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A train rolls through a high mountain pass, depicting the rough terrain that made trains so valuable to residents who had little access to roads or vehicles.
Photo by Matthew Hundley

Originally published: 2013-01-18 11:23:41
Last modified: 2013-01-18 11:23:41

History on a different scale

Matthew Hundley / (

By combining their enthusiasm for local history and the hobby of modeling railroads, a group of gentlemen in Spruce Pine are in the process of transforming a room of Spruce Pine Public Library into an unprecedented historical special collection that features, as its centerpiece, a model of the Clinchfield Railroad, complete with scaled models of the line’s most notable stops, including Spruce Pine itself and the mysterious Lost Cove village.
The group, called Toe River Model Railroaders, has endeavored to feature models of the Clinchfield line’s landmarks during its last years as a passenger line in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Two club members, Warren Harding and Charles Rose, explained the ongoing project.
According to the two local historians, the Clinchfield line, which can still be seen passing through Spruce Pine each day, served as a link to the outside world for many rural communities in Mitchell and Yancey counties since it added passenger service in the area, beginning with Spruce Pine in August 1903. The importance of the Clinchfield line to local communities is, perhaps, best demonstrated by the example of Lost Cove, an extremely isolated community in Yancey County close to the Tennessee line – close enough that when residents were arrested for moonshining, they could often avoid a trial by conveniently claiming another jurisdiction. According to historical records and first-hand accounts, Lost Cove was cut off entirely from the outside world with the exception of the railroad, which not only provided residents with a means to leave and return to the small village, but also provided a means to sell their apple brandy, lumber and other goods, which would not otherwise have been exported from the mountain-locked settlement.
Documents, photographs and artifacts surround the walls around the modeled village, providing details on life in the secluded village and serving as an example of why the club’s endeavor is more than just another model train. As a special collection, the project provides a wealth of historical data on the towns that rested along the Clinchfield’s route.
While much of the modeling remains to be completed, the Lost Cove section of the route gives a glimpse at the depth of detail and commitment that the Toe River Model Railroaders have toward their subject matter.
Each of the miniature buildings in the scaled down village of Lost Cove is based on period photographs that recorded life in the community. From the schoolhouse to the apple orchard to stills hidden in the trees, the details are derived from known facts and rare images depicting the now-abandoned village.
What’s more, the relevance of each of the town’s features is thoroughly illuminated thanks to visually referenced informational cards hanging at the base of the track, making it easy to learn about any given one of the models’ many details.
Eventually, Harding and Rose explained, the model will encompass most of the major stops along the route, and have similarly detailed information about life at the time when the railroad provided one of the only links to the world outside of the mountains.
Proof of the railroad’s importance to the mountain communities lies in the fact that Lost Cove was abandoned only a few short years after the Clinchfield line ended its passenger service in 1955, effectively eliminating residents’ ability to travel to and from their homes.
When asked how long it would take the group to complete the model and the collection, Harding replied that the group did not expect to ever fully complete the project, as they would continue to add information and model additional details as long as new information about the railroad and its communities continues to surface.
In addition to establishing and developing the Clinchfield Railroad special collection, the Toe River Model Railroaders engage the community other ways. Each year, group members go into Mitchell County Schools to work with youth ages 8 to 17 and introduce them to the hobby of modeling railroads. The members guide students through the process of creating the scenes that give the trains their appropriate context. Usually the work of several students can be joined together at the end of each workshop so that the students’ combined efforts creates a complete model layout based on their local communities and landscapes.
Additionally, Harding noted, the Toe River Model Railroaders are always available and willing to provide their expertise to anyone interested in pursuing railroad modeling as a hobby, whether for their own enjoyment or as a project for their children or grandchildren.
“We are available to help people who want to get into model railroading; such as grandparents who want to connect with their grandkids, but don’t know how to use the computer,” Harding said.
In fact, the special collection at Spruce Pine Public Library includes a display of new and antique model trains in their various standard sizes, so visiting the collection is a great one-stop source for enthusiasts to learn about modeling, see a massive model in the making, learn about local history and come to appreciate the crucial role that the railroad did play and still plays in the lives of the residents in the communities it serves.
The Toe River Model Railroaders Clinchfield Railroad layout is available for viewing from 2 to 5 p.m. each Wednesday, along with club members to answer questions. The special collection is also open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the third Saturday of each month, which makes this coming Saturday, Jan. 19, the earliest opportunity to go have a look.
For more information on the Toe River Model Railroaders, the Clinchfield Railroad model or railroad modeling for any age, call Harding at (828) 688-1922.