CSX at 40: A visit to Cowan, Tenn., where helpers still rule

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Tuesday, August 25, 2020

We put together a special issue called CSX at 40 to mark the four decades of this Eastern giant. In editing that special issue (available here, I kept looking at one great image after another in the stories about CSX’s vaunted triangle – the Chicago-Florida, Florida-New England, New England-Chicago corridors that the railroad considers its core franchise.


Scott Hartley wrote about the I-95 corridor along the Atlantic seaboard. I know it well, having lived in North Carolina most of my life. For a year in the mid-1980s, I was in Fayetteville, N.C., where I got to witness the CSX A-Line – the former Atlantic Coast Line main – in all of its glory. Bill Stephens put together our report on the I-90 corridor, basically the New York Central’s Water Level Route plus the B&O from mid-Ohio west. I’ve come to know portions of that and had the honor of riding the West Shore of the Hudson River line in 1985. But it was the Southeastern Corridor that Kevin Keefe wrote about that got me. Especially of interest was a hole in my exploration of North America’s railroads: the grade at Cowan Mountain, Tenn. Located on CSX’s former Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis main line about 70 miles southeast of Nashville, it’s a significant grade that requires manned pushers to this day.


On a recent trip back home to N.C., my wife, Cate, and I made a detour on our route to do a quick windshield tour of the line. We were blessed with the passage of a southbound coal train at Stephenson, Ala., basically the bottom of the Cowan grade on the east side.  From there, we took backroads to parallel the tracks through beautiful countryside and stiff grades. We stopped at Cowan to inspect the depot museum and the rolling stock outside: A 2-4-2 steam locomotive and a GE 44-tonner of NC&StL pedigree.


While we there, we watched a southbound coal train pick up manned helpers and highball out of town. They made a run for the hill. Cowan is still a formidable challenger.


I am glad to finally see a little of Cowan grade. I hope to return in the winter sometime when leaves aren’t hiding so much of the main line. Here’s wishing good luck to the train crews on this demanding piece of railroad. Keep that slack bunched!



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