Don't miss Saturday's fall excursion at Doe River Gorge

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF

   Forget your worries, kick back this Saturday and enjoy the peak colors of autumn in a manner your father or grandfather might have done -- on a steam engine ride through Doe River Gorge.
   The Christian children's camp will open its gates to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the train leaving approximately every 30 minutes. A nominal fee will be charged to cover operation costs.
   During an Open House last October marking the 50th anniversary of East Tennessee & Western North Carolina railway, 600 people sat on bales of hay situated on motor car trailers, as "Rachel," a retired steam engine from Opryland, chugged along the narrow gauge railroad.
   This year, Rachel will be pulling passenger cars donated to the Christian children's camp by Six Flags Over Georgia. Approximately 100 passengers can be hauled at once, and train expert Ken Riddle, who was instrumental in finding Rachel and having her donated to the camp, said, "It's first come, first served."
   According to Riddle, the narrow gauge railroad originally was built in 1880 to bring iron ore from Cranberry, N.C., back to Johnson City where it could be sent out to the rest of the world on the standard gauge railroad.
   "The narrow gauge railroad is only 3 feet wide. Most of the railroads are 56-1/2 inches wide," Riddle said during a recent media day at the gorge.
   The railway originally extended from Johnson City to Cranberry, N.C. By 1919, the train carried passengers all the way to Boone, N.C., however, in later years, the flood of 1940 washed the east end of the railway away.
   "They went back to Cranberry and continued on till 1950," Riddle said, before the railway was abandoned in October 1950.
   The track was put back in service last year for the children who visit the summer camp.
   The gorge portion of the old railway includes two tunnels chiseled from solid rock by men using black powder and mules, according to Riddle.
   "The way they dug it was they started a crew on both sides of the tunnel and they worked toward the middle. ... The second tunnel, the far side was so steep that they had to lower their mules with a block and tackle off the side of the mountain to dig that tunnel. My great-grandfather made his first day's pay off the farm digging the first tunnel," Riddle said.
   The train travels through the gorge to Pardee Point, a 1,200-foot-high rock cliff, and then backs its way out of the gorge.
   "There's no way to turn around" on the narrow gauge, Riddle said. "You had to go all the way to Cranberry to turn around."
   Riddle encouraged the public to come out and ride along.
   "Doe River Gorge in the fall of the year when the leaves are turning is the prettiest place I know of," he said.