Tweetsie Railroad engine
The Tweetsie Railroad Park preserves the regional history of the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad (ET&WNC). “Tweetsie” was the name given by local residents to the train because of its shrill “tweet-tweet” whistle that echoed through the mountains in its heyday.
A smartly dressed Tweetsie Railroad conductor doffs his hat to the ladies waiting in line. Friendly cowboys help visitors on board passenger trains standing ready to start their journey. Steam hisses from the historic No. 12 locomotive, leaving the acrid scent of coal, a mist of nostalgia from railroad’s Golden Age curling up into the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains.
Since 1957, the Tweetsie Railroad theme park has been a major Appalachian attraction for generations who love a time-honored mode of transportation. Located between Boone and Blowing Rock, the park opens in May and runs through the first of November.
This year’s special events include the Fun Festival (July 17-19) with Bob the Builder, Angelina Ballerina and Barney the Dinosaur; K-9s in Flight Frisbee Dogs (Aug. 1-9); the Grammy Award-winning singing cowboy quartet Riders in the Sky (Aug. 15-16); Railfan Weekend (Sept. 12-13); and the Ghost Train Halloween Festival (Fridays and Saturday nights in October).
Beyond the attractions of amusement park rides, an antique photography studio, and a train hobby store, the Tweetsie Railroad Park also preserves the regional history of the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad (ET&WNC). “Tweetsie” was the name given by local residents to the train because of its shrill “tweet-tweet” whistle that echoed through the mountains in its heyday. Due to flooding and decreasing freight and passenger business, the ET&WNC line closed this narrow-gauge rail service in 1950.
After the railroad line’s closure, faithful No. 12, the last remaining ET&WNC coal-fired steam engine, was moved to Harrisonburg, Va., to be used for the Shenandoah Central Railroad. After that tourist attraction closed, movie-star cowboy Gene Autry purchased the locomotive and planned to ship it to California for use in the film industry, but Grover Robbins Jr., a Blowing Rock native, had another plan. Robbins saw the historic value of the old iron horse. In 1956, he convinced Autry to sell him the option to buy No. 12 for $1, and Robbins brought the train back home to the North Carolina hills.
No. 12 was meticulously restored to her former grandeur at the Hickory repair shops of the Carolina & Northwestern Railway Company and moved up the mountain to a location near Blowing Rock. After opening in 1957 as an excursion train, Tweetsie Railroad grew and expanded into North Carolina’s first theme park. In 1960, the park purchased Engine No. 190, also known as the “Yukon Queen,” to help assist No. 12 in pulling Tweetsie passenger cars. The Yukon Queen had been used in Alaska during World War II by the U.S. Army and then by the White Pass & Yukon Railroad.
Today the park is only a few miles from the former ET&WNC depot station in Boone. The railroad line has grown from a one-mile loop ride for passengers to a three-mile loop surrounding a western town and amusement park.
In 2007, Tweetsie’s future seemed at risk, and park officials were almost forced to find a new home for the train. Many fans were upset to think about Tweetsie moving to another location, or worse yet, closing. However, local governments, numerous property owners along the right-of-way of the train’s tracks, and community citizens provided the support needed to keep it in the High Country.
Tweetsie’s draw is based on that universal fascination with trains, as well as some inventive programming that incorporates many events designed to appeal to wider audiences. With live entertainment, amusement rides, the Deer Park Zoo, concerts and special events, the theme park continues to attract thousands of visitors each year to hear that famous Tweetsie whistle. Shops at the park include a gem mine, a mercantile store, a toy shop, and an antique photo parlor.
“Part of our unique attraction,” explains Tweetsie marketing director Cathy Robbins, “is that few coal-fired steam locomotives are still running in the U.S., and here we have a rare opportunity to ride one.”
It’s unique to any tourist facility when grandparents can bring their grandchildren to the park and share their excitement about when they first heard the shrill whistle and rode the train.
The park also operates a railroad restoration and repair shop where steam locomotives belonging to collectors, parks and museums can be repaired. Much of this happens during the winter months when the theme park is closed to the public.
Enjoy a gentle swinging chair lift up to the top of the park and admire the Blue Ridge Mountains. Challenge yourself on rides such as “Freefall,” or relax with a sweet treat on the three-mile Tweetsie train ride. After more than half a century, the Tweetsie Railroad still lives up to its promise as a fun vacation destination with a treasured glimpse into the past.
U.S. Highway 321 between Boone and Blowing Rock, NC. 800.526.5740 or 828.264.9061 • www.tweetsie.com