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‘I Hear the Train A’Coming’ at Tweetsie Railroad
By Tom Adkinson

tweetsie railroad locomotive
Locomotive No. 12 is the only surviving engine from the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad, which operated from 1882-1950. Image by Tom Adkinson.

BLOWING ROCK, NC – Take your pick of major anniversaries to celebrate at Tweetsie Railroad, the folksy Western-themed tourist attraction that is a family vacation mainstay in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

This is the 60th anniversary year of the theme park itself, and perhaps more notably, it is the 100th birthday of its biggest attraction — locomotive No. 12, the only surviving locomotive from the real-life East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad that stopped chugging through the mountains in 1950.

Describing locomotive No. 12 as the park’s biggest attraction is literal. It may be a narrow-gauge locomotive, but it’s still hefty and powerful. It rolled out of the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia in 1917 measuring 54 feet long and weighing 60 tons.

Cowboys in North Carolina? Why, sure, since they are characters in the comedic train robbery skit at Tweetsie Railroad. Image by Tom Adkinson.

No. 12 and a younger companion locomotive also built at Baldwin in 1943 carry passengers in open-air coaches on a three-mile loop through the hills and hollows multiple times a day. You can ride as many times as you like, watching the scenery go by and laughing along with a very campy show featuring cowboys, train robbers, Indians and frontier soldiers.

“How campy is campy? It’s fun enough for the kids on the train to shout out warnings to the good guys when the train robbers are sneaking up on them and tongue-in-cheek enough for the adults to snicker good naturedly, such as when the train robbers introduce themselves as Texas Pete, Tabasco, Picante and Cayenne – the Hot Sauce Gang.

The main visitor portion of Tweetsie Railroad covers 200 acres and is a memory machine for families. Every child needs his or her picture taken in the saddle of a whirling carousel horse, and every grandparent needs to hold tightly to a grandchild as they glide up a ridge in an open-air chairlift.

tweetsie carousel
Tweetsie Railroad’s 14 rides, including this classic carousel, have been memory makers for families for 60 years. Image by Tom Adkinson.

There are 14 very child-friendly rides, six shows (one that features some high-kicking mountain clogging and pays tribute to neighboring Tennessee by featuring “Rocky Top” as the finale dance number) and multiple places to buy pizza, burritos, barbecue sandwiches, salads, ice cream and more. At the highest point in the park is a place for the children to feed goats, deer and other animals.

Tweetsie Railroad’s origin is a true tale of the mountains. The East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad began running out of Johnson City, Tenn., in 1882, and track was extended to Boone, N.C., in 1919. It hauled timber out of the mountains and eventually carried passengers.

Modern highways doomed profitable rail service, and the ET&WNC went the way of most narrow-gauge mountain lines – into the history books. No. 12 was sold to railroad enthusiasts in Harrisonburg, Va., but their plans got derailed. No. 12’s next owner was cowboy movie star Gene Autry, who intended to ship it to California for use in movies.

tweetsie train
Tweetsie Railroad’s 14 rides, including this classic carousel, have been memory makers for families for 60 years. Image by Tom Adkinson.

That idea didn’t materialize, and Blowing Rock native Grover Robbins Jr. bought the purchase rights to No. 12 from Autry in 1956 and opened the Tweetsie Railroad attraction in 1957. That grew into North Carolina’s first theme park.

Today, Scott McLeod is the proud protector of No. 12 as the head of the Tweetsie Railroad train shop. He and a crew of dedicated trainmen keep No. 12 and its companion, No. 190, in top operating condition, and their shop assists owners of other steam locomotives across the U.S. with parts and repairs.

“Every day I’ve been around No. 12, I’ve wished it could talk and tell me stories about the people who have been on it over the past century. With proper care, No. 12 will run indefinitely,” McLeod said.

The family audiences that visit the Tweetsie Railroad are counting on that.

tweetsie feeding time
After riding a breezy chairlift to Tweetsie Railroad’s highest point, youngsters get to see and feed a variety of animals. Image by Tom Adkinson.

Tweetsie Railroad is open weekends in spring and autumn and daily in summer, and it will have its first Tweetsie Christmas season this year on Friday and Saturday evenings from Nov. 24-Dec. 30. Tweetsie Railroad is a member of Southern Highlands Attractions, a collection of 20 classic tourist attractions, including See Rock City, Luray Caverns, and the Barter Theatre.

Trip-planning resources:, and

Published August 4, 2017

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