Keeping the Trains on Time at Tweetsie Railroad
BLOWING ROCK, North Carolina – Scott McLeod has had a dozen or more jobs at Tweetsie Railroad, including cowboy actor, pyrotechnician and haunted house designer, but he’s hanging on to the one he has now.
He supervises the train shop that keeps Tweetsie Railroad’s two locomotives rolling through the hills and hollows of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Blowing Rock and Boone, North Carolina. They are the core identity of this old-school, low-key western theme park that opened in gentler times (1957 to be exact).
The park’s biggest attraction is locomotive No. 12, the only surviving locomotive from the real-life East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad that stopped chugging through the mountains in 1950.
No. 12 was built to last. Describing it as the park’s biggest attraction is literal. It may be a narrow-gauge locomotive, but it’s still hefty and powerful. It rolled out of the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia in 1917 measuring 54 feet long and weighing 60 tons.
No. 12 and the younger No. 190, also built at Baldwin in 1943, carry passengers in open-air coaches on a three-mile loop multiple times a day. You can ride as many times as you like, watching the scenery go by and laughing along with a very campy show featuring cowboys, train robbers, Indians and frontier soldiers.
How campy is campy? It’s fun enough for the kids on the train to shout out warnings to the good guys when the train robbers are sneaking up on them and tongue-in-cheek enough for the adults to snicker good naturedly, such as when the train robbers introduce themselves as Texas Pete, Tabasco, Picante and Cayenne – the Hot Sauce Gang.
In addition to train rides, the 200-acre park offers 14 very child-friendly rides and six shows. One of the shows features high-kicking mountain clogging and pays tribute to nearby Tennessee by featuring “Rocky Top” as the closing dance number.
There are a classic carousel and an open-air chairlift, both ideal of family photos of children, parents and grandparents. At the highest point in the park is a place for the children to feed goats, deer and other animals.
McLeod says he never had to herd goats or perform in the clogging show, but he’s dedicated enough that he’d try if called upon. Instead, he’d rather work on No. 12 or No. 190 or offer help to owners of steam locomotives across the U.S.
Tweetsie Railroad’s train shop is respected nationally for providing or repairing what McLeod calls “pieces and parts” to trains at Disney World, Cedar Point, Busch Gardens, Carowinds, Knott’s Berry Farm, Dorney Park, Six Flags St. Louis and many other places spread across the country.
“They send wheel assemblies, air compressors, brake components, drive wheels and more to us to work on,” McLeod said, adding that the Tweetsie shop has done full restoration jobs on locomotives, although those are less common.
When the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Railroad, which once connected Johnson City, Tennessee, with Boone, North Carolina, went out of business in 1950, railroad enthusiasts in Harrisonburg, Virginia, bought locomotive No. 12. Their idea for a tourist attraction got derailed, and Blowing Rock native Grover Robbins Jr. brought No. 12 back home in 1956 and opened the Tweetsie Railroad attraction in 1957. That grew into North Carolina’s first theme park.
“Every day I’ve been around No. 12, I’ve wished it could talk and tell me stories about the people who have been on it over the past century. With proper care, No. 12 will run indefinitely,” McLeod said.