Ghost Train From Nashville

After 127 years, the elusive Tennessee Central keeps lurching in our direction

A few weeks ago, I feared I had slipped off the time-space continuum. Driving back from Middle Tennessee that Saturday, my wife and I stopped in Monterey, because she likes a shoe outlet there. One of the few small towns that has kept its downtown, Monterey appeared to be enjoying a weekend street fair. The streets were blocked off, and we parked in a gravel lot and walked across the railroad tracks to see what was going on.

We took a brief walk around downtown, by some modest stalls, surprised at the crowds. Monterey is said to be exactly equidistant between Knoxville and Nashville, 90 miles from each. Its topography looks like East Tennessee, but something about the stridently Confederate phrasing on a Civil War marker made me think maybe we were still in Middle Tennessee.

Monterey once made a reputation as a resort town, and the century-old Imperial Hotel building still stands. It's right by the tracks, where it used to be handy to find a hotel. The Cup and Saucer was more crowded than I would have expected in mid-afternoon, but we found some stools at the counter and ordered a luncheon of catfish and fries and iced tea. We were just digging in when there was some hubbub in the street. I looked out the big window. Lots of kids were around, looking a little more excited than you might expect at just another street fair. Some were riding in an unusual toy train being pedaled down the main street.

But a block beyond the street, along the tracks, something huge came into view. It looked for all the world like an old passenger train. A long one, too, maybe 20 cars, every one apparently full of people. Every window on every car framed happy faces. In big cities, I've watched passenger trains arrive, but never anything quite like this. On the side, in lightly faded old-fashioned letters, was the phrase "Tennessee Central."

My first thought was that I shouldn't have ordered the fried catfish; perhaps I was having a stroke. I have never seen a passenger train that big in Tennessee in my life. And the long-defunct Tennessee Central hasn't offered passenger service since 1955.

I didn't know there was any sort of passenger train in Tennessee these days, except for the City of New Orleans, the Amtrak line that runs along the Mississippi through Memphis. In the whole nation, few regions are quite as devoid of passenger trains as ours. But it looked almost real.

I watched it leave town, and waved at everyone who waved at me. I waved like you'd wave to a Pegasus.

I asked around, and learned a few things. As it turns out, the train is run by a Nashville nonprofit called the Tennessee Central Railway Museum. A group of volunteers promotes and runs 20 excursion trips out of Nashville, using lines owned by the Nashville & Eastern Railroad Corp. Monterey is as far east as they ever come, and they do it only twice a year. Their trains carry as many as 550 passengers at a time, museum president Terry Bebout told me, and they usually sell out early. He says they've been making excursion trains out of Nashville for about 20 years, but only in the last couple of years have they stretched it as far east as Monterey.

The Tennessee Central's a bit of a legend, with a folk song attached. Roy Acuff, Pee Wee King, Kitty Wells, Ferlin Husky, and others recorded "Tennessee Central Number 9." These days, you can look it up on YouTube. The song goes, "We'll roll right into Knoxville just a-shoutin' and a-singin.'"

Therein lies a mystery. By most accounts, "the old TC" never got to Knoxville. In the memory of everyone I know who ever rode it, it turned around at Harriman. Between here and there was a tangle of unfinished plans and bad feelings. So for decades, a Knoxvillian could ride a train directly to New York, but if he wanted to go to Nashville, he had to go through Chattanooga, or take a Southern train to Harriman, and switch. And there was a sort of an exception, as Bebout notes. Probably until the 1940s, the elite could get in a Pullman on a TC train in Nashville, and in Harriman it would be uncoupled and shifted to a Knoxville-bound Southern train. But do folk-songwriters ride Pullmans?

The Tennessee Central had its earliest origins in 1884, in an organization called the Nashville and Knoxville Railroad. A young Nashville industrialist named Jere Baxter was the chief provocateur in this challenge to the L&N's trans-Cumberland hegemony. As the N&KRR's name suggests, it was intended to connect to Knoxville. But the Panic of 1893, which spoiled so many fond desires, scuttled it. Meanwhile, the L&N tried to block the TC at every turn. We wax nostalgic about passenger-rail days, but it was a complicated and sometimes vicious business.

The new century brought more confidence about bringing the train clear through to Knoxville. Even today, some authorities claim the Knoxville leg was actually completed, but Bebout says there's no evidence of that. Jere Baxter himself did arrive in Knoxville in 1901 on a ceremonial TC train, rolling over a Southern Railway line, to give a promotional speech on Market Square. It was advertised as the first of several exploratory trips to complete the Knoxville link. Baxter promised to do all he could to finish the job.

Three years later, at the age of 51, Baxter died of kidney disease. Perhaps the dream of permanently linking Knoxville to Nashville and points west died with him.

Today, the Tennessee Central Museum folks aren't sure how much farther they'll be able to extend east. Some track's missing altogether, and industrial landowners in Crab Orchard are reportedly unfriendly to the prospect. But a 2003 state "Rail Plan," unfunded of course, suggests that if Knoxville ever does get passenger service again, it may be partly by use of the old TC lines.