What's the best route for a mini road trip to Johnson City, Tennessee?

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In summary: Saturdays.In summary, I visited Johnson City, Tennessee, on Friday and Saturday to attend a train show and museum. The show was suspended for two years during the pandemic, and it was interesting to see how the museum has been able to keep the collection active despite that.
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On Friday and Saturday I did my first post-pandemic overnight trip. The last previous one was to Atlanta in February 2020. The destination this time was Johnson City, Tennessee, near the eastern tip of the state. I've been there a couple of times on day trips, but even driving straight via I-26, I didn't have much time there since I wanted to return home in daylight. So this time I decided to spring for a hotel room, which gave me more time there, and allowed me to take different routes up and back.

On Friday, my route north took me through the North Carolina mountains via US-321, with a stop at Blowing Rock, which has been popular with well-to-do tourists since the late 1800s. The town is named after a rock formation at the head of a valley that funnels winds from the west so that they blow vertically when they reach the rocks. It's been a privately-owned tourist attraction since the 1930s. The view is worth the admission fee IMHO, even on a cloudy day like Friday was.


You can see some of the expensive cliffside houses in the nearby town.


I was surprised that they allow climbing the rock "at Your Own Risk".



Unfortunately the wind was coming from the wrong direction, so I didn't experience the updraft effect.
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A few miles further north, as I approached Boone, I passed the Tweetsie Railroad, a Western-themed amusement park with a heritage steam-powered narrow gauge train that runs in a loop around its perimeter.


The park dates from the late 1950s, but the train has a connection to earlier local history. Until 1950, Boone was served by the narrow-gauge East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad (ET&WNC), nicknamed the "Tweetsie", which connected it to Johnson City, Tennessee. The railroad's only surviving locomotive, #12, was saved by a group of railfans and then bought by an entrepreneur in Blowing Rock who developed the amusement park.


The park's other locomotive, #190, originally ran on the White Pass and Yukon Railway in Alaska.


The loop runs mainly through forest, with a couple of stops at sets where riders watch brief Wild West themed shows from inside the train.


These pictures are from a visit in 2015. I didn't stop this time because the weather was no better than before, admission is expensive at $58, and there are few places to photograph the trains, even from inside the grounds, because the route is mostly hidden by forest.

You'll see some Tweetsie-themed stuff from this trip in later posts.

The guy who developed this park later created another one in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, also with a steam-powered railroad. After changing hands a couple of times, it became today's Dollywood, which still operates the railroad. I haven't visited it yet.
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  • #3
jtbell said:
You can see some of the expensive cliffside houses in the nearby town.
Do they get bushfires in that area? If so, with the strong winds, those homes would be unsaveable.
  • #4
strangerep said:
Do they get bushfires in that area? If so, with the strong winds, those homes would be unsaveable.
Not that I remember ever reading about, at least not enough to cause problems for those houses. It would be big news around here if they were affected. I do see occasional reports on TV about forest fires in the mountains further southwest. Flooding in the valleys during major storms is a more serious problem. Haywood County, just west of Asheville, was affected by that this past spring.
  • #5
From Boone, I drove through the mountains, across the state line to Johnson City, Tennessee. I got there late afternoon, in time to visit the event that was my excuse for the trip.


It had been suspended for two years during the pandemic. Its setting is the sports arena ("Mini-Dome") of East Tennessee State University.


I bought a couple of books, and a railroad-themed T-shirt.

  • #6
Then I checked into my hotel, and drove around town a bit. The section of the original "Tweetsie Railroad" (ET&WNC) from Johnson City to Elizabethton (about 10 miles) was abandoned in the 2000s, and converted into a bike/hike trail in 2015.



A small remnant of the railroad still survives, now called the East Tennessee Railway. It operates a few miles of track in Johnson City, giving local customers access to the Norfolk Southern and CSX.

While trying to drive through downtown, I encountered roadblocks and detours for a festival, and stopped to check it out.




The lines at the food trucks were too long for my taste :wink: , so I went elsewhere for dinner, a steakhouse out by the I-26 exit.
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On Saturday morning, before leaving Johnson City, I went back to ETSU to visit the train show's sponsor, the George L. Carter Railroad Museum. It's in the basement of a campus building not far from the "mini-dome" where the train show was, and is open only on Saturdays.


I wondered why the university would house a railroad museum. I don't remember any other such combination offhand. An exhibit revealed the connection. George L. Carter built the Clinchfield Railroad in 1908-09 to serve the coal mines that he owned in southwestern Virginia. He also donated land and money for the building of a teachers' college in 1911, which eventually became ETSU.


The museum has exhibits about both the Clinchfield and the ET&WNC ("Tweetsie"), including a large detailed map of the latter that includes the present-day amusement park.


The main attractions here are three large model railroads. One of them depicts sections of the ET&WNC, filling one room as it meanders back and forth.




The other two layouts, in a second room, are more generic.



There were a couple dozen visitors while I was there, during the first hour after opening in the morning, because of the nearby train show. I wonder how many they get on a normal Saturday.

One more stop, on the way home...
  • #8
Time to finish this trip finally, with something different. About a half hour outside of Johnson City on my way home, I passed through the village of Limestone, which boasts of its connection to a famous historical figure.


A few miles further on, down a back road, I came to a state park.


This cabin at the entrance was formerly promoted as a replica of the one in which Crockett was born in 1786. Samuel Stonecypher claimed to have used logs from the original Crockett cabin when he built his own in the 1820s; the Davy Crockett Birthplace Association in turn used logs from the Stonecypher cabin to build this replica in the 1950s. The state park agency apparently decided there wasn't enough historical justification for it, so they moved it to the park entrance a few years ago, and built their own replica farm homestead near the banks of the Nolichucky River. The park's literature doesn't even mention the earlier replica except to mark it on the park map as "Stonecypher cabin". I had to find out its significance via Wikipedia.




The visitor center has exhibits about Crockett's life, and its popularization through books and movies, including two movies and a TV series by Walt Disney in the 1950s. The gift shop sells Crockett-style coonskin caps, among other things.

From here I drove home, via Greeneville, Tennessee, and Asheville, North Carolina.
  • #9
Nice Report. I wonder where we are bound. Thank you.

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