Railroad Town without a Railroad: Documenting Clinchfield Railroad Traditions and Transitioning Economic Identities In an East Tennessee Appalachian Community

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Like many Appalachian towns, Erwin (Unicoi County, TN) is struggling with the realities of disappearing industrial jobs that have long played roles as economic stabilizers and foundations of community identity. The “Documenting Community Traditions: Oral History of the Clinchfield Railroad in Unicoi County” is the third installment of a three-year oral history project conducted by Appalachian Teaching Project graduate students at East Tennessee State University (ETSU). While seeking to foster meaningful collaboration with our community partners, including the Clinchfield Railroad Museum, students also developed important skills in ethnography, oral history, and team-based research. Grounded in diverse readings in local history (Stevens and Peoples), research methodology (Bernard; Deblasio), and community engagement (Lewis; Ezzell), we engaged in primary archival document research and met with museum curators at the Clinchfield Railroad and the George L. Carter Museums. We also conducted participant-observation at the Unicoi Apple Festival and completed oral history interviews with community members and former railroad workers. Here we will share insights from our research, including the historic and continued importance of the railroad to this community in light of the 2015 closure of the railroad by CSX and the loss of the remaining 300 railroad jobs in Erwin. In addition, we will discuss our collaborative efforts toward creating a cultural heritage travel brochure to assist the Clinchfield Railroad Museum with ongoing efforts to increase cultural heritage tourism as part of local community efforts toward economic development.

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