains were pushed from the rear.

The train station sat vacant for decades but was saved by a campaign by the citizens of Cowan not to tear it down.  As a result the station has been turned into the Cowan Railroad Museum and the many railroad worker families in the community donated many items that relate to the historical existence of the railroad such as history books, model trains and antique maps. The museum grounds feature a Porter-type steam locomotive, a diesel-electric switch locomotive, boxcar, flat car and a rare NC&StL caboose. 

One of the other local attractions that existed until December 31, 2019 was the old railroad hotel that was operated for many years.  Hopefully a new owner will reopen the Franklin-Pearson Hotel across the tracks as it was Franklin County’s oldest hotel facility.  In 2008, the Cowan Depot received a face-lift with an old bandstand being converted into a train watching platform and in 2011 the station was painted in green and yellow colors.

A Fall Heritage Festival is held every year and this year is tentatively scheduled for September 18-20, 2020.  The museum is located at 108 Front Street, Cowan, and is normally open May through October on Thursday-Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. (CST) and on Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. (CST).  Other times can be arranged by appointment and information can be obtained at (931) 967-3078. Admission prices are $2.00/adult; $1.00/child with $5.00 per family.  Members of the military get in free.

Take a step back in history to visit a railroad town!

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com  

Tunnel at Cowan
Tunnel at Cowan

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