Before the Little River Railroad & Lumber Company
For many years, Native Americans and pioneers depended on the Little River and its surrounding forests to survive. After the Cherokee were forcefully removed in the 1830’s, the upper region of the Little River was inhabited by self-sufficient farmers. Later, the forests of the Smokies attracted logging companies such as the Little River Railroad & Lumber Company to the area.
The Little River Railroad & Lumber Company
In 1901, W.B. Townsend and a group of investors chartered the Little River Lumber Company and the Little River Railroad. They purchased nearly 100,00 acres of timberland along the Little River and its tributaries. After it was founded, the Little River Railroad & Lumber Company grew to be one of the largest commercial logging operations in southern Appalachia. Over its roughly 38 years of operation, the company built 150 miles of railroads and sawed 560 million board feet of timber.
The Little River Railroad & Lumber Company led to the expansion of nearby towns and influx of people to the area. Log camps, such as Elkmont and Tremont, served as homes for workers and their families. These families lived in early mobile homes known as “set off houses.” These structures were built in town and then “set off” on flatcars along the railroad tracks. The houses were then grouped together in rows known as “string towns.”
Townsend, named after the the founder and president of the Little River Railroad & Lumber Company, formed as a result of the new industrialization in the area. After the Little River Railroad & Lumber Company opened access to the area, the tourism industry increased as visitors flocked to resorts along the Little River. The Little River Railroad opened the “Elkmont Special”, a $1.90 scenic tour with stops in Maryville, Walland, Kinzel Springs, Townsend, Line Springs, Wonderland Park, and Elkmont.
In 1925, the State of Tennessee purchased 76, 507 acres of land from W.B. Townsend to establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934. The the Little River Railroad & Lumber Company closed its sawmill in 1938 and abandoned the railroad in 1939.
The Little River Railroad & Lumber Company Museum
The Townsend-in-the-Smokies Chamber of Commerce established a non-profit organization to found the Little River Railroad & Lumber Company museum in 1982. A Shay engine that had been used in the logging operation, No. 2147, was restored for the project. The depot at Walland was moved to Townsend and memorabilia was collected from the days of the railroad and lumber operations. Today, the Little River Railroad & Lumber Company Museum still seeks to preserve the history of life on the Little River.