Cumberland River Bicentennial Trail History


At a Glance

Name: Cumberland River Bicentennial Trail
Length: 6.5 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Fishing, Wheelchair Accessible, Horseback Riding, Walking
Counties: Cheatham
Surfaces: Asphalt, Gravel
State: Tennessee

A Brief History

The Cumberland River Bicentennial Trail runs along a 6.5-mile segment of the old Tennessee Central Railway between Ashland City and Cheatham Lake, along the banks of the river for which it is named. The TC is often overshadowed in its home state, which hosted the likes of the Nashville, Chattanooga & St Louis (“The Dixie Line”) and, most notably, the powerful Louisville & Nashville. The railroad was not very large and served no city bigger than Nashville. While it seemingly always faced financial problems, its size and lack of markets made life particularly difficult on the company in later years. Finally, service was suspended in the late 1960s following mounting debt and no hope for a better future. The section that is today’s trail was sold to another railroad, operating for just over a decade before it was largely abandoned during the 1980s.

Like so many projects of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Tennessee Central Railway had grand visions of an expansive system that simply never materialized due to financial issues and unforeseen circumstances. The company’s earliest predecessor was the Nashville & Knoxville Railroad, chartered by Alexander Crawford in 1884 and planned to operate across the state between its namesake cities. By 1894, the system was opened 76 miles between Lebanon and Monterey. In what seemingly became a common theme of bad luck for the railroad, Crawford passed away before the N&K could be completed, leaving it with an uncertain future. After chartering the Tennessee Central Railroad in August 1893, the N&K property was acquired by Jere Baxter, a successful lawyer and entrepreneur. He had similar plans of establishing a new railroad between Nashville and Knoxville and would use the former N&K as part of his route. In addition to linking those cities, his intent was to open an all-rail route between the Tennessee and Ohio rivers.


During 1897, the TC was reorganized as the Tennessee Central Railway, and by 1900, Baxter had extended the former N&K from Monterey to Emory Gap, 54 miles. Over the next 4 years, the owner worked quickly to expand his growing railroad. To feed traffic to his system, coal branches were built from Carthage Junction to Carthage, Campbell Junction to Isoline, Monterey to Wilder, and Ozone to Fall Creek. At the same time, the main line was extended both easterly and westerly; service was opened to Harriman via Emory Gap, where a connection was established with a Southern subsidiary into Knoxville. Additionally, rails soon reached Nashville. To continue extending toward the Ohio River, Baxter acquired the Nashville & Clarksville Railroad, greatly aiding in this endeavor.

The N&C was chartered on April 16, 1901, and was soon opened between its namesake cities, running along the banks of the Cumberland River much of the way. This included passing through Ashland City, where the former right-of-way west of town now comprises the Cumberland River Bicentennial Trail. After the Tennessee Central acquired this road, it pushed rails to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, by February 1904, where it connected with the Illinois Central. Alas, Baxter died that very same month, and once again the railroad’s future was uncertain. It spent time leased by other railroads and later fell into receivership before being acquired by investors in 1922, led by Hugh Stanley. Under his direction, the company was generally profitable, and he guided it through the turbulent years of the Great Depression.

Had the Tennessee Central been completed as originally envisioned, it likely would have blossomed into a much more successful operation. However, despite its name as “The Nashville Route,” the railroad served no cities of importance outside of its hometown and it long-struggled to find a footing in a region dominated by other, much larger carries such as the Louisville & Nashville and Southern Railway. Still, the Stanley years are often regarded as its most successful, when the TC earned a reputation as a coal road, moving millions of tons annually. In an effort to further streamline operations, the railroad was one of the earliest to go fully diesel, completing the task in 1949. Most of its locomotives were purchased from the venerable American Locomotive Company, noted for its classic models (the manufacturer shutdown in 1969). For this reason the Tennessee Central became a favorite among railroad enthusiasts.

In 1955, it permanently discontinued scheduled passenger service but hosted special excursions through the 1960s. That decade would be its last, since financial struggles returned once more, brought about in part by the closing of coal mines. It also lost business in other areas and was moving only two-thirds of the freight tonnage it had during the mid-1950s. According to Gary Dolzall’s article, “The Tennessee Central Story – Part 1,” from the September 1987 issue of Trains Magazine, the railroad posted a deficit in 1960 and continued to do so every year that decade. By 1967, these had accumulated to nearly $10 million; it was clear the company’s future was in serious jeopardy. An attempt was made to sell the property to new owners but fell through. On January 14, 1968, the Tennessee Central Railway entered bankruptcy for a final time. Later, another effort was made by the state to purchase the entire railroad and restore service via a new operator, but then-Governor Buford Ellington vetoed the bill.

Finally, with no other options available the railroad was liquidated on September 1, 1968. Its network was sold piecemeal to neighboring railroads. The Southern acquired 30 miles between Harriman and Crossville; the Illinois Central picked up the Nashville to Hopkinsville segment (85.4 miles, part of which is today’s trail); the L&N purchased the largest section of 130.8 miles between Crossville and Nashville. The IC did not retain its part for long because the company was dealing with its own financial problems during the 1970s, following its merger with the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio. As a result, it began paring down its system to a core group of routes during the 1980s and abandoned or sold large segments of unprofitable or redundant trackage. The former Tennessee Central line was let go in sections between 1981 and 1986.

Railroad attractions throughout the state of Tennessee include the Casey Jones Railroad Museum in Jackson; Chattanooga Choo Choo, located inside Southern Railway’s former Terminal Station; Cookeville Depot Museum, housed inside the town’s former Tennessee Central depot; Cowan Railroad Museum in Cowan; Dollywood Express Train in the popular park; Little River Railroad in Townsend; the aforementioned Lookout Mountain Incline Railway and Lynnville Depot Museum at the town’s restored Louisville & Nashville depot, Nashville; Chattanooga & St. Louis Depot & Railroad Museum in Jackson; Secret City Scenic Excursion Train/Southern Appalachia Railway Museum in Oakridge; Tennessee Central Railway Museum in Nashville; Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga; and the Three Rivers Rambler excursion based in Knoxville.

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