Tennessee Mountain Stories

Jamestown’s Incline Railway

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Railroads are fascinating – as many a boy (regardless of his age) can tell you.  There is a romance about the era of rail travel when we still packed in large trunks and dressed in milner’s plumage.

I was fascinated to read in the “Looking Back” book about an incline railway that was built from Wolf River up to The Basin in East Jamestown, Tennessee.  I have never heard about it before and it drove me to research the purpose and history of these railways.

The practical side of rail lines lies in the ability to move heavy loads over rough terrain with minimal power.  It is a tool that has been utilized for centuries.

Wikipedia records that the earliest documented inline was used in Austria in 1515 to provide freight access to Hohensalzburg Castle at Salzburg.  Most incline railways are industrial tools, often found in mines.  Most of the pictures of mines I’ve seen include a rail line up out of the underground mines and into the tipple for loading.  I never thought of these as an “incline railway” although they always consist of rails laid on an incline – so that obviously fits the definition!  These inclines do not require the steel rails I always associate with railroads and the earliest versions moved cars over wooden rails.

The Wolf River Incline Railway was always about moving the timber from the Wolf River Valley up to the rail lines for distribution and use across the country.  The Tennessee Stave and Lumber Company originally had a mill in Verdun and the logs had to be moved from under the mountain to that mill.  It’s a tough haul on a stretch of highway the Department of Transportation has struggled for years to keep from falling off the mountain.  Laying rails was ingenious in those days before heavy trucks were widely available. 

Steam shovel at The Basin at the top of the Incline

Steam shovel at The Basin at the top of the Incline

Doyle Jones reports that the mill was moved to the head of Wolf River in 1922, so that accounts for the picture above showing sawn lumber loaded at the bottom of the incline.  When the mill was built in the valley, pre-assembled huts for the workers were lowered down on the incline and positioned near Blowing Cave and up Rotten Fork.  Steam engines 30, 40 and 50 were also lowered down the incline and the tracks ran into the tract timber about 12 miles. 

Building the railroads both the O&W from Oneida to Jamestown as well as the incline and her associated rails was back breaking work.  While it supplied jobs to a lot of local men, others were brought into the area.

 Inclines can be powered by a wide range of energy sources including manpower, horsepower, steam, or even water-balances.  I haven’t found any record of the power source for the Jamestown Incline.

Old Louvaine Community


Tenessee’s Cumberland plateau has been rich in natural resources, chiefly coal.  The history of coal mining is colorful the world-around and much has been written and recorded about our coal mining towns around Wilder, Sandy and Davidson.  However, there were several other mines as well as timber operations and the communities that sprang up to support those operations.  When a friend handed me a book ab out “Old Louvaine & Zenith in East Jamestown, Tennessee” I nearly cried out because Zenith has been a community I’ve heard about my whole life but know very little about.

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This book, written by Janice Matthews Smith includes dozens of pictures of the O&W railroad, depots and steam engines.  It has pictures of the incline railway from Wolf River to The Basin, as well as  folks who lived in the area in the early part of the 20th century.   It is a wealth of information and a treasure-trove of pictures – I can hardly wait to share it with you!  However, as is often the case, it leaves me with unanswered questions and you dear readers are my very best resource so PLEASE click comments below and share what you know about these subjects!

Louvaine is not a community I’m familiar with, however I find Louvaine Road off the Pickett Park Highway and very near the Big South Fork park.  Mrs. Smith records that Hwy 154 was previously known at the Old Louvaine Road.

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The timber industry has been big business on the plateau since long before coal was discovered, and in fact we’re still cutting a lot of trees off the mountain.  Around 1912 logging was supporting the Tennessee Stave and Lumber Company.  This company moved to the top of Wolf River to an area known as The Basin around 1922. 

Louvaine boasted a store owned by the lumber company and housing a post office.  The East Jamestown post office operated from 1928 – 1955 and I can’t find a post office specifically for “Louvaine”.  The mail car would slow down just enough to toss a bundle of mail out the window where postmistress Rhonda Sims would pick it up and carry it into the postoffice to be sorted. 

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Mrs. Sim’s husband ran a blacksmith shop across from the post office.  There was a school at East Jamestown and tool sheds built by the railroad.  John and Gulie Tays built a hotel / boarding house for the workers at the lumber mill and the railroad.

Mrs. Smith’s book lists 21 families living in Old Louvaine.  This was a thriving community that has now disappeared as so many of the boom towns did.  I’m thrilled that one native of Louvaine has assembled pictures and memories to share with all of us. 

The Music of the Old Country


Despite Tennessee Mountain Stories’ focus on the Cumberland Plateau, I often run across people and families that while their geography doesn’t fit the model, their culture certainly seems to.  And as I recently talked with a friend about her grandfather, and the similarities to my own ancestors, I thought I’d share this story, his resourcefulness and love of music with you today.

Carl Harney was born in 1907 in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.  He moved first with his parents then on his own and with his wife to Arkansas, Mississippi and eventually to Southeastern Ohio.  Music was a part of his life from the earliest age, but he never received any formal instruction.  In the 1930’s he traded five dollars worth of groceries for an old fiddle and seems to have rarely been without an instrument from that day on.  In his late 40’s an injury forced him out of his job at a stave mill – work he had been doing all of his adult life.  By that time his love of the fiddle had grown to the point that he began building them himself. 


