A Geographic Study of the Tennessee Central Railway: An East-West Transport Route Across the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee
Date of Award
Master of Science
Robert G. Long, William N. Cherry
The Harriman, Tennessee-Hopkinsville, Kentucky, routeway of the former Tennessee Central Railway is the only east-west rail crossing of the rugged Cumberland Plateau barrier in Tennessee and is one of a very few such rail crossings in the Southern Appalachian plateaus. The railroad's apparent good situation, however, has not resulted in either a large, dependable volume of traffic or a sound financial operation. After years of marginal operations, the Tennessee Central finally ceased operations on August 31, 1968. The line was subsequently divided into three segments and operations are now being conducted by three respective new owners: the Southern Railway, the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, and the Illinois Central Railroad.
The purpose of this thesis was to provide a better understanding of this rail route; this material was presented in the form of a geographic-transport analysis of the Tennessee Central Railway, with emphasis being placed upon the plateau-crossing Cumberland section. Specifically, this thesis discussed the historical development, the decline, and the eventual cessation of TC operations; the line of road in terms of both physical and political setting; the rail physical plant and operating procedures; and the TC's function as a freight hauler, including commodity tonnages and composition.
Material for this thesis came from four broad source categories: (1) personal interviews with numerous TC employees, (2) the author's personal experiences and observations, (3) Tennessee Central office records, and (4) the secondary sources, which included such valuable references as the Margaret Campbell thesis and the vast amount of material found in the financial and trade publications such as Poor's, Moody's and Railroad Gazette.
The Tennessee Central Railway Company was formed on February 1, 1922, but the rail line dates back directly to several predecessor companies and indirectly to the year 1866, the year of the first attempt to connect East and Middle Tennessee by rail. The line continued in operation until August 31, 1968, at which time a lifetime of marginal operations and a more recent history of ever-increasing annual operating deficits finally forced the firm into bankruptcy and thus paved the way for the threefold division of the line among Southern, Louisville and Nashville, and the Illinois Central railroads.
As an operating unit the TC's Harriman-Hopkinsville line extended for a distance of approximately 250 miles across Middle and East Tennessee and a portion of southwestern Kentucky and in so doing crossed portions of two major physical divisions of the United States, the Appalachian Highlands and the Interior Plains. The rail line passed through 11 counties in the two-state area and through such cities as Nashville, Clarksville, and Hopkinsville. The greatest barrier to traffic movement over the TC routeway was provided by the eastern and western Cumberland Plateau escarpments and by the western escarpment of the Eastern Highland Rim. The total relief on the line was 1,630 feet--the high point of 2,028 feet above sea level was reached along the Cumberland River west of Nashville.
After 1955 the Tennessee Central became a "freight-only" line. Through service was provided by one train a day in each direction and these were supplemented by several local trains over various portions of the line. As a carrier of traffic the TC as a whole functioned primarily as a traffic terminator. The Cumberland section, on the other hand, served primarily as a traffic originator, the primary originating products being coal from Monterey and limestone products from Crab Orchard.
Although the Tennessee Central Railway Company has ceased to exist, the rail line is intact and is currently being operated by three respective new owners. It would appear that the financial strength of these three railroads may be sufficient to improve the competitive position of the Hopkinsville-Harriman line to insure that operations may continue for years to come.
Quillen, Dennis E., "A Geographic Study of the Tennessee Central Railway: An East-West Transport Route Across the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee. " Master's Thesis, University of Tennessee, 1969.