The L & N Depot and History of Etowah
In 1902, the Louisville & Nashville (L&N) Railroad announced its plan to build a direct rail line from Atlanta to Cincinnati that would bypass the rugged mountain route that was built in 1890 to link Knoxville to Atlanta. The 1890 route came through the future site of Etowah, but about three miles south turned east into the Hiwassee River Gorge and the mountains of Southeast Tennessee and Northeast Georgia. The new line, completed in 1906, was built on flatter terrain, and bypassed the 1890 line. The L&N continued to operate trains on the mountain railroad to serve the copper mines, marble quarries, and other mountain industries, but the new line was the preferred route for other freight.
At a point where the old and new rail lines converged, the L&N built a large railroad facility and laid out a township. Tellico Junction (now Englewood) was the preferred site for the new town and railroad center, but Englewood leaders were opposed. Wetmore was the second choice, but the landowners there declined to sell. That left the L&N with a less than desirable building site along Cane Creek that included the challenge of a wetland. But twelve landowners in what was then called Stumptown agreed to sell the required acreage.
Once the property was acquired, the L&N set about building impressive rail center and planned community. L&N civil engineers designed a canal to drain the streams that fed Cane Creek, a dam to provide adequate water for the railroad’s needs, a rail yard, car repair shops, YMCA, section houses, office buildings, and the L&N Depot. The L&N Depot, built to serve as a passenger station and headquarters for the L&N’s Atlanta Division, quickly became the hub of the new town that was named “Etowah.”
The L&N sold off lots across Tennessee Avenue from the rail center for businesses and private homes. People poured into Etowah from everywhere to work for the L&N or open businesses. The young town sprang up almost overnight, becoming a boom town in every sense.
Etowah continued to thrive through much of the 1920’s, but the L&N’s gradual conversion from wooden box cars to steel eventually made the Etowah car shops obsolete. As a result, the L&N opted to build steel cars and other rolling stock in Louisville, Nashville, and Knoxville. The L&N shops, that once employed 2,000, quickly shrank to 80. The Depression dealt a second blow to the L&N and Etowah, and in 1931, the L&N, in an effort to cut costs, reduced the number of division headquarters by one half. The Atlanta and Knoxville divisions were consolidated and the headquarters offices and personnel moved to Knoxville.
By the end of the Great Depression, Etowah leaders realized the town must diversify in order to survive. Efforts got underway to recruit new industries, resulting in several new factories and other economic ventures. Today, a number of industries provide jobs for Etowah citizens.
In the late 1970’s, as the L&N continued to streamline its operations in Etowah, the Depot, once described as “the finest passenger station between Knoxville and Atlanta,” was abandoned in favor of a smaller concrete building a few hundred yards north. Etowah citizens rallied and the City of Etowah purchased the Depot and grounds in 1978. An ambitious restoration project was undertaken and the Etowah Depot returned to its former glory. Today, the Depot stands as a symbol of Etowah’s birth and it remains the community’s favorite gathering place. The L&N Railroad is now owned by CSX and continues to maintain a crew-change point in Etowah. While much has changed, much has remained the same. It’s not unusual to encounter trainmen and locomotive engineers with the same last names as those who came to Etowah in 1906.
The City of Etowah has preserved many of its historic buildings that date to the town’s founding. In addition to the Depot, the City also owns and maintains the Gem Theater, Carnegie Library, and Loyd Campbell Scout Lodge. Newcomers sometimes ask why a small town would take on the responsibility of caring for four large historic buildings. Longtime residents suggest that Etowah’s beginnings as a planned community explain it. The L&N designed Etowah to provide a good quality of life and that tradition continues today.
Written by Linda Caldwell 2018