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FreightWaves Classics/Fallen Flags: Tennessee Central Railway was “The Nashville Route”

A family and railway workers pose next to a TC locomotive in Monterey, TN in 1911. (Photo: TC Railway Museum)

There are many people interested in former transportation companies, whether they were trucking companies, railroads, airlines or ocean lines. These companies are called “fallen flags,” and the term describes companies whose corporate names have been dissolved through merger, bankruptcy or liquidation.

Today’s FreightWaves Classics profiles another fallen flag – the Tennessee Central Railway (TC reporting mark; better known as “The Nashville Route”). 

The Tennessee Central Railway ran from Harriman, Tennessee, on the east to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, on the west, a distance of 248 miles. The Tennessee Central operated a circuitous and grade-ridden main line that was unable to compete against surrounding railroads that were better financed. It also served limited markets; these issues and others eventually forced the railroad to be liquidated.

The Tennessee Central's logo. (Image: Tennessee Central Railway Museum)
The Tennessee Central’s logo. (Image: Tennessee Central Railway Museum)

Early history

The TC began as the Nashville & Knoxville Railroad (N&K reporting mark), which was chartered in March 1884. That railroad’s early difficulties completing its rail line was a precursor of future difficulties.  

Alexander Crawford was the driving force behind the Nashville & Knoxville; he was a wealthy iron baron from Pennsylvania. The route of the proposed railroad went from Lebanon, Tennessee, eastward to Glen Alice, Tennessee, approximately 125 miles. Crawford sought to link the cities to haul coal between them, as well as to provide an outlet connection to the Cincinnati Southern Railway. 

The first section of the railroad (from Lebanon, which is near Nashville, to Gordonsville, Tennessee) opened on August 11, 1888, with the Carthage branch (Hickman Junction to Carthage) completed in December 1888. By 1894 the railroad had opened 76 miles of track between Lebanon and Monterey (about half the distance to Knoxville) when Crawford died unexpectedly.

Without Crawford at the N&K’s helm, financial trouble ensued and the railroad’s progress ended; no additional construction took place. 

In August 1893 the Tennessee Central Railroad Company was incorporated by Jere Baxter to build a rail link from the Tennessee River east through Nashville and on to Knoxville. Limited construction was finished before the Panic of 1893 struck the United States. 

Jere Baxter. (Photo:
Jere Baxter. (Photo:

Baxter lost his fortune in the Panic; this was followed by the Tennessee Central’s move into receivership in April 1895. However, Baxter used receiver’s certificates as a basis for credit and work was continued on the rail line. In June 1897, Baxter formed a syndicate that acquired the Tennessee Central in a foreclosure sale and the company was renamed the Tennessee Central Railway.

The early 1900s

In October 1900 the TC’s rail line was completed from Crossville to Emory Gap. In January 1901 Baxter arranged a lease of the Kingston Bridge and Terminal Railway for 99 years and in February he leased the Cumberland Plateau Railroad from Campbell Junction to Isoline.

Also, on February 5, 1901 Baxter organized the Tennessee Central Railway Company, a holding company for the various railroads he now controlled. Its goal was to build a rail line from a connection in Nashville with the Nashville Terminal Company to a connection with the N&K at Lebanon. 

Baxter continued to build his railroad. On April 16, 1901 he obtained a charter to build the Nashville and Clarksville Railroad Company. The charter was amended on June 30, 1901; the western terminus of the railroad was moved from Clarksville to the Kentucky-Tennessee line in Montgomery County.

The Tennessee Central's roundhouse. (Photo: Tennessee Central Railway Museum)
The Tennessee Central’s roundhouse. (Photo: Tennessee Central Railway Museum)

In addition, the amendment allowed the Tennessee Central Railroad Company to acquire the Tennessee Central Railway, the Tennessee Central Railway Company and the Nashville and Knoxville Railroad Company. It also leased the track and property of the Nashville Terminal Company for 99 years. The company also acquired the Cumberland Plateau Railroad (which it had been leasing), work began on the Nashville and Clarksville Railroad and the Nashville-Lebanon section was completed in April 1902.

Baxter was unable to gain a direct entry into Knoxville, and the closest the railroad came was at Harriman, its terminus and a town more than 40 miles from Knoxville. The Tennessee Central had to rely on a connection with the Cincinnati Southern Railroad, which was owned by the city of Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Southern was leased for many years by the Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific Railway, which was controlled by the Southern Railway.

The Tennessee Central's route. (Image:
The Tennessee Central’s route. (Image:

Further growth

Although the connection to Knoxville was not what Baxter had sought originally, the Tennessee Central achieved additional growth to the east. Between 1900 and 1904, Baxter managed to add branches to Wilder, Isoline and Fall Creek; the spurs were between 2 and 21 miles long and provided steady income hauling coal from nearby mines.  

In February 1904 the TC’s Western Division was completed to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, which provided a connection to the Illinois Central Railroad. Also, in 1904 the eastern terminus was extended from Emory Gap to Harriman and a connection with the Southern Railway.

However, death struck again; Baxter died in mid-1904, leaving the Tennessee Central without a strong leader and with an uncertain future. The financial problems of the past returned.

