This isn’t one of the state’s bigger tourist attractions. In fact, not a lot of people even know there’s a place called Cowan, let alone a museum there. But you can learn a lot at the Cowan Railroad Museum.
We’re going to tell you the story behind the railroad that changed Tennessee.
If you look at a map, you’ll see that Cowan is in Franklin County, east of Winchester. So why is there a railroad museum here? Because if it weren’t for the railroad there would be no Cowan.
Back in the 1840s, a group of investors organized what would eventually become the first railroad in Tennessee. Its original idea was to link Nashville with Chattanooga, which is why it was originally called the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad.
If you draw a straight line from Nashville to Chattanooga, that line doesn’t pass through Cowan. So why did the railroad pass through Cowan? Because there is a very large mountain range called the Cumberland Plateau between Nashville and Chattanooga.
That mountain range is higher in some places than it is in others, and narrower in some places than it is in others. And if you are building a railroad, you want to avoid mountains as much as possible, because it costs a lot more to lay track over or through mountains than it does to lay track on flat land.
In the 1850s engineers decided that the best way for a railroad to get from Nashville to Chattanooga was to dig a tunnel through the Cumberland Mountains. The train station at the north side of that tunnel became known as Cowan, and the town that grew around it was created because of the railroad.
Crews began laying the rail line from Nashville to Chattanooga in 1847. The most difficult part of it by far was the 2,200-foot tunnel.
“Work was carried on in three shifts,” Wilbur Creighton wrote in a book called The Building of Nashville. “The drilling was done by hand, since the steam drill had not been perfected at the time. One man would hold and turn a short length of steel bit, while two others struck it with eight-pound hammers.”
Most of the laborers who built the railroad were either Irish immigrants or slaves. We know this today because of several things, including advertisements that ran in several Tennessee newspapers in 1850.
It would be hard for any of us today to understand the conditions under which these men worked. They would have worked all day and then slept in makeshift shelters, or simply on the ground.
We can assume that the slaves were chained together at all times, to prevent them from running away. We also know that many of the Irish laborers died during the months in which the tunnel was being built, because in the woods near the railroad there are the remains of an Irish cemetery, where workers were buried. (Unfortunately this is now on private property and cannot be reached.)
When the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad tunnel was completed in May 1851, it was considered the most important days in Tennessee business history. Above and to the right you will see an article that appeared in just about every other Tennessee newspaper about this festive occasion.
When the railroad connecting Nashville to Chattanooga opened three years later, people were pretty excited. But during the Civil War the railroad took on an unexpected significance. When the Union Army moved through Tennessee, it basically followed the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad southeast from Nashville; through Murfreesboro, through southern Tennessee into Stevenson, Alabama; and then east to Chattanooga. For a brief time, Cowan was a pretty strategic place.
The railway flourished after the war and grew to become known as the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway. And for nearly a century after the war it remained one of the most important companies in Tennessee.
Several towns, such as Tullahoma and Decherd, Tennessee, and Stevenson, Alabama, owe their existence to the NC&StL. Largely because of the NC&StL line, coal mining came to places like Sewanee and Tracy City (both near Cowan). Eventually, Sewanee was chosen as the site of the University of the South (also known as Sewanee). Some of the largest employers Nashville and Chattanooga have ever recruited were brought by the NC&StL.
Railroads eventually declined, however, and in 1955 the NC&StL was merged with its main competitor, the Louisville & Nashville. Today the rail line through Cowan is owned by CSX Railway.
The tiny train station that houses the museum hasn’t been used by the railway for decades. In fact, it only remains because people in Cowan asked the railroad not to tear it down.
Several years ago the people of Cowan decided to turn their old, abandoned train station into a small museum. Today, just about everything that you see in this museum consists of things donated by people who live there. There is NC&StL memorabilia of all kinds; NC&StL history books; model trains; antique maps; pictures; and an old locomotive and caboose you can climb on.
The museum also has a great collection of old photographs. Here is one from the 1950s of a special train visiting Cowan. Look how many people turned out, and look how formally everyone is dressed! In those days people didn’t wear blue jeans, shorts and T-shirts!
There is also a model of Cowan in its heydey with (you guessed it) an operating model railroad.
Click here to be taken to the Cowan Railroad Museum’s official web site.