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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains(tm)

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History of the Little River Railroad and Lumber Company

In the late nineteenth century, you could start a "railroad company" by getting financing and getting a government bureaucrat to rubber-stamp a permit. Hundreds, if not thousands of railroads existed only on paper. Nearly as many never got from "point A" to "point B" of their original business plan before the initial investments gave out.

In this early photograph a Shay is seen pulling a crane and several log cars across a wooden trestle. Click to see the photo on the museum's web site.However the founders of the Little River Railroad and Little River Lumber Company had a business plan that would really work. Buy as much forested land as they could afford, build a railroad to serve the industries and resorts that were already there, as well as the logging camps and other communities that would spring up, then make another killing by selling the land in parcels when they were done with it. W.B. Townsend, the central figure in this enterprise, had already run a successful lumber business in Pennsylvania. The business was started in earnest in 1901 with the founding of two companies that were managed out of the same office: The Little River Lumber Company and little River Railroad. Soon the lumber company owned almost 80,000 acres in what is now the Smoky Mountain National Forest.

Click to see more construction photos on the museum web site.Construction - From the start, Townsend defied "common logic" when it came to building his railroad. Most logging railroads were built using narrow gauge track (rails were typically 36" or less apart). Narrow gauge railroads were cheaper to build and operate. However Townsend knew that most of consumers of his products were served by standard gauge railroads such as the L&N and the K&A. Those railroads laid their rails 4'8.5" apart, what we call "standard gauge." By building a standard gauge railroad, Townsend saved all the time and expense of transferring his products from one car to another for shipment across the state or across the country. This also allowed L&N passenger cars to run on Townsend's railroad, which became a source of revenue as the tourists began coming.

On the other hand, construction methods used on most of the railroad resembled narrow gauge industrial practices rather than standard gauge common carrier practice. Some trackage near the logging camps was laid right on the ground, and curves were so tight that the Little River Railroad had to order custom-designed locomotives to pull their trains. Even with such shortcuts, it is estimated that each mile of track through the rugged terrain of the Smokies still cost nearly fifteen times as much as what it cost to build similar railroads elsewhere.

Clearcutting - In those days, the "industry standard" for logging companies was to cut down everything useful, and not worry about preserving anything that wasn't. Yes, this approach seems brutal by modern standards, but most of Tennessee, including land adjacent to Townsend's holdings had already been clearcut for other reasons, especially to make room for farms and houses (and eventually strip malls). Unlike those uses of the land, Townsend's purchase actually paved the way for a conservation effort that might never have come about otherwise.

Settlements - Several "company towns" were established for the families of the workers. The company not only built "company stores" but also schools and churches. Townsend hired teachers for the one-room frame schoolhouses, and even both Methodist and Baptist ministers for the churches (nearly every family in that part of the country was one or the other).

These 'mobile' homes were moved from one logging camp to another for worker housing. Click to see a slightly larger photo.Some of the most temporary settlements were made up of "setoff houses," wooden cubes that could be moved by train. The museum has salvaged one, which they hope to restore to its early-20th-century appearance.

Moving Logs From the Farthest Reaches - The Little River Railroad could move logs throughout much of the company's land, but some valleys were simply unreachable by rail.

  • Splash Dams - Before the company reached the mountains, other loggers had tried a technique that had worked elsewhere - damming up a stream, hauling logs to the streambed, then breaching the dam. In theory the flood should take the logs downstream. In the Smokies, though, the terrain was so rough that the logs snagged every which way.

  • A skidder on the Little River Railroad.  Skidders would use steam power to drag cut logs across the mountains to the train where they would be loaded.  Dangers from the log snagging, then tearing loose like a catapult were immense. Sorry for the small picture, but the museum has removed the larger version of this photo from its web site.Skidders - The Little River Logging Company applied steam power to the problem, developing the steam-powered "skidder." A system of cables and pulleys was built between two points. At first one end of each log would be attached to the mechanism, then the skidders would literally drag it across the hills and valleys. This solution was more effective than the splash dams, but logs still snagged, and when they did, dangerous accidents could result. Although this method wasn't used for long, you can still see scars left by "drag" skidding in some valleys that have otherwise regained an "untouched" appearance.

