The Carolina, Clinchfield, and Ohio (CC&O) Railway, best known as the Clinchfield Railroad, provided the “Quick Service, Short Route between the Central West and Southeast,” crossing the Appalachian Mountains and opening the communities along its 277-mile route to distant markets and the twentieth century. The track stretched from Elkhorn City, Kentucky, where the CC&O connected with the Chesapeake and Ohio, through Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, to Spartanburg, South Carolina, and its connection to the Southern. The railway operated in five states, crossed four mountain ranges and five major watersheds, included fifty-four tunnels (totaling almost 10 miles) and 17,000 feet of bridges, and cost an estimated $40 million to construct.
The idea of a railroad along such a route emerged as early as 1836, but the first serious attempt came in 1886 at the hands of northern investor John Wilder, whose plans for the Charleston, Cincinnati and Chicago Railway collapsed in the Panic of 1893. The pieces thus far built were bought by Charles E. Hellier, renamed the Ohio River and Charleston Railroad Company, and sold off over the next ten years. George L. Carter bought the tracks from Johnson City to Boonford, North Carolina, in 1902 and named his route the South and Western Railway.
Though a native of the region, Carter turned to New York financiers for funds to meet the cost imposed by M. J. Caples, his general manager and chief engineer. Caples's insistence upon a railroad built to the highest standards meant the CC&O (as the line was rechartered in 1908) met its primary purpose of hauling coal from Kentucky and Virginia mines through mountains and across rivers to a distribution point beyond the Piedmont with great success. Except for the northernmost 35 miles of the route, grades were held below 1.2 percent and curves had a maximum of eight degrees. Caples also required eighty-five-pound rail, passing tracks on average every 7 miles, and water tanks 10 miles apart. Enlarging tunnels and strengthening bridges has not been necessary throughout this century because of the superior specifications Caples incorporated at the outset.
By 1909 the CC&O line ran from Spartanburg to Dante, Virginia (the section north to Elkhorn City opened six years later). Carter established the railway offices and yards in Erwin, in Unicoi County, halfway along the route. Kingsport and Johnson City also benefited from the railroad's presence and along with Erwin welcomed new industries over the next two decades. In 1924 company officials changed the line's name to Clinchfield when they leased the CC&O to the L&N and Atlantic Coast Lines. The passenger service that began in 1909 ceased in 1954. Freight trains ran on the Clinchfield Railroad until 1982, when Seaboard System Railroad (now CSX Corporation) bought all outstanding shares and continued the freight service but dropped the Clinchfield name.
James A. Goforth, Building the Clinchfield: A Construction History of America’s Most Unusual Railroad (1983)