Catching up with L&N’s “Old Line”

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Wednesday, September 22, 2021

A TVRM special pauses at Reliance, Tenn., during the 2008 L&N Historical Society convention. — Ron Flanary
Collecting so-called “rare mileage” can be a frustrating hobby. I got started late in the game, inspired by my boss J. David Ingles, then the editor of Trains, who in his lifetime managed to fill his Rand McNally railroad atlases with plenty of inked-in main lines and branches. I knew I’d never catch up, but I jumped in anyway — often to his amusement.

But it’s been fun. You get what you can, when you can. Between lots of Amtrak travel, the occasional ride aboard a freight train on a story assignment, and frequent visit to tourist lines, I’ve done OK. I discovered that even the smallest little piece of railroad can be quite satisfying.

Case in point: my visit this past weekend to Cartersville, Ga., where I was the dinner speaker for the annual convention of the Louisville & Nashville Historical Society. My old friend and colleague Ron Flanary had invited me to come down and, knowing how friendly the L&N folks are, I gladly said “yes.” I had a fine time with my host, L&NHS Vice President David Orr. 

One of the highlights was an unexpected pleasure: grabbing 13 miles of the L&N’s “Old Line” between Blue Ridge, Ga., and Copperhill, Tenn., on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railroad, once part of a much longer 143-mile route linking Etowah, Tenn., with Marietta, Ga. Much of the original line was constructed north from Marietta in the 1870s as the 36-inch gauge Marietta & North Georgia. 

K4-A Pacific, built by South Louisville Shops in 1914, was typical of passenger power used on the Old Line. — L&NHS archives
The railroad is often referred to as the “Hook & Eye” because of its storied Hiwassee Loop around Bald Mountain, where the railroad crosses over itself deep in rugged back country. The 8,000-foot Loop was constructed in 1898 by a later L&N predecessor — Atlanta, Knoxville & Northern — to eliminate a series of switchbacks, ultimately enabling the railroad to gain a relatively gentle climb in elevation of 426 feet over 6 miles of track. Still, it was, as author Frank Kyper said in an extensive story in March 1997 Trains, “rugged Appalachian wilderness railroading at its best.” 

That ruggedness led L&N to make the decision in the early 1900s to build its “New Line” following river valleys between South Etowah and Cartersville. This segment, called the Etowah Subdivision, is what CSX uses today, although traffic is down considerably now that CSX’s Precision Scheduled Railroading strategy has diverted most traffic to other routes. Only two scheduled freights operate each way on the New Line, plus various dedicated-commodity trains.  

L&N FA diesels negotiate the Hiwassee Loop in 1954. — TRAINS: W.A. Akin, Jr.
Judging by the paucity of photos in the Classic Trains library, it’s apparent that the Loop’s remoteness kept most railroad photographers at bay, although Kalmbach’s W.A. “Bill” Akin, Jr., managed to get some fine images of the area for a March 1955 Trains L&N system story written by David P. Morgan. Bill’s shots of Alco FA diesels curling around Bald Mountain are definitive. 

I wasn’t able to ride the Loop on my recent visit. The northern two-thirds of the Old Line are operated by the Chattanooga-based Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum out of Etowah, which promotes a 50-mile round trip that includes the Hiwassee Loop — a trip I’ll certainly make in the future.

But the trip I did manage to take on the Blue Ridge Scenic was terrific: miles and miles of gorgeous, woodsy railroad following the meandering Toccoa River up to Copperhill. Judging by the number of million-dollar vacation homes I saw along the way, this can’t be called wilderness railroading anymore, but a seat in one of Blue Ridge’s comfortable open-air cars gives you chance to breath the fresh forest air and wave to the countless kayakers and rafters on the Toccoa. 

The Blue Ridge Scenic is a slick operation, operated as a subsidiary of the Georgia Northeastern, which provides freight service over the 82 miles of railroad between Marietta and Blue Ridge. Each scenic train runs bidirectionally, with one of GNRR’s Geeps at each end of the train for easy operation in and out of Copperhill. There, passengers have a couple of hours to stroll, have lunch, or visit the various shops that line Toccoa Avenue before heading back to Blue Ridge.  

L&N Historical Society members pose at Blue Ridge on September 18. — Bill Grady
Judging from the crowds I saw at both ends of the line — and especially at Blue Ridge — it’s pretty clear the tourist line has become a central part of the local economy, which I found to be a gratifying sight. At the end of our trip, our entire L&NHS contingent lined up for a group photo opposite Blue Ridge’s handsomely restored L&N depot. 

I recall from editing Frank Kyper’s “Hook & Eye” story in 1997 that I came away worried for the line’s future. Back then the huge copper facility at Copperhill was the only real customer of significance on the north end of the line, and its days appeared numbered. Indeed, CSX would spin off the line just four years later. 

But it all turned out well. It’s almost a miracle to think that, approximately 140 years after its creation as a narrow-gauge railroad, this brief but spectacular piece of the old L&N is not only fully functional, but, thanks to heritage railroading, also very accessible. With J.D.I.’s railroad atlas in mind, this mileage collector will be back soon to get the Loop and all the rest of the L&N’s Old Line.

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