Historic Structures

Clinchfield Depot, Erwin Tennessee

Date added: July 9, 2022 Categories: Tennessee Train Station

The location of the railroad in Erwin had major impact on the small community by providing instant growth recognition. The depot, built in 1925, is one of the three remaining stations along the original CC&O railroad route. The building is a prime example of railroad depot architecture from that era that also adapted to some of the vernacular styles of the community. It stands today very much as it was originally built.

Erwin, Tennessee is the county seat for Unicoi County, formed in 1875. Viola Ruth Swingle, in her book entitled Erwin, described the town as a deep cup set in the center of the county of with the outstanding beauty of the mountains forming the rim of the cup. The community remained small, less than 200 people, until the Charleston, Cincinnati and Chicago Railway (commonly called the 3C or CC&O) was constructed in 1888. At the time, the town was noted as a possible location for a future switching yard. The 3-C railroad was reorganized into the Carolina, Clinchfield & Ohio Railway on March 31, 1908 and was venerally referred to as the Clinchfield Railroad. The railroad was the largest employer in Erwin from 1908 through 1954. The Clinchfield Depot was the visual evidence of the railroads active support of Erwin until its closing. "On January 1, 1983, the Clinchfield Railroad ceased to exist as an entity when it was totally absorbed by its lessee, the Seaboard System Railroad (CSX). Seventy-five years would pass and although the name would be committed to history, the spirit of the Clinchfield lives on".

"The Clinchfield is one of the country's strategic 'bridge lines,' connecting a large group of railroads to the north and to the south, respectively. Connection is made at its northern terminus, Elkhorn City, Ky., with the Chesapeake & Ohio's Big Sandy branch from Ashland. Connection is made at its southern terminus, Spartanburg, S.C., with the Charleston & Western Carolina, Southern, and Piedmont & Northern." (CC&O RR Collection, 1951).

Prior to 1908, Carnegie, an outlying section of present day Johnson City, Tennessee was home to the shop buildings for the 3-C. However, in 1909 with the railroads reorganization, Erwin "sixteen miles south of Johnson City," was designated as "the operating headquarters of the company." William Way states in 1931 that there were extensive terminal facilities, shops, and a modern building for the general offices of the company. "The large railway yard stretches out for some distance beyond the ends of the town along a flat valley almost completely surrounded by high mountains." The Clinchfield railroad bed foundation which was laid in 1908 is a marvel even by today's [1962] standards. (CC&O RR Collection, Speech, p. 6).

From 1888 - until the construction of the present depot in 1925 Erwin used a converted boxcar for the depot. This depot was constructed by a Mr. W. C. Hattan the Chief Engineer for the CC&O Railway. Mr. Hattan used a standard railroad depot plan with details adapted from the house plans of Mr. Grosevenor Atterbury. Swingle describes the present day depot as "a very popular place, used for social gatherings, where most. of the town's population young and old turned out to meet the trains and watch them come and go."

The make-shift boxcar depot was finally abandoned in October of 1925 for the newly completed depot. This depot was only one part of the larger complex located on the banks of the North Indian Creek. Other buildings contained the offices of the Superintendent, Car Service Agent, and the Master Mechanic.

The expansion of the CC&O Railway in Erwin meant instant growth for the small. town. The railway employed hundreds of workers and provided important transportation links to neighboring markets.

"Things do not 'just happen'," writes O.K. Morgan, in regard to the development of local industries. "No territory ordinarily grows of its own right in these days when all communities are striving for growth. A vast amount of effort must be made. Great expenditures must be entailed. To build up a local industry a start is usually made from the zero lines. Early, the resources of the Clinchfield were virtually card indexed by engineers, geologists, chemists and experts of all lines, working at the behest and under the direction of the industrial department of the railroad. With data in hand, then began the dissemination of this information and quest for prospects that might be interested and available. Some were interested in mining coal, cres, kaolin, and feldspar; others in the manufacture of timber, brick, cement, tile, etc." (Way, p. 135).

" ... Kingsport... Johnson City, Erwin, and Spruce Pine are other outstanding examples of local growth brought about directly and indirectly by the Clinchfield." (Way, p.136). For this reason industrial growth was attributed directly to the railroad. "Erwin is not only the operating headquarters of the Clinchfield Railroad, with its shops, terminal facilities, etc., but it is also home of the first pottery plant to be established south of the Mason-Dixon line (Southern Potteries). Three feldspar grinding factories (Erwin Feldspar Corporation), a porcelain manufacturing plant, a silk mill (A.P. Villa Bros. Silk Mill), a furniture factory, and several lumber mills have appeared since the organization of the Clinchfield." (Industrial Guide and Directory of Industries along the Clinchfield Railroad, Clinchfield Railroad Company 1928).

To house the workers for the railroad in 1917, the Holston Corporation (a subsidiary of the CC&O Railway) hired a New York architect, Grosvenor Atterbury, to plan and lay out a tract of land for residential development. Part of this land and several of the houses built by the railroad were sold to Southern Potteries to provide housing for their employees. It is an important relationship to note how closely the railroad worked with the industries of the area to provide materials and services.

In 1926, the CC&O Railway demonstrated further faith in Erwin by bringing the remaining shops, accounting department and traffic department to the new General Office Building which was built simultaneously with the depot.

"The Clinchfield's spectacular scenery and friendly atmosphere blended together to attract a number of special passenger-train operations." Dieselization of the Clinchfield began in 1948 when an A-B-A set of EMD F3's built for the L&N arrived on the property for demonstration. At 3:20 pm Tuesday, December 21, 1948, the first Clinchfield diesel powered train arrived in Erwin from Dante and a new era had begun". "Light rail, untreated ties, steam engines, telegraph and train orders have given way to rail weighing 132-lbs. per yard, creosote ties with an expected life of 30 to 35 years, diesel engines, coded communications of voice, teletype, and hot-box detectors, radio, including Centralized Traffic Control signaling on all main track and 22 passing tracks. The majority of these modern methods, material and equipment have come about since 1949." (CC&O RR Collection, Speech, pps. 6-7).

Dieselization was one of the areas that helped the Clinchfield to upgrade their economic commitment to the communities along railroad. Another was in "recognizing the importance of industrial development to the healthy economic growth of the area, the Clinchfield Railroad in 1953 inaugurated and Industrial Division to actively work in cooperation with the communities along its line. Since 1953 the Clinchfield Industrial Division has co-operated with the Erwin Citizens Committee for Industrial Expansion in locating five permanent new industries in Erwin they are: Davison Chemical Company, Strom Division of Hoover Ball, National Casket Company Superior Hone and Tenacrest Division of the Safe-Guard Company." (CC&O RR Collection, speech, pps. 14-15). All of these fine industries used the convenience of the Clinchfield Depot.

The depot in Erwin was the last of eight stations to be built along the Tennessee branch of the Clinchfield line. According to Caroline Jackson, in 1979 only the Clinchfield Depot and two other stations remained standing; the depot in Kingsport, Tennessee (1917) and the depot on Johnson City, Tennessee. The Erwin depot operated as a passenger station from 1925 until 1954, when regular passenger service was discontinued on the Clinchfield line. After that time, it was used as the signal and communications shop for the railroad. CSX corporation merged with the CC&O Railway in 1979 and moved its divisional offices out of Erwin in 1984. The building was sold in 1988.