Franklin County

The Cowan Railroad Museum sits alongside the train tracks of what used to be the Nashville and Chattanooga Railway.

The chapel at the University of the South–also known as Sewanee


The geography of a place can have a strange influence on eventually what happens to it.

In Franklin County, you will find a lovely, mountaintop college campus surrounded by hiking trails, waterfalls and overlooks.

The campus would probably not be there if it weren’t for coal mining!

In the 1850s, the Nashville and Chattanooga Railway came through this part of the state, thanks to a 2,200-foot-long tunnel through the Cumberland Plateau at a place called Cowan.

A train comes through the Cumberland Mountain Tunnel
at the exact moment that a train heads up the “mountain
goat line” to Sewanee.
PHOTO: Cowan Railroad Museum

A few years later, a man named Leslie Kennedy discovered coal atop the Cumberland Plateau, just east of Cowan. He started a company called the Sewanee Mining Company (“Sewanee” is a Cherokee word meaning “Big Mountain.”) The mining business required the creation of a rail line from Cowan to the top of the mountain, known by locals as the “mountain goat railroad.”

For a time, this was the steepest stretch of railroad in the United States.

Unfortunately for Kennedy, the Sewanee Mining Company didn’t make money from its original coal mining site atop the mountain.

However, the company was able to find a better place to mine a coal about ten miles away, in Grundy County. This is why the “mountain goat railroad” was expanded to pass through communities known as Monteagle and Tracy City (a community named for one of Sewanee Mining’s New York investors, Samuel Tracy).

The Sewanee Mining Company later grew into the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company. TCI, as it was abbreviated, played a huge role in the Coal Creek Wars of Anderson County, Tennessee, and in the development of Birmingham, Alabama.

This rail map of Tennessee from 1900 shows the
“mountain goat line” to Tracy City

Prior to this reorganization, however, the company donated about 5,000 acres of the land it original intended to mind to the Episcopal church for the creation of a new university. Today that institution is known as Sewanee, or the University of the South.

Sewanee is a great place to go to college. It is also a wonderful place to hike!

The Mountain Goat bikepath under construction

The “mountain goat railroad” is long gone. But the path cleared by the railroad is now being converted into a bike and foot path!

Franklin County is also one of the places David Crockett called home.

Polly Crockett’s grave

Crockett lived in Franklin County for about four years, from 1813 until about 1817. Crockett was a resident of Franklin County when he joined the Tennessee militia during the war against the Creek Indians. Crockett lived here when his first wife, Polly, died. She is buried in a remote part of the county.

The entrance to Buggytop Cave

Finally, in Franklin County you will also find one of Tennessee’s most beautiful (and underpublicized) sites: a rushing river that flows out of a cave entrance.

It’s called the Buggytop Cave, and you will find it at the Carter State Natural Area.



And here’s the Franklin County Courthouse.