New South railroad entrepreneur Jere Baxter challenged the Louisville and Nashville (L&N) Railroad’s control over Middle Tennessee commerce by building the Tennessee Central Railroad to connect Nashville and Knoxville. Baxter was born in 1852, the son of a prominent Nashville politician, Judge Nathaniel Baxter. After adventures in travel, law, legal publishing, and real estate, the young, energetic Baxter turned to railroading. While still in his twenties, he became president of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad Company and went on to help organize companies promoting the development of coal fields in northern Alabama and eastern Tennessee. He was involved in the founding of South Pittsburg, Tennessee, and Sheffield, Alabama.
In 1893 Baxter organized the Tennessee Central Railroad Company (TC). Baxter planned to build a rail line to span the state from Knoxville to Memphis and break the L&N monopoly over rail connections to Nashville, but the Panic of 1893 stymied construction and left the TC bankrupt. Baxter then turned to Louisville capitalists, who created a syndicate to buy the TC and placed him back in control. At the turn of the century, Baxter used convict labor to build a railroad line from Monterey in Putnam County to Harriman and then to Knoxville. The purchase and construction of connecting branch lines enabled Baxter to provide rail connections from Knoxville to Nashville and west to Clarksville.
Baxter’s attempt to break the L&N’s control over Nashville commerce earned applause from many Nashvillians, who supported TC construction with city bonds. Baxter started his own Nashville newspaper to counter adverse reports in the city’s two L&N-controlled newspapers. In 1900 the L&N ignored public indignation and refused to allow TC trains to use the newly opened Union Station. In 1903 Baxter won election to the state Senate, where he pushed for legislation to force the L&N to open Union Station to TC traffic. With the defeat of the bill, the TC lost its last chance to become an equal contender for Nashville’s railroad business. Baxter died in February 1904 of kidney disease.
Baxter failed in his confrontation with the L&N, but his railroad exerted a lasting impact on economic development in the Eastern Highland Rim and Cumberland Plateau. The TC reached areas without river or highway connections and provided a link to the national economy. Farmers shipped produce on the TC, sawmills and coal mines sprang up along the line, and cash replaced barter as the region entered the larger market economy. Until the 1920s the TC remained the chief link to the outside world for the Upper Cumberland and the Plateau. Baxter became a hero to many people in the hill country, and one small town in Putnam County changed its name to honor him.