Segments of the Tennessee Central were leased to three railroads in June 1905. The Illinois Central, Louisville & Nashville and Southern Railway operated those segments until the Tennessee Central returned to private operation in 1908. However, in 1912 the railroad declared  bankruptcy and the company was again placed in the hands of receivers on December 31, 1912. The railroad remained in receivership for just over 10 years – until January 10, 1922. A syndicate led by Hugh Wright Stanley (who had experience in railroad management) purchased the railroad and changed its name to the Tennessee Central Railway Company.

A Tennessee Central diesel locomotive used to pull freight trains. A caboose is attached. 
(Photo: Tennessee Central Railway Museum)
A Tennessee Central diesel locomotive used to pull freight trains. A caboose is attached.
(Photo: Tennessee Central Railway Museum)

Stanley’s leadership

Under Stanley the Tennessee Central became a modern railroad that posted profits for the first time in its history. He oversaw the TC for 32 years and one last extension, a branch from Stone River (near Nashville) to Old Hickory along the Cumberland River. This branch line served a major DuPont chemical plant. 

The stock market crash of 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression severely impacted the railroad. In 1930 the TC discontinued passenger service on its Western Division. Despite the bad economy, the TC began posting profits by 1934 and continued to do so through the post-war years.

In 1939 the railroad purchased its first diesel-electric locomotive. That locomotive was also the first diesel-electric to be used in regular service in Nashville. A second unit was purchased in 1941. Several former New York Central Railroad steam locomotives also were acquired.

During the ramp-up to World War II and throughout the war, troop trains and hauling war materiel helped improve the railroad’s financial condition. Four former Norfolk and Western Railway locomotives were bought for use on the mountainous terrain. However, like many U.S. railroads, traffic sagged after the war. 

The coal town of Wilder, TN in the 1930s. (Photo: Kendall Morgan/
The coal town of Wilder, TN in the 1930s. (Photo: Kendall Morgan/

During peak periods, as much of 50% of TC’s traffic had been coal, but after World War II that traffic declined and the railroad relied primarily on interchange business (75%), acting as a bridge carrier.

The TC’s coal tonnage increased again when the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) Kingston Steam Plant near Harriman went online in February 1954. Unfortunately, the TVA business only lasted a few years; TVA negotiated contracts with other mines not served by the TC.  

In the mid-1950s the railroad borrowed almost $5 million from the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation to improve its right-of-way. 

However, tonnage from a number of the mines the railroad had served was declining; by 1960 the railroad was again posting deficits.  

As the deficits deepened the Tennessee Central management sought to diversify the railroad’s traffic mix, adding trailer-on-flat-car movements (TOFC). The railroad had discontinued its last passenger service in 1955; its managers even considered restarting passenger trains again.

Although TOFC was profitable, piggyback movements were only a fraction of its annual tonnage ($50,000). 

A Tennessee Central diesel locomotive, used to pull passenger trains. (Photo: Tennessee Central Railway Museum)
A Tennessee Central diesel locomotive, used to pull passenger trains.
(Photo: Tennessee Central Railway Museum)

The 1960s

W. W. Glenn was named the railroad’s new president, but neither he nor his management team could end the railroad’s downward spiral. To generate cash the company sold the Tennessee Central’s belt line around Nashville to the State of Tennessee as a right-of-way for the proposed I-440 loop in 1965. Despite that, by 1967 the TC’s deficits had grown to $10 million, including $4.5 million of its federal loan. 

On January 14, 1968 the Tennessee Central once again declared bankruptcy. As liquidation loomed, the Tennessee legislature tried to save the railroad but the legislation was vetoed by Governor Buford Ellington.  

The Tennessee Central Railway neon sign. (Photo: Tennessee Central Railway Museum)
The Tennessee Central Railway neon sign. (Photo: Tennessee Central Railway Museum)

A trustee was appointed to oversee the bankrupt line. May 31, 1968 was supposed to be the date that the railroad would shut down; however, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad purchased 10 of the TC’s locomotives and 25 of its freight cars. The money allowed the TC to continue operations and the locomotives were leased back to the TC to enable it to move its trains. The short respite ended, though; on August 31, 1968 the Tennessee Central operated its last train and all equipment and properties were divided into three sections and sold to pay off the railroad’s debts: 

  • The Illinois Central Railroad purchased the Hopkinsville-Nashville segment for $600,000.
  • The Louisville and Nashville bought the Nashville-Crossville segment for $525,000.
  • The Southern Railway acquired the Crossville-Harriman segment for $340,000.

Today, what is left of the Tennessee Central is operated by Norfolk Southern and two short lines, the Nashville & Eastern and the Nashville & Western.

Author’s note: This article would not have been possible without the resources made available by Adam Burns of Those interested in learning more about the railroads operating in North America – and those that are now “fallen flags” – should explore the American-Rails site.

In addition, the Tennessee Central Railway Museum is located at 220 Willow Street in Nashville, Tennessee. The museum’s telephone number is 615-244-9001. Railway museums across the United States help us connect with our nation’s transportation past.

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.