Riding out of town on a rail
Ebbing industrial base sees ETRY diminishing traffic

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   East Tennessee Railway (ETRY) has offered to donate three parcels of property previously used as a rail spur in downtown Elizabethton to the city for future development.
   A donation due in no small part to a decade-long downturn in the city and county's industrial base, according to railway officials.
   "The short-line industry is there, it is still a growing industry," said Darrell Edwards of ETRY, "but you've got to have industry ... and that is something that, unfortunately, Elizabethton doesn't have. That's the sad part."
   The donation comes with a request for the city to have the parcels appraised and the results to be shared with the railway. City council voted 6-0 last week to appraise the property and accept the donation.
   Workers spent the week removing railroad material along three parcels of property where the railroad runs along Pine Street between the former Paty Lumber Co. distribution yard and Mapes Piano Strings.
   The recent departure of the C.L. Loven Lumber company leaves only two businesses in Elizabethton availing themselves of ETRY service: Blossman Gas on Highway 19E and the Inland Container Company on West Elk Avenue.
   "There were 14 (customers) when I came to work here in 1979," said Edwards. "Now, we have two.
   "People see the train going up and down the track and think business is good but it's not as good as it appears," he added.
   C.L. Loven was being relocated to Johnson City where the Railway was building a new off-loading track, said Edwards.
   "We are building a team track in Johnson City ... for use by anyone," said Keith A. Holley, general manager of ETRY.
   An anemic local industrial base translated to a declining demand for railroad transport, said Edwards. He said rail service suffered when companies such as North American, Mapes Piano Strings, Alcoa and Paty Lumber either closed altogether or discontinued railroad use.
   "About 1990 is when it peaked," said Holley of rail transport in Elizabethton. "It just started going downhill from there."
   Edwards said the company sold another parcel of Railway property to the owners of City Market to provide additional parking beside that business.
   Retiring the portion of the Elizabethton spur donated to the city will discontinue rail movement from Harold McCormick Elementary to Pine Street.
   Company officials also said the donated property allowed easier access and an enhanced appearance to the new veterans' War Memorial site in downtown Elizabethton.
   A portion of the rail line and cross ties being taken up from Elizabethton are being used to replace or rehabilitate the track in Johnson City, said Holley, who has been with ETRY for almost 26 years.
   Short-line railroad traffic remained a growing venture of transportation, particularly in the transference of materials from rail transport to trucking firms.
   "Our growth is going to be in Johnson City," said Edwards. "There's a lot of translating from rail to truck in Johnson City market."
   ETRY interchanges with CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern in Johnson City. The Railway owns two locomotives and several boxcars that transport customer products, Edwards said.
   The East Tennessee Railway track meanders approximately 10 1/2 miles from Johnson City to Elizabethton. Chartered in 1866 as the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad, the line ran from Johnson City to Boone, North Carolina.
   The company is one of 13 railroads and one trucking firm owned by the Rail Management Corporation.