Locals seek to keep rail service alive, diverse

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   While the shrill cry of a train whistle now mourns the railroad industry's decline rather than bringing passengers on board, local officials want to maintain the future of rail transportation for possible industrial or commercial purposes in Elizabethton.
   Elizabethton city and Carter County officials are exploring the potential of buying a portion of the 16-mile railroad line owned by East Tennessee Railway (ETRY) to ensure rail transportation remains present in Elizabethton.
   Elizabethton City Manager, Charles Stahl, said a railroad industry representative was conducting research analysis work to gauge the condition of the ETRY rail line extending from Johnson City into Carter County and Elizabethton.
   "What we ultimately need to know," said Stahl, "is whether they want to sell the rail line and for how much."
   ETRY once served local industries such as Alcoa, Inland Paperboard and Packaging and the Paty Lumber Company among others. Today, those industries are out of business and ETRY's parent company, Rail Management, Inc., ended railway service into Elizabethton earlier this year.
   As part of the ETRY exit, the railway removed dozens of rail cars from the track near State Line Road. The railway donated a portion of its right-of-way along E Street and across East Elk Avenue in downtown Elizabethton to the city government earlier this year.
   Railroads continue to move products by the ton through the Tri-Cities area, however. Container cars carrying everything from nuclear waste to Coors beer rumble through the region on a daily basis. Railroad companies Norfolk Southern and CSX operate with multibillion-dollar market capitalization's and, together, own the stock of Conrail Inc., which owns the major Northeast freight railroad.
   Rail service remains a potential draw for industrial prospects looking to relocate in one of the large vacant buildings such as Inland, Alcoa or the former Paty building.
   "If we do pursue it, the emphasis is retaining rail service for future and existing industry," said Stahl. "That is the primary motivation."
   Railroad history in Carter County extends into the mid-19th century. East Tennessee & Western North Carolina (ETWNC), the Virginia Southwest rail line that ran through town, and the Laurel Fork Railroad all served Elizabethton with rail service. The three railroad companies had a junction near the intersection of Hattie and Cedar avenues in downtown Elizabethton.
   The ETWNC was chartered in 1866 and eventually extended from Johnson City to Boone, N.C. The railroad changed over the decades into its modern day ETRY owned by Rail Management Company.
   A possible avenue to reinvigorate the railroad history of Elizabethton and Carter County could come via the National Railway Historical Society (NRHS). The society was founded in the Depression year of 1935 and later became the standard for "railfans" fascinated by trains and the railroad industry. Since 1994, the NRHS has been giving away annual matching grants for projects that preserve, research, educate, or publish railway history. Example projects include railroad structure and equipment stabilization, mechanical repairs, preservation and restoration, book publication, and cataloging of archival materials.
   An NRHS representative has been in contact with city and county officials about retaining the rail line and preserving the railroad's history in Carter County.
   Train excursions providing passenger train service in an elegant environment with themed events is another commercial development that could restore local railroad history while creating an economic engine to the community.
   The Great Smoky Mountains Railway (GSMR) in Dillsboro, N.C., brings themed rail excursions including the romantic "gourmet dinner train", where travelers can take that special someone, or the "mystery train", where travelers participate in solving an on-board mystery.
   A diesel locomotive departs from Dillsboro and Bryson City, N.C. taking passengers on a scenic train journey across fertile valleys, through tunnels and over river gorges in the Great Smoky Mountains. Themed dinner train excursions include dinner trains built around Valentine's Day; local, national and international wines; jazz music; Octoberfest and the Halloween mystery theater event.
   In 2003, the railroad ran 963 excursions with upwards of 200,000 passengers enjoying the scenery each year aboard the excursion trains, according to the railway.
   Several private entities joined forces to develop the GSMR in the 1980s. Rolling stock for the GSMR was purchased from various railroads around the nation. The Dillsboro to Nantahala route was one of the most scenic on the Murphy Branch and the excursion trains caught on right away. American Heritage Railways purchased the GSMR in December of 1999.
   Stahl said that while industrial service was the primary focus, the city would support a movement to establish a passenger excursion service if the rail line was purchased.
   "If any tourism-related use of the rail development occurred, we would be supportive of that," he said.