Explore Middle Tennessee's Railroad History
Visit any town in Tennessee, and you'll find that the railroad has been a vital part in its development. The same is true for Cowan in Franklin County—and you can learn all about this history at the Cowan Railroad Museum.
Photo: Cowan Railroad Museum
The town’s railroad history dates back to the construction of the Cumberland Mountain Tunnel through the mountain two miles southeast of Cowan. The community saw the tunnel’s completion in 1852, and then the railroad reached Cowan from Nashville. Built in 1904, the Cowan Railroad Depot handled passengers traveling to Nashville and Chattanooga.
Not only did the wood-frame depot play a critical role in railroad history and transporting passengers, but the building itself experienced transportation when the depot was moved across the tracks in 1976.
Today, the depot houses the museum’s collections, depicting railroad history. The museum exhibits about 1,000 railroad artifacts, including displays of costumes, photographs, tools, documents, old maps and railroad books. At the gift shop, guests will find engineer caps, T-shirts, stickers, buttons, collectible railroad patches and books.
Railroad history fascinates children and adults alike, making it a great visitor activity for those passing through. Jarod Pearson, president of Cowan Railroad Museum, has been involved with the museum for 32 years, initially starting out as a tour guide-in-training at the age of 14.
Pearson invites guests to enjoy “a beautiful collection of exhibits and relics that tell an amazing story.” He loves seeing the positive impact railroad history has on locals and visitors.
“The South Cumberland region has an amazing railroad and industrial history that we seek to preserve and share,” Pearson says. “The beautiful depot and the antique rolling stock are real traffic stoppers. When visitors stop, we then get to tell them some amazing stories and show them antiques and relics they have never seen before. The museum's impact is felt even further when visitors stay in Cowan longer and visit our restaurants and specialty shops. The work we do as tour guides and board members is fulfilling. We love what we do.”
Visit the Cowan Railroad Museum to see the wood-frame depot, steam locomotive, flat car, caboose, diesel and Fairmont motor cars and "learn something new while connecting with one of the most beautiful areas in all of Tennessee,” according to Pearson. “The scenery is great, and stories of years gone by are even better.”
Plan your visit to Cowan Railroad Museum
Cowan Railroad Museum is open from May through October. Hours of operation are 10am to 4pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and 1 to 4pm on Sunday. The grounds and surrounding railroad park can be visited throughout the year.
Explore Franklin County
Pearson also encourages visitors to check out Falls Mill in nearby Belvidere where the historic site tells the story of the textile and grain processing industry. Visit Winchester’s downtown to explore more history, arts and dining in Franklin County.
Railroad history in Middle Tennessee
The Cowan Railroad Museum is just one of the destinations revealing Middle Tennessee's railroad history.
“While you’re in Middle Tennessee, enjoy other railroad history destinations. The Grundy County History Museum in Tracy City has excellent exhibits that show the impact of the railroad on the area's history and culture," Pearson shares. "We also encourage our visitors to take the scenic drive to Bridgeport, Ala. where their historic depot is preserved as a museum as well.”
Another railroad history destination is Tullahoma, just 30 minutes from Cowan. Visit the History Park along the railroad tracks, where the original Tullahoma depot sat until World War II. The railroad has been key in the development of Tullahoma, and the city’s location between Nashville and Chattanooga made Tullahoma an important railroad terminal. The History Park boasts a 1964 L&N caboose.
Wartrace also attracts railroad fans. Railroad development helped establish the town, which became known as Wartrace Depot when Tennessee's first railroad was built through Bedford County in 1852. Nearby in Bell Buckle, Tennessee Valley Model Railroad Train Club invites visitors to check out its 2,000 square feet of model trains, located in the back of 1852 Antiques on Main Street.
For more railroad history in Tennessee, head to Lynnville to see the Railroad Museum in Giles County. Tour the Railroad Museum and enjoy scale model trains, display of 1927 Baldwin steam locomotive, Pullman passenger coach, flatcar and caboose.