Last revised: December 4, 2023
By: Adam Burns
Come enjoy a train ride in Rocky Top with the added perk of a fine meal on-board at a few locations, the Tennessee Valley Railroad and Tennessee Central Railway Museum. These attractions are found in two of the state's largest cities, Nashville and Chattanooga, making them very popular tourism destinations.
Tennessee's history with trains began with the Nashville & Chattanooga's chartering in 1845, which opened freight service between its namesake cities on February 11, 1854. The system later became part of the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis which itself wound up in the classic Louisville & Nashville.
The state's railroads are steeped in Civil War lore as the network was a major transportation artery for the Confederate Army. In addition, the Western & Atlantic between Chattanooga and Atlanta, Georgia provided an outlet through the Appalachian Mountains to the Atlantic coast and eastern seaboard.
While the state is well-known for its ruggedness and coal mines in the east, it also boasted several large cities. In addition, the location of Memphis in the west, along the Mississippi River saw two notable railroads pass its way; the Illinois Central and Gulf, Mobile & Ohio.
These systems were unique in that they ran north-to-south linking New Orleans and Chicago went most railroads ran east-to-west. There were many first-class trains serving Tennessee, such as the City of New Orleans, Panama Limited, The Rebel, Hummingbird, Georgian, Pan American, and Tennessean.
All of these trains provided top accommodations for passengers, including a fine dining, which the Tennessee Valley Railroad and Tennessee Central Railway Museum attempt to recreate.
The Tennessee Valley Railroad is operated by the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum and utilizes ex-Southern Railway trackage, originally purchased in 1969. The museum dates back to earlier that decade, founded in 1960 and incorporated in 1961.
At the time the group's goal was to preserve the steam locomotive, which then had largely been retired as main line power across the country after more than a century of service. Over time, TVRM expanded to also include excursions and a wide array of historic equipment.
Today, the organization hosts standard 6-mile round trip excursions, with trains departing from the Grand Junction depot in Chattanooga. They also hosts numerous specials throughout the year including Halloween trains, fall foliage trips, wine trains, Christmas events, and much more.
In recent years, TVRM has expanded to offer dinner trains, which have quickly grown into one of their most popular trips behind the special holiday events. According to the museum, the dinner trains run from March through October that offer 3 course meals.
The experience closely mimics rail travel as it would have appeared in the 1950s with a dining car and Dining Car Superintendent who oversees the stewards and chefs. These trips run on Fridays and Saturdays only during the operating season and depart Grand Junction at 6:30 PM.
While this experience does not include dinner, in 2004 TVRM added a second excursion from Delano, Tennessee which traverses the famous Hiwassee Loop. The trip lasts 5 hours and covers 50 miles! It is quite popular during the fall foliage season. Despite not offering dinner the train does have snacks and drinks available.
The Tennessee Central Railway Museum is based in Nashville and focused primarily on preserving the state's rail history. Its name is derived from the railroad of the same name which served its home state. The Tennessee Central, at its peak, connected Hopkinsville, Kentucky with Harriman, Tennessee running via Nashville and Lebanon.
The railroad is still fondly remembered but was never particularly successful and shutdown on September 1, 1968. Today, the museum hosts very long excursions that journey up to 90 mile (round-trip) making it the longest heritage train ride in the country.
The excursions are operated over the original Tennessee Central main line from 220 Willow Street in Nashville, to Watertown (45 miles), the museum's longest excursion. Today, this line still carries freight under short line Nashville & Eastern.
The museum does not offer dinner trains but does host wine trains where patrons can sample wines from the nearby DelMonaco Winery during the trip. Other notable excursions include the Valenshines Moonshine Trip, Valentines Wine Tasting, Mardi Gras Excursion, Murder Mystery trains, Easter Bunny Express, German Mayfest Excursion, Moonshine Run, Brews and Blues, a "train robbery" on select dates, Jazz Festival Excursion, Octoberfest, fall foliage trips, and a North Pole Express for Christmas.