Ridin’ the Rails: Tweetsie and Clinchfield Railroad Stories

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JOHNSON CITY (March 31, 2017) – East Tennessee State University graduate students in storytelling will present “Ridin’ the Rails,” an evening of oral history stories and songs from the heyday of the railroad in America, on Friday, April 7, at 7:30 p.m.

The event will be held in room 205 – the black box theater – of the university’s Campus Center Building. Admission is free, and donations toward ongoing oral history collection work will be accepted.

Dr. Delanna Reed of the ETSU Storytelling Division and graduate students within that program interviewed dozens of individuals who rode, lived or worked on the Tweetsie and Clinchfield railroads. The oral histories gathered provide a glimpse of the two local railroads and the lives they affected from as early as 1915 through 1984.

Established in 1882, the narrow gauge ETWNC (Tweetsie) Railroad serviced East Tennessee and Western North Carolina as a coal train and steam engine passenger train. Until highways were established and cars common, the Tweetsie was the only mechanical mode of transportation for folks in the mountains between Johnson City and Boone, North Carolina. Locals of the Tri-Cities area currently recognize the Tweetsie name for its newly established purpose as a multi-use recreation trail for biking, walking and running that follows the former tracks from Johnson City to Elizabethton.

The Clinchfield Railroad, with its headquarters in Erwin, ran from the coal fields in Virginia, Kentucky and South Carolina. Known as a feat of engineering, the Clinchfield wound for 262 miles through the Blue Ridge Mountains and fostered inspirational characters that have been the center of many films and written works.

“The oral histories the audience will hear during the production of ‘Ridin’ the Rails’ are sure to inspire the mind, body and soul,” said Reed, who is directing the current graduate students making up the cast of storytellers and musicians in the program. They include John Brooks, Paul Herrin, Charis Hickson, Betty Ann Polaha and Eutimio Talavera.

These students in the ETSU Storytelling Division, which is a part of the Master of Professional Communication Program in the Department of Communication and Performance, selected stories to tell from transcripts of interviews with people from Johnson City and as far away as Roan Mountain. The original interviews were conducted from 2011 to 2014 as a collaborative project between ETSU’s George L. Carter Railroad Museum and Storytelling Program. The effort was led by Reed and Dr. Fred Alsop, director of the museum.

Reed says the April 7 event is a one-time opportunity to see the concert in its entirety, although individual students plan to perform segments of the show soon in other area locations.

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