Cowan’s establishment as a place dates from the mid-19th century and developed mostly as a railroad town. It was the site where several branch lines met the main NC&StL Nashville to Chattanooga trunk. As the last stop before the uphill climb onto the nearby Cumberland Plateau, pusher engines to assist trains in making the steep ascent were based there, and are still in use today.
The town’s economy declined with the importance of the railroad after United States Highway 41A was built in the 1940s. The old passenger depot was restored as a museum, and is a focal point of the downtown area.
But now the small town is thriving as developers have claimed store fronts and followed with major renovations.