A Local Story of Names & Trains
by Lacey Eibert Keigley
Is it any surprise that Travelers Rest is bursting with creative and interesting people?
Is it any surprise that the stories of the people you meet over coffee or sandwiches, on the trail or in the shops, are full of twists and turns and note worthy tales?
Well, of course we aren’t surprised at all!
Those stories, those people, those chance encounters, are entirely and precisely why this website exists.
These are the stories of Travelers Rest — past, present and future.
One of the faces you are certain to see around town if you hang out in TR long enough will surely be the face of one of those creative and interesting people we are talking about. Tim Davis is a local author, illustrator and educator. His office seems to be entirely mobile and it’s possible that he has coffee running through his veins. Tim’s work has been featured frequently in the popular children’s magazine Highlights and he often partners with TR Makers on Main Street.
He’s also helped establish the Swamp Rabbit Tales, a gathering of charming stories of local legends and lore.
Today we are thrilled to have Tim Davis share a story with us, along with a link to a radio interview that will help tell the whole story.
Happy reading, and listening, friends.
Written by Tim Davis
Photos submitted by Tim Davis
With a name like the Greenville-Knoxville-Western Railway, you might expect that the trains ran from Greenville to Knoxville, and then west. In fact, the railway that made its start in Greenville barely made it past Travelers Rest into Marietta. Never made it to Knoxville. Basically ran north and south, not west. But it wasn’t for lack of trying!
The original company had an ambitious plan—to transport Greenville’s milled goods into Tennessee and on to the West. However, the Blue Ridge Mountains presented a rather difficult challenge. Just north of Travelers Rest, a hill known as Hart’s Grade, was too steep for a train to climb. So engineers, led by a Captain Kirk, began using dynamite to blast their way through the rock. But the granite didn’t move easily. Eventually they made the grade, but the railway company had spent so much money on blasting, that they went bankrupt. Investors in the railway demanded to recoup some of the losses. The only way to get any money back was to take up the steel rails that had already been laid, and sell them for scrap metal.
Despite its short run, the people along the railway from Greenville through Travelers Rest were angry—they wanted their railroad back! Sure, it was rough enough to shake buttermilk and churn it into butter. And yes, its schedule was undependable, but at least you could hitch a ride on it sometimes—even if just to go fishing.
After a series of other attempts to make a go of it, another company, calling itself the Greenville-Northern Railway, relaid the tracks and started service again. The tracks ended at River Falls. It was decided that building a bridge over the water would be too expensive. This company wasn’t going to make the same mistake as the Greenville-Knoxville-Western Company did! It just made a loop to turn the train around.
The new railroad continued a sort of taxi service between Greenville and Travelers Rest for a while. It was very popular with folks from Greenville in the summer months, especially with a big picnic held annually at the Spring Park Inn on the Fourth of July. The track was still rough, and the train’s schedule was still undependable. The cow-catcher in front even fell off. But people in the area loved their train. Ignoring all the various official names it had, folks gave it the nickname—the Swamp Rabbit railway!
With improved roads and better cars, the railroads became less popular. Another Swamp Rabbit train was featured at Echo mountain—a sort of early theme park. It was painted bright colors, and provided joy rides for families. That train is the subject of the mural on the outside wall at Whistlestop at the American Cafe.
Just a few years ago, the old rails were torn up again—this time not to recoup investors losses, but for a whole new project—turning rails into trails—trails for walking and biking.
The new Swamp Rabbit Trail has rejuvenated the recreational traffic going from Greenville to Travelers Rest and back. TR is now a place to rest again—but mostly for tired cyclists taking trips up to the mountains. The trail is eventually planned to make it up into those mountains—even into North Carolina. Who knows? Maybe they’ll finally make it all the way to Knoxville—and beyond!
Listen to Tim’s radio interview here.