By Mike Steely
I think my interest in railroad depots goes back to my childhood when my family lived just up the tracks from an active station. I recall a railroad trip to Louisville, Ky., once by train from our home in Williamsburg, Ky., and since then my own family and I have visited and ridden trains here and there in Tennessee.
If you have an interest in trains and depots there are several in our area worth a day’s drive and a visit. Two of them you can visit on the same outing.
Of course locally we have the Southern Railway museum with its period passenger cars and the Three Rivers Rambler train ride. But there’s nothing like the L&N Depot in Etowah for size or history.
Tennessee’s Largest Depot
The two-story depot is said to be the largest railroad depot in the state. Built in 1906 the station was the headquarters of the company’s Atlanta Division and was the first building to be built in the small town. In fact, the town was created by the railroad. Located immediately on Highway 411, museum’s first floor features the background of the station and the town. The second floor has a gallery of changing exhibits.
The L&N Depot was the hub of service to the copper mines, marble quarries and industries in East Tennessee. Built along Cane Creek in what was then called Stumptown, Etowah was chosen by the railroad company. It is said that a railroad sign in Etowah, Ga., was taken by a railroad engineer and planted beside the tracks at the new Tennessee station.
L&N developed a large rail center and yard there and then began selling off lots for businesses and homes. Wooden box cars were built there until the 1920s when L&N began switching to metal box cars.
In the 1970s the depot and some other buildings were purchased by the city of Etowah and the huge historic railroad station was preserved. Today anyone can visit the depot and museum free of charge. The city annually has a July 4th celebration at the depot complete with a fireworks display. The depot, as before, has become the center of various celebrations in Etowah.
My wife and I visited the depot there several years ago and it is still going strong today, open to visitors and even offers train rides.
You can catch the Hiwassee River Railroad scenic excursion at the Etowah station and ride through the Hiwassee River Gorge. The 50-mile loop is a 3.5 hour trip and runs from March through November. You can get information online or by calling (423) 263-7840.
Tennessee’s Oldest Depot
After Etowah, you could take Highway 411 north to Englewood and then Highway 474 north to Niota, where you could visit what is said to be the oldest standing depot in our state.
The Niota Railroad Museum has a Civil War marker standing in the front lawn. Built in 1854, the depot is now the home of Niota’s city hall. During the war it was occupied by federal forces who created fortifications around the station by removing bricks from the freight section.
The station is located about a block off Highway 11W near the small town’s bank, post office and library.
As your return to Knoxville along Highway 11W you could also stop in Loudon and see the historic railroad station there which now houses the Loudon Chamber of Commerce.