Sunday, July 7, 2024

Tullahoma, Tennessee: How a Railroad Workcamp Became a Town ~ by Michelle Shocklee

It's cool how research for one novel leads to the development of another novel. As an author of historical fiction, I often say research breathes life into my books. I spend a LOT of time reading history books, biographies, and online articles on topics related to the story long before I write the first words of Chapter One. Only a small portion of what I read actually makes it into the book, but sometimes an unused nugget turns into a vast mine of great ideas! 

When I was doing the research for my novel Count the Nights by Stars, I needed to know about the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis railroad, the oldest railroad in Tennessee. Not only did the characters ride the train several times, but Pricilla's father was a railroad executive, making it necessary for me to get my facts right. (I blogged about the NC&StL here.)

That research introduced me to the town of Tullahoma, Tennessee. 

And that introduction led me to eventually write All We Thought We Knew, my new book that will release in October 2024!

Like many towns across America, Tullahoma probably would not exist if it hadn't been for the railroad. In the 1840s, Tennessee was growing. In order to connect Nashville with towns spread across the state, a railroad was created--the Nashville & Chattanooga. Miles and miles of track were needed, which in turn required hundreds and hundreds of workers.   

1903 Railroad map showing Nashville and Tullahoma, Tennessee

Life in a Railroad Camp

Laying track and living in and among the railroad construction camps was often very difficult. Railroad construction crews were not only subjected to extreme weather conditions, they had to lay tracks across and through many natural geographical features, including rivers, canyons, mountains, and desert. Like other large economic opportunity situations in the expanding nation, the railroad construction camps attracted all types of characters, almost all of whom were looking for ways to turn a quick profit, legally or illegally. Life in the camps was often very crude and rough.

One such camp was located in present day Tullahoma in 1852. A man named Peter Decherd donated the land for the railroad right-of-way and named one station Decherd, after himself, and the other as Tulkahoma. It was later changed to Tullahoma after Decherd's favorite horse, which had been named for a Choctaw chief captured by Decherd's grandfather. The word Tullahoma means "red rock."

Life in Tullahoma

In 1863, Tullahoma served as the headquarters for the Confederate Army of Tennessee. That year the Union Army undertook the Tullahoma Campaign, defeating Confederate forces and taking control of Middle Tennessee. Federal troops occupied this area for the duration of the war. As a result of the campaign, Union forces also captured Chattanooga.

After the war, Tullahoma recovered slowly but began to prosper due to the railroad. In 1939, US 41A was built, making it easier to travel from Tullahoma to Nashville. During World War II, Tullahoma was chosen as the site for a large military installation. That installation, Camp Forrest, is the setting for my novel. (I'll blog about Camp Forrest and its fascinating history in October!) After the war, the Arnold Engineering Development Complex replaced Camp Forrest and became a major development and test center for the Air Force, as well as NASA.

Today, Tullahoma is a quaint but growing community. Here are some pics I took of the town from a recent research trip. 

Your turn: Are there any communities in your area that began as a railroad camp? Have you ever considered how many towns might not exist if the railroad hadn't gone through that area? 

Michelle Shocklee 
is the author of several historical novels, including Count the Nights by Stars, winner of the Christianity Today Book Award, and 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 sons and mother-in-law to two beautiful daughters, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about. Visit her online  at

Releases October 1, 2024

Ava must put her life back together after her husband is killed at Pearl Harbor. A job at Camp Forrest provides income, but it also puts her in contact with Enemy Aliens interned on the military installation. Can she trust the German medical student whose friendship means more to her than it should?

Mattie ran away from the pain when her brother was killed in Vietnam. Now she’s back in Tullahoma facing another devastating loss. Yet it is the bundle of WWII letters Mama insists she reads that makes her question everything she thought she knew about herself.

Click HERE for Preorder information!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting today. I don't know the answer to your question but I know that the railroad changed a great many areas as it expanded its' reach.