Tennessee Mountain Stories

Jamestown’s Incline Railway

Incline Railway.jpg

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.