Tennessee Mountain Stories

Plans for Emma: The Period


We’ve been exploring the ‘who, what, when where and how’ of Plans for Emma over the past few weeks.  Now we’ve arrived at the when and it’s one of my favorite parts.

It may well be the greatest part of being an author to choose just when your characters live.   I’ve seen stories from the Bible set in modern times – Francine Rivers wrote Hosea set in the old west and I couldn’t put it down.  There’s a new book out that juxtaposes a sovereign Jewish nation with 1930 and 1940’s Europe – just how would Hitler have faced that people with a standing army? 

While this may change in future stories, I can scarcely imagine writing outside the period of 1850 – 1920.  Maybe that’s because most of the best stories from the mountain are set then.  Maybe it’s because there was no real settlement on our plateau until around 1830.

Plans for Emma opens about 1905 which was a dynamic era for our area.

Sunbright, TN Train Depot

Sunbright, TN Train Depot

The Tennessee Central Railroad arrived in Monterey in around 1890 and began an era of prosperity as produce from local farms was given a sales outlet and men were provided new work opportunities.  Mines were also expanded as the coal could now be sold beyond the plateau and of course the timber that the mountain had in abundance was both necessary for track-beds and transported further down the line.

Sunbright had enjoyed rail transport since 1879 and this was the more logical railhead for the cross ties that character Preston Langford hewed in The Flat Woods. 


It may be hard for us to imagine today when we can hop in our automobile and zip between any of these little towns.  But in 1900 the railroad was the only reasonable means of travel for long distances and certainly the only way to move heavy loads like logs.  Roads in that day were muddy paths.  In fact, it’s hard to map where roads actually lay because as one route became impassable with mud and deep ruts the people would simply cut a new road.  If you can find an undisturbed path of woods today you can still see the scars of these old roads.  Of course with smaller trees – and a smaller forest canopy – as well as the absence of free range stock the woods quickly become obstructed.  However, at the turn of the century a wagon could easily drive among the old-growth timber where briars and brambles could not penetrate and take root. 

We’ve talked here before about the movement of post offices and they were certainly a critical part of any community.   Mail delivery could come to a boom-town for a year, or a community might enjoy their own post office for decades.  Of course no one ran to check the mail every single day – unless maybe you lived right in town.  Instead, correspondence would be collected whenever you could make it to town or when other necessities drew you to the store.  Of course without email or telephone getting a letter was a coveted event.  It was the closest thing to visiting with a loved one who you often would be unable to visit for years at a time.

The whole world was changing at the turn of the twentieth century and there was turmoil everywhere.  Queen Victoria died and ended the Victoria era.  US President McKinley was assassinated in 1901 ushering in the first Roosevelt presidency.  We were just starting to play baseball on a major scale and the first world series was held in 1903.  Just like today there were hurricanes and earthquakes.  Galveston, Texas’ 1900 hurricane killed 8,000 people.  In 1908 Henry Ford began production of his Model T car.  And of course all through the first decade of the century a political cauldron bubbled in Europe that would overflow in 1914 when Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand Franz was murdered andsparks World War I.

While many American men would be drafted to serve in the war and every state and community was touched by it, life in the rural communities of Appalachia continued as they had for generations.  And that’s the picture we see of this time period in Plans for Emma


Plans for Emma is available from Amazon.com or locally at Halls Family Pharmacy.  If you’ve read it, please be sure to leave a review on Amazon.

Monterey Train Depot Museum

The gift shop at the Monterey Depot Museum has graciously agreed to stock Replacing Ann and I want to thank Julie Bohannon for that.  When I visited the museum recently to deliver the books I took the opportunity to snap some pictures and make some notes to share with you.

When the Tennessee Central Railroad finally topped the plateau in 1890, they quickly realized that the climb up the mountain would tax their steam engines and by 1905 a maintenance facility was built in Monterey and the station there became the headquarters for the Eastern Branch of the Tennessee Central. 

This was a real boon in the local economy.  Of course the railroad brought in jobs but it also opened up markets for coal, lumber and agricultural produce that previously could not reach markets. 

General John T. Wilder was instrumental in getting the railroad up the mountain because of the coal operation he planned in Wilder and Davidson.  He is often mentioned in the museum and in fact, there is a large plaque outside with good information about him.  One of the two houses he built in Monterey still stands watch over the depot and the Imperial Hotel which he built to serve railroad employees and passengers is still next door.

Most of the original buildings are gone, as are so many landmarks of Monterey’s heyday.  There were two operating passenger depots in town - the original depot from the early 1900’s burned as did so many wood-framed historic buildings in Monterey. The rebuilt depot stood long after the close of operations and was eventually dismantled.  The roundhouse burned in 1949 and was never rebuilt.  However, the old coal chute can still be seen adjacent to the remaining tracks.  Some tools from the shop were recovered and they are now displayed in the museum.

