Last revised: June 22, 2023
By: Adam Burns
Tennessee has held a long history with the iron horse, dating back to the Nashville & Chattanooga, which first entered service on February 11, 1854. This system later became the modern Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis, the state's most well-known railroad along with the Louisville & Nashville.
At its peak, Rocky Top boasted more than 4,000 route miles of railroad, which included an assortment of services; from through main lines to secondary branch lines and coal spurs.
Perhaps Tennessee's most unique trait was two north-to-south main lines which served the state's western perimeter; operated by the Illinois Central and Gulf, Mobile & Ohio, these competitors' through routes linked Chicago with New Orleans.
This an oddity in the railroad industry as most routes linked east and west. Tennessee's rich history has enabled several museums and heritage railroads to spring up, a few of which are well-known across the country.
The organizations highlighted below offer Christmas-themed train rides during the holiday season. There are also others which host official The Polar Express events.
(Nashville): This popular Nashville attraction also hosts excursions, including the North Pole Express on select dates in November and December.
The train features three classes of seating; Dining, Coach, and Dome. This is one of the longest Christmas-themed train rides you can find anywhere in the United States, a 45-mile round trip lasting 2 hours.
They also offer a single, 90-mile round trip held in late November which lasts 6 1/2 hours! Located at 220 Willow Street along the old Tennessee Central Railway's main line, the TCRM has been providing train rides from Nashville since 1989.
The track here is now owned by the Nashville & Eastern Railroad, a short line freight carrier. The museum's longest excursions run 84 miles to the DelMonaco Winery & Vineyards in Westgate and returns. I
t is an all day event! If you are a train nut they have an impressive collection of equipment, including several lightweight, stainless steel coaches built by the Budd Company, a slumbercoach, two former Bessemer & Lake Erie F7A's, a GP7, SW1, SW8, and GP10.
(Chattanooga): Another fine Tennessee heritage railroad can be found in Chattanooga, the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum.
They host numerous trips throughout the year including several events for Christmas; the North Pole Limited (November and December) is the marquee attraction.
During the 75-minute ride kids have the chance to see Santa, listen to a Christmas tale, sing songs, see lighted displays, enjoy refreshments, and travel to the North Pole.
This train offers three different classes of service: Santa's Private Car, Elves And Bells, and Traditional Seating. They also offer a special holiday dinner train known as the Christmas Special Dinner Train. Two more events include Nightcaps With St. Nick and Santa's Hiwassee Holiday Train.
The TVRM is a fine organization with a history dating back to 1960. At the time their small collection of equipment was stored at Southern Railway's large classification yard along Holtzclaw Avenue in East Chattanooga.
In 1969, through a generous donation by the Southern, a permanent location was found at nearby North Chamberlain Avenue. The Southern was always a major advocate for rail preservation and helped TVRM get started through an additional donation, a 1.5-mile segment of abandoned right-of-way.
They also helped the museum earn money by earning money through excursions hosted by Southern's original steam program.
Today, TVRM features two operational steam locomotives, another under restoration, several working diesel locomotives, and a large assortment of other equipment. This is one of the South's best rail attractions!
(Knoxville): Their Christmas Lantern Express is just that, festive holiday trains pulled by a live steam locomotive (Southern Railway 2-8-0 #154, built by the Schenectady Works in 1890).
These trains typically operate every weekend from the Friday after Thanksgiving until just before Christmas. The entire trip lasts over 2 hours.
The Three Rivers Rambler departs from downtown Knoxville along University Commons Way (University of Tennessee) near the Tennessee River. The 11-mile journey travels over short line Knoxville & Holston River, a Gulf & Ohio Railways, Inc. company.
Historically, they have long been known for using steam engines to lead their trains.
Along with #154 previously mentioned their other steamers include: