Cowan Railroad Museum

108 Front Street
Cowan, TN 37318


The Depot building we call home was built in 1904 to accommodate an ever increasing demand for facilities along the bustling NC&StL Railway. There were previous buildings that the railroad and the city out-grew with time due to the importance of Cowan to the railroad. Cowan was a railroad town, plain and simple. This was due to the traffic coming off the mountain from Tracy City and beyond. in coal and sand and other products. Also, there was a significant engine and car shop (light repair and servicing) facilities in support of the steam-powered pusher engines that worked trains up and over Cumberland Mountain. This was true almost from the day of the very first train over the mountain when it was discovered that the curves were sharp and the grades steep. This required help to trains in the form of “pusher” or “helper” engines. (There was a difference even though the engines were the same; freight trains were pushed from the rear, passenger trains were always helped by coupling on to the front.)

In order to tap the riches available in central Tennessee and provide transportation of those goods and minerals to broader market, the Tennessee legislature granted charters for the building of various railroads in the State. This was just after the forefront of the developing technology of transportation over state-granted right of way that was reserved for cars that traveled on rails, yet to be applied. This was about 1845. Previously it wasn’t even known for sure what kind of power would be used to move the cars, or what kind of curves or grades could be negotiated with Iron wheels on Iron rails. But steam power was quickly advancing as a possibility. The steam locomotive (or as it was known then as the “locomotive engine”) was just beginning to prove itself, this being about 1832. By 1845, there were many different types and makers of successful steam engines. By 1848 The State was engulfed in full-fledged “railroad fever”.

It was evident that the best port of call to distribute Tennessee’s commodities was eastward, to the sea. Already there were rail roads migrating out of ports like Savannah, where cotton was king. Cotton is still an important crop in Tennessee. It was seen that our traffic must pass through the Appalachian Range of mountains towards Chattanooga, or as it was just previously known as Ross’s Landing. The state granted a Charter to the new corporation called the “Nashville and Chattanooga Railway”. A route was surveyed, money raised and construction began from Nashville. Slowly at first as the first train from Nashville with passengers was to Lavergne, Tennessee in 1854. Soon after, tracks were in as far as Bridgeport, Alabama where travelers and freight could be floated across the Tennessee River there. A bridge was yet to be built there, but the Cumberland Mountain southeast of Cowan had been bored through almost a full year (Feb. 1853) before any trains ever made it that far! The construction of that tunnel is legendary and it is still in use today. Somehow the tunnel, though an obvious tactical target during the War between the States was never destroyed. It has been modified slightly to accommodate the ever increasingly large trains of the modern age.

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