There were numerous tracks in place when the railroad was moving passengers as well as freight across the Cumberland Plateau as well as maintaining engines in Monterey.  The museum boasts a beautiful diorama of the town and the orientation of the tracks to the depot can be seen clearly on it.

I particularly enjoyed the beautiful display of a stationmaster’s desk, complete with telegraph.  There are a number of maps and graphs that anyone interested in railroad or Plateau history would enjoy. This one in particular is a whole history lesson in itself with information on the mining companies that operated, where stores, schools and post offices were located and even who owned some of the farms and homes in the area.  Manual Powell, a Wilder miner, created this map.


The scope of the Monterey Depot Museum encompasses the whole community, not just railroading.   The Monterey Hospital is represented as well as a wonderful tribute to the city’s contribution to our military.  Community exhibits are routinely featured.  When I visited, Confederate History Month was beginning and volunteer Linda Whittaker was assembling an exhibit in that honor.

Admission to the museum is free and it is open Monday through Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  If you’ve visited before, please leave a comment below and tell me about your experience there.

Railroad Ghost Town

Campbell Junction Depot From Tennessee Coal Mining, Railroading, & Logging (Duke, Turner Publishing, Paducah, KY 2003)

Campbell Junction Depot
From Tennessee Coal Mining, Railroading, & Logging (Duke, Turner Publishing, Paducah, KY 2003)

A little over a year ago I wrote a guest blog for AppalachianHistory.net on ghost towns.  I got to thinking about this subject again this week; I’ll try not to repeat that previous post since you can click over and read it on that site.  However, I’m very fascinated by the changing communities and wanted to mention it here.

If you’ve spent much time tramping around our woods, you will have happened upon groups of foundation rocks that tell you there was once several homes in an area.  Or, maybe your family stories include tales from Key Town or Hood Town but Google Maps gives you no indication where they may be located.  These are the ghost towns I’m referring to.

We think of ghost towns out West where you can drive through and visit clusters of empty buildings abandoned when the gold or silver mine played out.  If you drive through our familiar mining town of Wilder you won’t see many old buildings.  I guess that’s thanks to our much more humid climate that quickly weakens abandoned buildings.  I understand that in the arid west you can leave houses or wooden wagons and such sitting outside for years without much noticeable deterioration.

I’ve mentioned that I’m preparing to speak to a fund raiser for the Monterey Depot Museum and it is that railroad research that brought Isoline to mind.  In reading a timeline of the Tennessee Central Railroad, I learned that in 1901 the TC purchased the Cumberland Plateau Railroad which ran from Campbell Junction to Isoline.  Now I knew that Isoline had been a busy spot in the early years of the twentieth century.  A big logging operation and a coal mine drew people to the area. 

There was a post office in Isoline from 1901 until 1935. Yet today, driving north out of Crossville on Highway 127, only the Isoline Baptist Church will tell you when you’ve entered the community.  As the state exercises its power of eminent domain and moves out houses in preparation for the widened highway, I wonder if even that little church will survive to remind us of this once thriving community.

An internet search for Isoline returns almost nothing.  There was one entry from roadsidethoughts.com that actually asked for input.  I sent them what I know which you can see is precious little.

If the TC bought the spur line in 1901, I wonder where that line was going prior to the the Monterey – Crossville – Emery Gap line that the TC built. 

Campbell Junction is a new community name for me, but I did find it on Google Maps in the Mayland area.  I know that whole area was big log country but I’m not sure what would join up just there to create the junction.  Yet this community still has had their own post office since 1858.

There are lots of factors that change where people live, work and do business.  Roads are a big factor as we’ve seen since the interstate highways were built almost sixty years ago.  It’s both charming and heartbreaking to drive down the state highways and see the old motels and stores which used to cater to travelers that are now routed far from the small towns.  Monterey is another great example; the railroad brought great industry to the town but without it, the commercial center of the county has shifted down the mountain to Cookeville.  I suppose there's a good possibility that both Isoline and Campbell Junction are similar victims.  When their logs and coal played out there was little to keep the population centered there.  We’ve certainly seen the same thing happen in the “rust belt” where population surged for automotive jobs and as those jobs moved overseas the people and their money also left.

There is certainly history in these two communities and I long to know it.  As so often seems to happen, I’m left with more questions than answers on this subject.  I love to write about these mysteries because I’m always hoping one of you readers will have information that you’re willing to share.  If you know more about Isoline, please be sure to click comments below and tell me what you know.