Townsend, Tennessee is known as “the peaceful side of the Smokies,” and for good reason. As visitors drive toward this tranquil town on Highway 321, they are slowly enveloped by towering trees and embraced by the rising hills. A stay here isn’t complete without a blissful ride on the Little River or along the bicycle trails. Townsend is a world unto itself.
The people who live here know how special their town is, which is why, 33 years ago, a group of residents formed a non-profit to preserve Townsend’s heritage: The Little River Railroad and Lumber Company. Sandy Headrick, the board treasurer, explains, “The Lumber Company really started Townsend.”
Visitors to the museum learn how this area was brought into the industrial age by the efforts of a man named General Townsend. At the turn of the 20th century, Townsend was invited to open a lumber company here by the operators of a tannery in Walland. The two businesses benefitted from each other’s presence, but soon Townsend exhausted the supply of easily-obtained lumber. It became necessary to construct a railroad into the mountains to acquire more, and thus the Little River Railroad came to be.
Townsend was a well-loved entrepreneur. He provided area residents with their first steady paycheck. The Little River Lumber Company offered employee housing, ensured education and church for its families, and formed sports teams for recreation. Townsend even initiated a workers’ comp program, which was extremely novel at the time. When it came time to establish the national park, he was the first to sell his land for the cause.
This heritage and more is on exhibit in the museum, which is housed in the building that was once the Walland Depot–the original depot for the Little River Railroad. Most tourists visiting the museum come for the history, but the Little River Railroad and Lumber Company also has a following of train enthusiasts.
Dave Ezell, grandson of a former LRR postmaster and museum volunteer, highlights that one of the museum’s major attractions is its Shay engine locomotive. This train model is notable for its ability to pull heavy loads up the mountain and because there are so few left.
Interestingly, the Little River Railroad was arguably the beginning of tourism in Townsend, and now the museum continues the tradition. In the 1900s, affluent families from Knoxville would ride a train into Walland, then transfer to the Little River Railroad to make their way to the national park. The museum displays photographs of men and women wearing suits, white dresses, and hats for the holiday, despite the fact that they would get covered in soot.
Fortunately, no one has to dress up to visit the Little River Railroad and Lumber Company museum. Admission is always free; the museum operates solely on donations and souvenir sales. Hours are seasonal and can be found on the non-profit’s website.
By Mallory Leonard
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