Etowah’s L&N Depot Today

If you have ever visited the small town of Etowah in east Tennessee, then you most likely recall the grandeur of the town’s iconic L&N Depot. It stands proud next to the CSX railyard with nearby Starr Mountain providing a picturesque backdrop. When traveling in any direction along Tennessee Avenue, the Depot and its well-maintained grounds are impossible to overlook. This historic building now serves as an informative museum, visitors center, and gathering place for community events. It is no surprise that thousands of people are drawn to this amazing and unique destination every year.

A self-guided tour of the Depot Museum is something you definitely want to include in your plans. As you explore the Depot’s many rooms and hear the creaking of the old wood floor beneath your feet, you will be taken back to a time before automobiles were commonplace and trains still ruled. All may be quiet and calm now, but, back in the day, this was far from the case. This Depot once bustled with life and a constant flow of people arriving and departing on passenger trains. The many informative exhibits found throughout the museum attractively explain the story of Etowah and, to be such a small town, there’s some incredible history waiting to be discovered here!

Museum exhibits take visitors back to Etowah’s early days.

In 1902, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (L&N) was on a mission to locate and purchase enough land for a massive rail complex, including an elaborate passenger station, somewhere close to the convergence of the “Old” and “New” Line. According to a museum exhibit, finding suitable land was far more difficult for L&N than originally expected. Their preferred location was Tellico Junction, now known as Englewood, but citizens apparently opposed the plan and it was abandoned. Finally, in 1904, they acquired a sizeable amount of land just north of Wetmore. However, due to its location in the Cane Creek bottoms, the land was very boggy and presented a major challenge for L&N. Canals were built to drain excess water and fill dirt was hauled in from nearby mines to raise the site elevation more than 3 feet before any buildings could be erected.

Courtesy of Etowah Historical Commission.

After the land had been altered and deemed suitable for use, construction began on the passenger station in the newfound community of Etowah. Haywood York brought in his crew from Blue Ridge, GA to oversee this massive undertaking. In 1906, two years after work started, the depot was completed making it the first permanent structure in Etowah. This Victorian style station was designed with fifteen rooms across two levels. The first level housed the passenger station, which was originally segregated, and consisted of two waiting rooms, two tickets windows, an agent’s office, a snack bar, etc. The second level of the building contained many office spaces for L&N’s Atlanta Division Headquarters.

Wooden staircase leading to the second level, which housed L&N’s Atlanta Division Headquarters.

One of the many interesting features of the depot’s layout is the location of the staircase. While one would assume you access the second level from somewhere on the main level, that is not exactly the case here. A separate entrance and doorway was strategically designed from the outside leading to a beautiful, seemingly hidden, wooden staircase. The intent was to prevent passengers and the public from curiously wandering into the Atlanta Division Headquarters and interfering with the important tasks underway there. “How do I get upstairs?” is one of the most common questions asked by patrons to the museum today and creates an opportune time to explain the history.

Ten years after the completion of the depot, in 1916, L&N’s Atlanta Division Headquarters was growing rapidly and needed more office space. To meet their needs, a large addition was made to the front of the depot, which became the engineering department. Today, it is known as the Portico Room and this spacious area can be reserved for weddings, conferences, parties, etc.

Passenger train service was a fundamental part of the town’s existence for many decades. At one time, as many as 14 passenger trains stopped by Etowah in a single day. However, times changed and people became increasingly dependent on automobiles as their primary mode of transportation meaning fewer trains were needed. In 1968, the day many people had been expecting finally became a sad reality as L&N passenger trains rolled away from the Depot for the final time. This marked the end of an era that brought not only prosperity, but a way of life to Etowah and its people.

Original ticket window inside of the Etowah Depot.
L&N ticket claim coupon from the early 1900’s reading Etowah to Farner.

After passenger train service ceased in Etowah, the depot’s primary purpose became obsolete despite continuing to provide office space for railroad employees in the years to come. Finally, in 1974, L&N abandoned the depot entirely and the few remaining employees were relocated to another nearby location. Citizens grew concerned that the old depot, which was a monument to the town’s history, would quickly deteriorate without upkeep. In response, the City of Etowah formed the Etowah Historical Commission to assist in fundraising and oversee the restoration and preservation of the building. In 1981, three years after restoration began, the depot was again ready to serve the wonderful citizens of Etowah that cared about it so much.

If you are ever presented with the opportunity to visit this wonderful depot, I highly recommend that you do! Countless other depots along with all of the history and stories they had to offer have been lost because their value wasn’t appreciated or they had been neglected beyond repair. Thankfully, the people of Etowah cared enough about this gem and realized the potential hidden behind what it was becoming to not allow it to suffer the same fate as so many others.

