Railroad museum offers a glimpse into a slower time

Douglas Fritz • Jan 13, 2019 at 3:30 AM

It’s a trip to the past, when the world moved at the speed of trains.

The George L. Carter Museum is a standing honor for the man who helped build the Clinchfield Railroad through hundreds of miles of mountainous Northeast Tennessee terrain. The railroad’s purpose was to carry coal from Eastern Kentucky to the Carolinas.

But Carter’s impact wasn’t reduced to train tracks. In 1909, when Tennessee was searching for a site for a proposed teacher’s college, Carter offered his 120-acre farm for the established of a school. It later became East Tennessee State University.

Carter was a big part of helping this region grow as the railroad provided an influx of business opportunities for a previously secluded area. The main line for the Clinchfield Railroad worked its way through downtown Johnson City, moving along what is now State of Franklin Road.

The museum celebrates such things as the equipment that once ran on the Clinchfield, including the Challenger-design steam engines and diesels. In addition to the displays, there is a research library and an oral history archive.

Fred Alsop, the George L. Carter director, started the museum on the ETSU campus a decade ago. He said the museum and Big Train Show allow him to hone in on one of his personal childhood passions — model trains.

“My love of trains comes from when I was big enough to know what a train was, and seeing the prototypes running behind my grandmother’s home when I was growing up,” said Alsop, who is also a professor in the ETSU Department of Biological Sciences. “I spent most of my career here trying to be known as an ornithologist, and I’m now known as the ‘train guy.’ ”

Alsop’s attendance expectation for 2018 was 3,000 visitors.

“Johnson City is a train-oriented town, and we’ve become a nice outlet for people who are interested in model railroading,” Alsop said.

The museum is located in the Campus Center Building at ETSU, and is open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. There are model railroad layouts, a children’s activity room, and ongoing programs. There is no charge for admission, but donations are welcome.

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