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ETOWAH -- You can't turn a train on a dime, and so the 540-degree spiral known as "The Loop" is gentle enough not to seem like a spiral at all, until the conductor or one of the guides directs your gaze out the left side windows. There, a few yards below, running parallel to the train, is the track on which you were traveling just a few minutes earlier.
A minute or two later, the train crosses a wooden trestle bridge, 62 feet in the air. It's the same trestle you passed under, at a 90-degree angle, shortly after you entered The Loop. Again, you can look down at the track and see where you were earlier.
The 1.2-mile Loop is one of only four or five such configurations in the country, and one of only two on which passengers can travel, according to Steve Freer of the Chattanooga-based Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum (TVRM). The other one is Georgetown Loop near Denver, Colo.
While The Loop is easily the most talked-about feature of the Hiwassee River Rail Adventure, the excursion train has other attractions as well, including spectacular views of the river below. Kayakers who are close enough to the tracks wave at the train as it passes by. You can catch a glimpse of the Apalachia Dam, just across the state line in North Carolina. (Yes, in this case it's spelled with only one "P.") Much of the route is through protected national forest, and the train passes through several areas inaccessible by road. Birding and wildlife enthusiasts sometimes see blue heron or osprey along the way, and there has been one bear sighting this year.
The train is a partnership of TVRM and the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association. On most of its scheduled trips, it makes a three-hour round trip from Gee Springs State Park to Farner and back. There are also selected days when the train makes a day-long excursion all the way to the adjoining state line communities of Copperhill, Tenn., and McCaysville, Ga., where passengers disembark and enjoy lunch on their own.
Passengers gather and purchase their tickets at the historic and beautifully-restored Etowah depot. But CSX Transportation won't allow boarding at the depot due to liability concerns. So passengers are shuttled by school buses from the depot to the state park, which is six miles down the road.
The line from Etowah running through Copperhill was originally opened by the Atlanta, Knoxville and Northern Railroad in 1890, but it had a series of switchbacks to handle the change in altitude at Bald Mountain. Only three cars at a time could be taken up the switchbacks, and so an alternate was needed. A Louisville & Nashville Railroad engineer was consulted, and The Loop was designed and added to the route in 1898.
Just a few years later, in 1904, a new, straighter alternate route was constructed, and the line with the loop became known as the "old line." The depot at Etowah was built to serve as the terminus where the new line and the old line joined.
The old line was kept in use, however, throughout the 20th Century, serving the mining operations and other industrial production at Copperhill, as well as marble quarrying in north Georgia. In 2000, the Copperhill site shut down and CSX Transportation, which by then owned the railroad, wanted to abandon the old line.
There had been a few excursion trains on the Hiwassee line prior to that time, but in 1994 the major railroad carriers increased their insurance liability coverage requirements, which made it much harder for excursion trains to operate.
Glenn Springs Holding Company, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, was created to spearhead remediation of the Copperhill site from the damage which had been caused by copper mining over the years. They offered to carry a mortgage so that Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association could buy the line from CSX.
There was still much work that needed to be done before the line could be used for excursion trains, and Overhill couldn't afford to do it. Then, circumstances began to favor the project. TVA needed to upgrade the Apalachia powerhouse, and agreed to pay for renovations to the track that far. That allowed excursion trains to begin, in partnership between Overhill and TVRM, but only as far as the powerhouse.
In 2004, Overhill was approached by industrial concerns which wanted to haul some copper smelting byproducts from Copperhill to the main CSX line in Etowah. That project turned out to be short-lived, but it paid for the renovation of the line the rest of the way to Copperhill.
Full-fledged excursion trains, some to Farner and others all the way to Copperhill, began in fall 2006, and were extremely well-received, leading to a full summer and fall schedule this year. Some aspects of that schedule were a little too ambitious; organizers are still working to figure out exactly what the market will support.
The railroad does, however, expect strong crowds in October and November, as the scenery changes for fall. Excursions will run Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through November, with additional weekday trips in October and early November. All-day trains to Copperhill will be run Sept. 21 and 30, Oct. 4, 13 and 21, Nov. 2, 17 and 25.
For more information or to make reservations, call the Etowah Depot at (423) 263-7840 or TVRM at (423) 894-8028. TVRM's web site, which also includes information about its Chattanooga-based excursion trains, is at www.tvrail.com.