L&N embossed doorknobs, like the one seen here, can be spotted throughout the Depot by the observant eye. What will you discover here?

The L&N Railroad in World War II

During one of the most uncertain times in the history of our nation, America’s great railroads worked around the clock for Uncle Sam to transport troops, weapons, and other resources to ports where they could be taken to the front lines. Each and every train carrying military assets was vital to victory. The Louisville and Nashville Railroad, (L&N), was one of the elite performers of the World War II era. However, the demand exacted on them by the government combined with their unwavering commitment to prioritizing equipment and right-of-way for military trains came with many inconveniences. Among those bearing these inconveniences was the general public, who still heavily relied on passenger trains for transportation. Those attempting to travel during this wartime period could expect crowded cars, hefty delays, and limited supplies. Again, it was necessary for the L&N to prioritize the movement of military personnel and war materials over regular passenger trains. Uncle Sam truly had the right-of-way and, ultimately, it was a very small sacrifice to ensure victory.

WWII era passenger ticket envelope

While the L&N was successful in maintaining reliable and efficient operations during WWII, there was one very tragic incident that is still well-known to this day. On July 6, 1944 an L&N Troop Train carrying over 1,000 U.S. soldiers derailed and plunged into the water of the Clear Fork River. This section of railroad, now owned and used by CSX Transportation, is familiar to many as “The Narrows” and is located near Jellico, TN. Unfortunately, 34 people lost their lives, including an engineer based out of Etowah, and over 100 others sustained injuries. Reportedly, the last words of the fireman, also based out of Etowah, at the Jellico hospital was “she jumped the track.” (Information courtesy of Etowah Historical Commission)

Picture shows approximate site of the 1944 L&N Troop Train wreck taken during the winter

Below are some scans of World War II era L&N time tables and employee magazines. Note that they all maintained a common theme which was stressing the importance of prioritizing military trains over others and emphasizing the crucial role of the railroads in wartime transportation. They also sought to unify everyone behind a common cause and to assure that victory would soon come.

April 16, 1944 L&N timetable
July 12, 1942 L&N timetable
October 10, 1942 L&N timetable
June 1, 1943 L&N timetable
July 1943 L&N Magazine
January 1944 L&N Magazine

Scatter Tags, Anyone?

Until just a few months ago, I had no idea coal scatter tags even existed! Most of us have at least heard of coal scrip before, which are tokens of varying denominations that could only be used to pay for items at the company store. However, scatter tags are completely different. Most are made of aluminum or cardboard and are about the size of a quarter. They were mixed in with the coal as it was loaded on rail cars at the mine. Many coal mining companies used scatter tags with their branding on them as a form of advertisement from the 1920’s through the 1950’s. This allowed customers to recognize their preferred coal source since it all looked the same.

My collection of coal scatter tags in their display case.

How I first learned about coal scatter tags is an interesting story from one of our many trips to the Harlan, KY area. As I was metal detecting along an abandoned L&N mine spur, a curious local stopped and asked what I was looking for. I told him about my fascination with the area’s history and collecting railroad artifacts. He seemed very intrigued by this and told me about finding scatter tags along the railroad as a child. I probably had a puzzled expression on my face when I asked, “scatter tags, what are those!?” I was a bit shocked that something, apparently common in the early coal mining scene, could have evaded my ears for so long. Needless to say, most of my spare time in the coming days was spent researching what they were and how to find them. I think learning about scatter tags may have started something, because now I can’t seem to get enough!

Scatter tags found in Kentucky. Note the difference in quality.

If you are serious about collecting coal scatter tags and want to obtain a displayable collection, then you are probably better off purchasing them. Luckily, they are fairly inexpensive. If you prefer to be adventurous and find them, then that is also an option. Keep in mind that the scatter tags you find will likely not be the same quality as those you buy due to their prolonged exposure to the elements. But, should you choose to look for them, make sure to consider location and equipment. Always be mindful of not trespassing on private property or putting yourself in danger when deciding where to search. Remember that just because a railroad track appears abandoned does not always guarantee that it is. Do your research first with a reputable source. For equipment, you are going to need, at minimum, a functioning metal detector and something durable to dig with. A handheld pinpointer is also a good investment as it will guide you to an object’s precise location. We use an ACE 350 and AT Pro as primary metal detectors and also a Garrett pinpointer some refer to as a “carrot.”.

Below is a gallery of individual scatter tags from my collection. In the caption, you will find each respective mine’s location.