The Cowan Railroad Museum represents the railroad that has been an integral part of the city since 1849 when construction began on boring a railroad tunnel through the mountain two miles southeast of town. The Cumberland Mountain Tunnel was finished in 1852 before the railroad actually made it to Cowan from Nashville. The town, the railroad and the tunnel still exist today. In support of that endeavor and later frequent trains through this region, a substantial frame depot was built in 1904, and that building is where the museum now houses its collection for your enjoyment.
The Depot building we call home was built in 1904 to accommodate an ever increasing demand for facilities along the bustling NC&StL Railway. There were previous buildings that the railroad and the city out-grew with time due to the importance of Cowan to the railroad. Cowan was a railroad town, plain and simple. This was due to the traffic coming off the mountain from Tracy City and beyond in coal and sand and other produce. Also, there was a significant engine and car shop (light repair and servicing) facilities in support of the steam-powered pusher engines that worked trains up and over Cumberland Mountain. This was true almost from the day of the very first train over the mountain when it was discovered that the curves were sharp and the grades steep. This required help to trains in the form of “pusher” or “helper” engines. (There was a difference even though the engines were the same; freight trains were pushed from the rear, passenger trains were always helped by coupling on to the front.)
In order to tap the riches available in central Tennessee and provide transportation of those goods and minerals to broader market, the Tennessee legislature granted charters for the building of various railroads in the State. This was just after the forefront of the developing technology of transportation over state-granted right of way that was reserved for cars that traveled on rails, yet to be applied. This was about 1845. Previously it wasn’t even known for sure what kind of power would be used to move the cars, or what kind of curves or grades could be negotiated with Iron wheels on Iron rails. But steam power was quickly advancing as a possibility. The steam locomotive (or as it was known then as the “locomotive engine”) was just beginning to prove itself, this being about 1832. By 1845, there were many different types and makers of successful steam engines. By 1848 The State was engulfed in full-fledged “railroad fever”.
It was evident that the best port of call to distribute Tennessee’s commodities was eastward, to the sea. Already there were rail roads migrating out of ports like Savannah, where cotton was king. Cotton is still an important crop in Tennessee. It was seen that our traffic must pass through the Appalachian Range of mountains towards Chattanooga, or as it was just previously known as Ross’s Landing. The state granted a Charter to the new corporation called the “Nashville and Chattanooga Railway”. A route was surveyed, money raised and construction began from Nashville. Slowly at first as the first train from Nashville with passengers was to Lavergne, Tennessee in 1854. Soon after, tracks were in as far as Bridgeport, Alabama where travelers and freight could be floated across the Tennessee River there. A bridge was yet to be built there, but the Cumberland Mountain southeast of Cowan had been bored through almost a full year (Feb. 1853) before any trains ever made it that far! The construction of that tunnel is legendary and it is still in use today. Somehow the tunnel, though an obvious tactical target during the War between the States was never destroyed. It has been modified slightly to accommodate the ever increasingly large trains of the modern age.
Click on the “overview” and “artifacts” buttons for more detailed info. This is a wonderful little museum nestled at the foot of the Cumberland Mountains that warrants your visit. You will truly be amazed at what you will find in Cowan. Check this website often for new additions and a whole slew of up-coming events.
The Museum is open from May through October, Thursday through Saturday 10 AM ‘till 4 PM, Sundays 1-4 PM and Mondays 10 AM – 4 PM. Other times can be arranged in advance by calling the museum and leaving a message: (931) 967-3078. You can also call Maryann at Cowan Development (931) 967-1560.
Admission is free! Volunteers, new members and other donations are always welcome. The museum is recognized as an official railroad museum by the State of Tennessee, but sustains itself by gifts, dues and contributions. If you would like to help, just call the museum, or send an email to Mark Ledbetter to discuss however you might like to participate.