Tennessee Central Railway

The old Tennessee Central track
crosses the Caney Fork River


Unlike most virtual tours, this one does not focus on a museum or a historic park. On this tour we will follow the path of the Tennessee Central Railway, which operated from 1902 until 1969. We’ll tell you about why the business was started, how it affected Tennessee history and why it eventually went bankrupt. And we’ll take you on an excursion train that follows part of the old Tennessee Central route.

This is going to be FUN!

After the Civil War, Middle Tennessee was dominated by two railroads: the Louisville & Nashville Railroad and the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway. After 1880, both of those railroads were owned by the same Northern investors. Both the L&N and the NC&StL were North-South railroads; their main functions were to take raw materials, goods and passengers from South to North and vice versa.

Jere Baxter

A man named Jere Baxter had a different idea. In the 1890s he began trying to raise money for a new railroad that would run east-west through Tennessee, with Nashville in the center of it.

At the time the big business in Tennessee was mining. The main idea of Baxter’s Tennessee Central Railway was to ship raw materials dug up in Tennessee, such as coal, lumber and phosphate, to Nashville, Knoxville and Memphis cheaper than they could be moved on the L&N and NC&StL. So the purpose of the Tennessee Central was to make money by breaking the power of the bigger railroads.

A Union Station Postcard

However, the L&N and NC&StL didn’t want the competition. They fought the development of Baxter’s Tennessee Central Railway every way that they could.

Keep in mind that just about everything that a railroad does (such as forcing people to sell them land) has to be authorized by the government. To make sure Baxter had a hard time, the bigger railroads fought him there. The L&N and NC&StL also fought Baxter’s attempts to raise money for his railroad, and built a beautiful new passenger train station in Nashville (known as Union Station) that the L&N and the NC&StL could use, but the Tennessee Central could not use.

The old Tennessee Central roundhouse — where they used to work on the trains.
PHOTO: TN Central Railway Museum

Baxter was unable to meet his dream of an east-west railroad that reached all the way from Knoxville to Memphis, but he didn’t give up. He raised money — some from investors and some from the government of Nashville — and bought a defunct rail line that went from Cookeville to Nashville.

In 1902 the first TC railroad came into Nashville. But it was a real struggle. As his railroad built lines west of Nashville and east of Cookeville, they had to overcome legal chalenges and financial problems. Baxter himself died in 1904, but his dream of the TC lived on after him.

Wilder in the 1930s
PHOTO: Kendall Morgan

In fact, at its peak the Tennessee Central had quite a bit of business. It made it as far west as Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where people and goods could switch to the Illinois Central Railroad, and as far east as Harriman, Tennessee, where people and goods could transfer to the Southern Railroad. All the coal that left the the Fentress County coal mining community of Wilder did so on the Tennessee Central. (Click here to read more about Wilder.) And during World War II, Middle Tennessee was heavily used for army manuevers, and a lot of the passengers and freight that were moved through this process did so on the Tennessee Central.

The Tennessee Central route

The business of the Tennessee Central went down when demand for coal went down in Nashville after World War II. The railway closed for good in 1969. However, there are still people who love the old Tennessee Central and who keep its story alive. In addition to operating small museums in Nashville and Cookeville, they operate excursion trains that go along the old TC line.

Here are some pictures we took on a ride from Nashville to Cookeville:

On the day we took the train, it was pretty crowded. Here’s what it looked like inside.

By the way, the trains that go on the excursions aren’t actually old Tennessee Central trains. The passenger coaches we rode used to belong to Amtrak, which is the largest passenger rail service left in the United States today (there are Amtrak stations in west Tennessee — in Memphis and in Newbern.


The first part of the journey wasn’t all that scenic, as we worked our way slowly through the eastern half of Davidson County. But we did see a lot of interesting industrial things. Here is a huge power transfer point we went past.



We passed this limestone quarry, which is owned by Vulcan Materials, a company based in Birmingham, Alabama.


Then the scenery opens up and we are in Wilson County. Here’s a farm very typical of this part of Tennessee. Note how flat the land is, and how shallow the stream is, and how the stream consists of solid limestone. This is typical terrain for this part of the Central Basin of Tennessee.

Oh, and if you don’t know what the Central Basin is, click here to learn about the six physical regions of Tennessee.

The hills start appearing after we move into Smith County. The man shown here is a train conductor who, like almost everyone else working the train on this day, is a friendly volunteer who does this because he loves trains.


After following the Caney Fork River, we finally cross it, on one of the best looking steel truss bridges in all of Tennessee.


Things got steep as we passed from the Central Basin into the Highland Rim. Here we had a cliff on one side and a precipice on the other. Back when they built the railroad, this part of the route would have been really hard to carve out. It was mainly dug out by prison labor.

Here’s some more Tennessee Central History: When Baxter started the TC, he actually purchased rail lines that had been built by previous railroads. The line east of Lebanon had been built by the Nashville and Knoxville Railroad, which had gone bankrupt.

Back when the Tennessee Central Railway was still around there were lots of small towns with train stops along the route. There used to be a stop here, in Lancaster — just past where this road crosses the tracks. And not far from here, along the track, is a town called Baxter, which was named for Tennessee Central founder Jere Baxter.


As we continue to work our way east the terrain gets even more beautiful, as you can see.




And, on the Cookeville end of the Nashville-to-Cookeville route you will find another Tennessee Central Railway Museum. Here’s the train beside it.

All in all we had a great day on the railroad. We were kind of sad to go back to Nashville and get in a car.

Click here to be taken to the web site of the Tennessee Central Railway Museum.

And click here to be taken to the web site of the Cookeville Depot Museum.