Wednesday, March 24, 2010


We all love to collect things, but how many of us collect things that weigh from less than an ounce to things over 30 tons at the same time?! Joe Davis, of Harriman, Tennessee, does and he has been collecting anything
remotely "railroad" since he was five years old. Everything from old tickets, rails, train wheels, switching equipment, lanterns, crossing signs, depots and deport equipment, to full size authentic railroad cars!

Over the past 64 years you would expect Joe to have quite a few things, but to have is yard, his basement (electric models), and three or four outbuildings full would be the lest one would expect from a life long collector. However, even the two cabooses and boxcar sitting on the tracks in his front yard are packed full of railroad memorabilia! Joe wouldn't hazard a guess as to the value of his "heavy weight" collection, but at minimum it's cost him some fourteen hernia operations!

Included in the collection is the old "yard engine" from the "American Kraft Mills" paper plant that operated until 2000. Joe has also constructed a full-size depot next to his home that is fully operational, if it were sitting near the main line. He has a ticket agent and a lady and her son (life size manikins), waiting for the train in the waiting room. There are clocks, switching equipment, water fountains, phones, benches, calendars, photos of trains, and the ticket counter is complete down to the stamps and pencils required to operate.

The windows are from real depots around the country, the bars on the windows are real, the luggage and freight handlers and scales are real, and the specific location depot signs are real. I was thrilled to see the "Emory Gap" sign (an area of Harriman where I lived during my junior and senior years) smartly hanging on each end of the recreated depot.

You might have thought Joe would have made a career in railroad work, but he wanted to be home nights, so he worked in forestry and spent his off day time researching and collecting.

The Tennessee Central Railway Company operated the line and built the depots I was used to seeing in Roane County somewhere around 1922, but the company sold out in 1968 to Southern. It was during times of change that Joe came about a lot of his collection, like when the town of Oakdale decided to get rid of the old caboose that sat in its city park for years. The car was a boxcar-to-caboose-conversion and they were happy to strike a good deal with Joe. Being a conversion, it was super heavy, requiring two cranes to sit it in place on the tracks Joe built himself.

The cabooses and boxcar are all neatly coupled to the "yard engine" and all sit quietly on their permanent tracks along side authentic crossing signals and destination signs. Except for the tons of wheels, brakes, springs, signs, etc. stored beneath them, you would think they would just roll on down the line!

You will notice one contraption that sits directly behind the last caboose...the thing that looks like scaffolding sitting on wheels - what is it? You'd never guess, unless you were in the railroad business and ran lines with tunnels! It was specially constructed to run through the Roosevelt Mountain Tunnel, just up the Walden Ridge Mountain out of Rockwood, Tennessee, to break off the icicles that formed in the tunnel during winter!

You see, Joe doesn't care about specific railroad things; he cares about anything associated with the big trains. If it says railroad, train, or locomotive on it, or was ever on, or near, a railroad, he wants it and keeps it. As his sign says, "This is a museum, this junk is not for sale!" If he collected stays...don't even ask!

Interestingly enough, he also collected the old depot signs that were indicative of the racially divided times, like "White & Colored" restroom signs, and one saying "Colored Intrastate Passengers' Waiting Room". "What if they were traveling 'interstate'", I wondered! I remember that era so well as a kid, but I was too young to really understand the significance of them at the time. Of course, I came to understand that the whole period of the 50s and 60s, and before, was a disgrace to our country.

I laid two large photos I found of a KKK rally, held in Sheffield, Alabama in 1924, out on some steps and photographed them. Amazingly they fit together quite well. Joe just saw the train and depot and wanted them for his "railroad" collection!

We'll have to go back one of these days and thumb through his photo collection. He did find his collection of 1901-1914 photos of the Waldensia Coal and Coke Company, and gave them to me to scan. I have already posted them on Flickr. However, he has many albums full of old Harriman/Roane County photos that I'd love to see. Maybe one day we'll get back for another visit.

I have only used a small portion of the 140 shots I took the day we visited, but many more are posted on my Flickr page. Look for the "Joe Davis Railroad Collection" set down the side of the main page, or scroll through all my latest additions until you find them.

No, Joe will not part with his life's collection, but I wonder what would happen if the City of Harriman built a nice building nearby in which he could properly display and visit his collection? Would he allow that? There are definitely enough artifacts in Joe's collection to make a wonderful "Joe Davis Railroad Museum" in Harriman. Such a display would bring folks from near and far to see and enjoy.

It should be seen...there's just too much authentic history there just to be seen by a few hundred - it should be seen by thousands! It would also mean that railroad buffs from all around might also donate items for display. The collection would all be safely kept there, under controlled temperature and humidity conditions, to be enjoyed perpetually. What a win for us all that would be!


BRUNO said...

Love it!

It would have to be a INSIDE-museum, for certain. Otherwise, scavengers and graffiti-artists would strip it bare, or ruin the original beauty of it.

Makes a fella wonder, in all honesty---maybe Joe might be content with "only a few-hundred", after all?

And only a fellow "rigger" could truly appreciate the "Icecicle-Buster"-arrangement!(OSHA would LOVE that one, nowadays, in "The Land Of Lawsuits!")

And, NO, I never would have guessed what it was---even though I'm a "rigger", myself...!

Shrinky said...

I'm never going to complain about hubby's pack-rat tendencies ever again! If this guy has a wife, she must be a Saint.. that said, it is a remarkable slice of history for one guy to collect together single-handedly, and yes, I agree, it would sit well preserved for posterity in a purpose built place where it's safety could be guaranteed. He must be quite a character, this Joe Davis. How nice of him to allow you to scan some of his photographs!

Suldog said...

Very cool. I love railroads and railroad memorabilia (maybe not to the extent that Joe does, but still enjoy it a lot.) Very romantic stuff.

Ranger Tom said...

I love it! I've got to visit there at some point!

Sorry I haven't been around... Been going flat out at work until a week ago, now I'm getting ready for a much~deserved long vacation...