He left a wealth of memories in the hearts of his children and grandchildren, as well as slew of foster children he and his wife Minnie helped to raise.  A number of the instruments he built are still treasured by members of the family as well as wooden toys, knives and kitchen tools.  Minnie Harney said he sang from the time his feet hit the floor until he went to sleep at night.  However, in his last years a lung disease prevented him from singing the old songs he’d learned throughout his life.  Still he could play and would spend hours sitting beside a tape recorder playing his fiddle.  Those recordings as well as a stack of records, produced right in his living room while he played along with family members and neighbors, still survive as well.

I’ve mentioned here before how the music of the mountains came from the old country and was kept alive by the people for all these generations.  Well the Harneys settled a little further west but the same kind of culture came with them.  They too kept alive a part of their ancestry and passed it along the same way it had been passed for centuries – by planting the songs in the minds of children who would sing them throughout their own lives to be heard by yet another generation.  Isn’t that a beautiful picture to imagine?

The Ever-Evolving English Language

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If you ask my Grandma if she’s got a tablet she will hand you a book of paper.  Recently I bought my son a spiral-bound book of notecards and when I asked him where he put it I asked about his “tablet”.  He pointed to the mobile computer device that contains several gigabytes of memory to store documents, photos, computer applications, etc.  Just that last sentence would cause Granny’s eyes to glaze over.

Now Appalachia’s unique vernacular is a recurring theme among The Stories and I’m always fascinated by how we came by certain terms.  However, I think this change has occurred across the country as both Dictionary.com and Merriam-Webster lead with the paper definition of tablet.  My favorite etymology site says the word dates back to 1300.

So how did this common word take on a such a vastly different meaning?  Well those slim little computers do resemble a notepad, and we sure use them for all the sorts of things we used to jot down on a piece of paper – from this very article to a column of figures to a recipe or friendly letter.  And there are people who consider paper all but obsolete. 

Unfortunately our society has warped some words so that we tend not to use them in polite society, or blush whenever someone dares.  In a bible study a few years ago we were talking about how we often resist God’s call on our lives.  I quoted Acts 9:5 (“…it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”)and heard a collective gasp that I would use that indelicate, nearly profane term.  But I flipped open my Bible and it’s still right there reminding us that just like a mule or ox fighting against his master’s will, when we resist God we’ll get a little spur.  The NASV completely eliminates that portion of the sentence, possibly because the 1960’s era readers it was published for were becoming less and less familiar with the fine art of working stock.

Even Jesus’ words in Matthew 23:33, “…how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” have been so perverted that we must be careful how we teach our children to use them.  Of course, no one much wants to talk about Hell these days anyway, unless they’re using the word profanely.

Between my accent and dialect people are often either puzzled or entertained when I’m talking, so I wonder if I’m the only one.  Do you ever use words that are just as common as dirt in your way of thinking yet people around you can’t figure it out?

Being Prepared

I was pretty sure I wanted to talk with you this week about last week’s weather scare.  Now don’t think I’m going to waste much space railing against the National Weather Service or the meteorolgists I listen to everyday.  And I’m going to try not to preach at you – but I’m more likely to lean toward the preaching than complaining.

I was torn between talking about problems with predictions (we’ll have to come back to that topic one day soon) and being prepared…preparedness won this week possibly because the preacher talked about Solomon on Sunday and my children’s bible reading has been in 1 Kings for the last week where they too were learning about the wisest king.

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So the weatherman said it would snow last week.  The temperatures were going to plummet and an overnight rain would freeze making travel miserable and in my estimation tearing down power lines leaving us all quietly in the dark.  Then we all started getting ready – well the more prudent of our society anyway.  Schools cancelled, roads were sprayed and at my house we filled water containers (when the power goes out our well pump quits), carried in wood and made sure there was plenty of food in the house.  I’m sure hoping you’ll click “comments” below and tell me how you prepared.

The people of the mountain are used to taking care of themselves and getting ready for hard times – we’ve been doing these things in one form or another since the first settlers walked onto the Plateau.  Of course things are a little different, these days we need to ensure gas tanks are filled (both automobiles and LP tanks) and not too many of us still have a well with a bucket so if you aren’t on city water you have to fill bottles and buckets like me. 

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There’s a whole movement in our time of “preppers” – they’ve even had their own reality TV shows.  These people are preparing for various disasters and sometimes they’re pretty funny.  I tend to listen to them and think, “We’ve always done these things.” Well we’re farmers and Proverbs 28:19 tells us that if you till your land you’ll have plenty of bread – so every spring we fire up tractor or tiller and turn the ground for taters and beans.  When the snow comes that’s food that will see you through. 

Proverbs 6:6-8 directs our attention to the ants that have no one to tell them what time to clock into work, still they gather food in the harvest; we take that instruction and every summer we pick beans, dry apples, bale hay and fatten a calf, hog or flock of chickens.  These things we lay by for the winter months that will produce nothing but empty stomachs.

The predictions were a little off last week but my preparations were not wasted.  Wood stacked in the dry will be burned another day and the water uses the same out of gallon jugs as it does from the spigot.  I’d always rather be over-prepared and use up the supplies in good weather.  And while I cannot explain some of the decisions King Solomon made in his time, The good Lord chose to record Solomon’s lessons for very good reasons and if I can only apply and practice them then I will be prepared for hard times – whether bad weather, poor economies or spiritual trials – and can survive those times is relative comfort.