Johnson City, TN

Attack on the Tweetsie Trail

John M. Dabbs

(Photo by John Dabbs)

The Tweetsie Trail... the longest rails-to-trails project in Tennessee. Newcomers beware - Spring is upon us and the neophites and novices are taking to the out of doors to cure their cabin fever. The Tweetsie Trail is a popular draw. It traverses for the former East Tennessee & Western North Carolina (ET&WNC) railroad between Johnson City and Elizabethton. The 9.5-miles completed trail is thankfully covered with compacted stone. It is much easier to walk on than the larger gravel used on the railroad bed. It crosses seven bridges and is relatively flat with an even grade. The trail is perfect for walking, jogging, hiking, and biking - horses and motorized vehicles are not allowed.

Lurking danger

The trail hidden in the recreational throws of Northeast Tennessee is full of hidden dangers. The knife-like pains I received last week continue to haunt me. It is never a good idea to start riding a bike on an eight-mile journey when you've not set foot on one in over fifteen years. My gluteus maximus has yet to forgive me. My legs, on the other hand, did not mind in the least - go figure.

(Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash)

Traffic is absurdly horrific. At least twenty other cyclists on the trail sped past me as if I were sitting still. If I weren't breathing so hard and trying to keep my balance, I might have been tempted to say something. As it were, I managed to wipe the sweat from my brow and just nod a friendly hello. I was afraid I'd suck pine-needles down my throat if I opened my mouth while breathing so hard. Such is life.

There is danger was around every bend. The slow pace and minuscule slope of the trail lull people into a false sense of security. Only a trained observer can realize the predicament they've ensnarled themself into as they note the mile-markers. Oh yes, I have to travel back that many miles to get to my car. The horror of it all! Why did I ever let myself get out of shape? Is there a Denny's nearby?

Beware of the wildlife. My wife and I were harassed by a swarm of butterflies for twenty feet or so before we made our way through the terrorizing beasts. We also spotted several deer near the Milligan Depot shelter. We were quiet and managed to sneak past them before either of them tried to attack. My wife had at least two close calls during our trek. Four savage dogs had her running for life. She only managed to catch two of them so she could pet them though. The owners kept walking with the others until they were out of her reach. If she hadn't been more keenly aware of her situation, she could have been licked to death by the savage canine monsters.


Please forgive me. That should be enough of the faux path. We actually did enjoy a bit of cabin fever and get our mountain bikes out and embark upon the Tweetsie Trail. We hadn't ridden in nearly ten years... and our legs and glutes really let us know how much they hated so much sudden attention.

We parked at the trailhead in Johnson City and rode to the store in Elizabethton, where the trail returns to city life. We stopped at the store on the corner for a beverage (non-alcoholic) and made the mistake of stopping to rest for thirty minutes. When we tried to stand up and head back, our bodies did not want to go with us. We persevered, but it was a long trip back.

(Opening of the Tweetsie Trail - JC Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin)

About the trail

The trail connects Johnson City, home to East Tennessee State University, and Elizabethton, one of Tennessee’s oldest towns. These communities are in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The trail brings you through the edge of fields and some forested areas, complete with the picturesque beauty of the area.

(Photo by John Dabbs)

The trail follows the railroad line which snaked through the mountains, crossing into North Carolina. Two decades have passed since the trains traveled this route. The narrow-gage train used for the winding railroad through the mountains had a high-pitched whistle. The locals gave the train the nickname "Tweetsie" due to the high-pitched whistle.


Parking is available at the Johnson City trailhead in the Alabama and Legion Street area. Additional parking is available near Cardinal Park (TVA Credit Union Ballpark). In Elizabethton, you can park at Lion's Field and at the trailhead at Stateline Road and Blue Ridge Drive.


The East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad is one of the most historic in the southern Appalachians. It ran from Johnson City to Boone, North Carolina from the late 1800s - 1950. The Tennessee legislature had granted a charter in 1866 to build the railroad. Its purpose was to provide access to the iron mines in Cranberry, North Carolina from Tennessee.

(Creative Commons - CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

When it began running freight in 1882, it was the highest railroad system operating the Eastern U.S.. Over thirty miles of rail ran through the rugged mountains connecting Tennessee and North Carolina. The narrow-gauge line was thought to be easier to handle the route than the standard gauge trains.

The line extended into Boone, North Carolina after an initial expansion in 1919. Passenger rail service was added, connecting the isolated Blue Ridge to increasing economic and commercial growth. Growth continued as the ET&WNC carried passengers, iron ore, and timber from the Southern Appalachians.

During the Great Depression, the ET&WNC became the only contact with the outside world for people of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Some affectionately said the ET&WNC was the "Eat Taters and Wear No Clothes" railroad. The people of the "Tweetsie" were known for their friendliness and working with the people of the area. They would sometimes pick up items for others when in town when they were unable. Locals were often allowed to jump on and ride free without hassle. One employee was asked and replied, "we were going there anyway."

Time comes to an end

Roads were cut into the mountain communities by the 1950s. The ET&WNC was needed less with trucks and cars involved in commerce. A massive flood destroyed a large section of the North Carolina railway in 1940. The region relied on other means of transportation while the railroad was repaired. The region learned to rely on other means, and the ET&WNC didn't recover as the dominant mode of transportation. The ET&WNC completed its final run on October 16, 1950.


The Tweetsie ran a rotating team of coal-powered engines. Tweetsie engine No. 12 was purchased by railroaders and shipped to the tidewater of Virginia. Hurricane Hazel hit the Virginia coast in 1954. Tracks supporting the engine were destroyed, but it only received minor damage. Hollywood's Gene Autry purchased No. 12 for use in westerns. It never happened.

Grover Robbins bought the engine from Autry in 1956, along with several cars from other mountain railroads. He had No. 12 and the other cars sent to Hickory, North Carolina where they were restored. In 1957 they were delivered to Blowing Rock, just three miles from the Boone train station.

(Photo by Creative Commons via

The new attraction, "Tweetsie Railroad", carries railroad buffs, fascinated adults, and delighted children. People came from all over the South hear the shrill whistle echoing through the mountains. It runs a three-mile loop where visitors are mock attacked by Indians and outlaws.

Tweetsie gained additional recognition when it was accepted for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

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An outdoor enthusiast with a passion for travel and adventure. John is a professional consultant and photojournalist.

Johnson City, TN

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