  • Overhead skidders were complex to set up but safer and less destructive to the landscape. Our apologies, but the museum has removed the larger photo from their web page.Overhead Skidders - Soon, the company started using a system in which the log was lifted completely off the ground and carried by cables and pulleys during the whole of its journey. This was safer, more reliable, and much less damaging to the hillsides.

  • Hanging Bridge - The most unusual method used for moving logs across A hanging bridge on the Little River Railroad.  Sorry, but the museum has taken the original photo off their web page. difficult terrain was probably a hanging bridge that stretched across an otherwise impassible valley. No locomotives were run across the bridge, but loaded log cars would be attached to a cable, then eased across with the help of a steam-powered skidder. If you put one of these on a model railroad, people would swear you were making it up.

Tourism - The Little River Railroad provided access to parts of the Smokies where virtually no one had ever been. In addition, natural springs were considered a source of healing, so several resorts sprang The Little River Railroad opened up the region's most spectacular scenery to anyone who could afford a train ticket. Click to see a slightly larger version of this photo.up as well, including Kinzel Springs, Sunshine, and Elkmont. Between 1909 and 1926, tourism and logging coexisted uneasily over much of the railroad's trackage, and over much of the track that was technically owned by the logging company. For business reasons, Townsend dismantled the logging company's rail line to Elkmont in 1926. But by then, the Smokies had a reputation as a tourist destination, and people continued to come by automobile where they could no longer travel by train.

As more and more people saw the Smokies, the more people were convinced that something should be done to preserve them. By the 1920s a movement had started to establish in a national park.

The Park Movement Grows - In 1924, prominent local businessmen and others created the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association. One obstacle to their success was the fact that there were thousands of separate landowners, and few were interested in selling enough land to make a difference in the Association's efforts.

The dream of a national park came closer to reality in 1924 when Governor Austin Peay worked out a compromise - Townsend sold the State of Tennessee and the City of Knoxville options on his land, while retaining the right to log it for fifteen more years. This move guaranteed the park movement nearly 80,000 contiguous acres and proved to conservationists nationwide that the project had a chance.

Winding Down - By the late 1930s, most of of the trees had been removed from the Little River Logging Company's acreage. In addition, one of the key industries that the railroad served, Fisher's tannery, burnt down in 1931 and was not rebuilt. The logging camps and company towns were becoming more like ghost towns, although several of the resorts were still doing good business.

By 1939, the infrastructure of the logging company was already being dismantled. A few logs were saved to be processed in a "closing ceremony," then the mill was shut down. Although some of the resorts were still in business, reduced tourism during World War II closed several of them soon after.

Dismantling the Railroad - Once control of the land was turned over to park managment, the remaining railroad infrastructure was dismantled along with the industries and towns it had served. Ironically, this happened at a time when historical railroads in the West were being featured in movies, preserved as tourist lines, and attracting floods of visitors. In Tennessee, the railroad was apparently too closely associated in people's minds with the logging industry it had been built to serve. So it seemed that the spunky little railroad that first brought national attention and large-scale tourism to the Smokies could not be eradicated soon enough.

These efforts have made it difficult for the Little River Railroad and Lumber Company museum to collect artifacts, because so much was destroyed out of hand. Fortunately, the museum has been able to collect many photographs from private owners.

In case you wondered, the clearcut regions of the Smokies have recovered their natural appearance, although the tulip and hemlock trees that now cover that land are not the same kinds of trees that were logged out. Overall, the greater design of the conservation efforts is coming to fruition. Still, I can't help wishing I could park my car at Pigeon Forge and take a train almost anywhere I wanted to go in the Smokies, like I could have a century ago. Especially with gas prices and traffic through Gatlinburg being what they are today.

Return to the Little River Railroad index page.

Links for More Little River Railroad Information

The Museum's Home page:

'Last Train To Elkmont' - describes the people who built, worked on, and were served by the Little River Railroad. Click here see this book on the museum's internet bookstore.

'Whistle Over the Mountain' - the best available reference on the Little River Railroad, includes maps to places you can still see traces of its infrastructure.  Click here to see this book on the museum's internet bookstore.

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