Friday, October 7, 2022

Tennessee's Oldest Railroad

By Michelle Shocklee

I love trains!

I love to hear them toot-tooting their horns at a crossing a short distance from my house. I love watching as boxcars, tank cars, and passengers cars fly past, clickity-clacking over the tracks. One of my fondest childhood memories is counting trains and boxcars on road trips to my grandmother's house in eastern New Mexico. My uncle worked for the railroad in Clovis, and he often let us kids prowl around inside those enormous, rumbling engines. Man, those were fun times! 

I can practically hear this Santa Fe train clickity-clacking!
Photo from Google

While researching my latest release, Count the Nights by Stars, I had to read up on the history of Tennessee's oldest railroad, the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis. Why? A couple reasons. One, it was the railroad that serviced Nashville in 1897, the year the Tennessee Centennial Exposition took place, which just so happens to be the setting for my novel. Tens of thousands of visitors arrived on the NC&StL over the six-month period the expo was open. But I also needed the father of our heroine, Priscilla, to be a wealthy businessman, and railroad moguls like Cornelius Vanderbilt and others had a lot of power in those days. It also allowed her father to be involved in the exposition, specifically with the Railway Exhibit.
This gorgeous NC&StL steam engine resided in Centennial Park until the 1980s.

Here are a few of the interesting things I learned about the NC&StL:
  • The railroad began as the Nashville & Chattanooga. It was founded in 1848 by a group of wealthy Nashville businessmen, including Vernon K. Stevenson. Stevenson would serve as the N&C president for 16 years. (In my book, Priscilla's father is friends with the president of the railroad.)
  • The first locomotive in Nashville arrived in December 1850 via the river steamboat Beauty, along with 13 freight cars and one passenger car. 
  • The train made its first trip the following spring, traveling 11 miles to Antioch, Tennessee. Antioch is now a Nashville suburb. 
  • It took nine years to complete the 150 miles of line between Nashville and Chattanooga, made difficult by the steep elevations of the Highland Rim and Cumberland Plateau between them. The 2,228 feet Cowan Tunnel near the town of Cowan was considered an engineering marvel at the time.
  • Towns sprang up during the construction period of the railroad, including Tullahoma and Estill Springs. (HINT: I just *might* be working on a new novel set in Tullahoma, so this is an especially cool tidbit of info to me!)
  • During the Civil War, the rail line was strategic to both the Union and Confederate armies. The Tennessee campaigns of 1862 and 1863 saw Union troops force the Confederates from Nashville all the way to Chattanooga, down the line of the railroad.
  • After the war, the railroad changed hands several times. In 1873, it was incorporated as the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis, but...
  • The tracks never actually made it all the way north to St. Louis. 
  • By 1903, the NC&StL covered much of Tennessee. 

NC&StL system map, 1903

Today, the NC&StL no longer exists. It has long been incorporated into other railroads. But here in Nashville, its history lives on in Union Station, a beautiful railroad station that welcomed trains from the 1800s through 1979. Inside the station, which is now a boutique hotel, a train schedule reminds us of bygone days when people traveled across our state and nation on trains with names like The Dixie Flyer, The City of Memphis, and The Carolina Special. 

NC&StL train schedule in Union Station Hotel, Nashville, TN
Photo from Google

Your turn: Have you ever traveled on a train? Tell me about it!

Michelle Shocklee i
s the author of several historical novels, including Under the Tulip Tree, a Christy Awards and Selah Awards finalist. Her work has been included in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazines, and blogs. Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of two grown sons, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about. Visit her online at


*A 2023 Christianity Today Book of the Year Finalist*

1961. After a longtime resident at Nashville’s historic Maxwell House Hotel suffers a debilitating stroke, Audrey Whitfield is tasked with cleaning out the reclusive woman’s room. There, she discovers an elaborate scrapbook filled with memorabilia from the Tennessee Centennial Exposition. Love notes on the backs of unmailed postcards inside capture Audrey’s imagination with hints of a forbidden romance . . . and troubling revelations about the disappearance of young women at the exposition. Audrey enlists the help of a handsome hotel guest as she tracks down clues and information about the mysterious “Peaches” and her regrets over one fateful day, nearly sixty-five years earlier.


  1. Thanks for posting today! I've never traveled on a train other than around a little track at a roadside tourist attraction, but I'd enjoy a scenic excursion at some point. I say it that way because it's my understanding that regular passenger trains go way too fast to see any of the sights along the way.

    1. Connie, I hope you can ride a train someday. Scenic excursions are fun!

  2. I love trains! We've taken quite a few trips, our favorite being Alaska. The engineer actually slowed down on one leg so passengers could take photos of the moose near the tracks.

    1. Linda, a train trip in Alaska is on my bucket list!! That's cool about the engineer & the moose!