North Carolina’s Tweetsie Railroad: A throwback in more ways than one

Engineer Shane Shief guides the Number 12 steam engine along at the Tweetsie Railroad in Blowing Rock, N.C.
Engineer Shane Shief guides the Number 12 steam engine along at the Tweetsie Railroad in Blowing Rock, N.C. For The Washington Post

I traveled to Tweetsie Railroad because I had a hole in my childhood. I had two days to stitch in a memory – my rite of wholesome kitsch – that my New England parents had denied me. Instead of visiting amusement parks, my family canoed through a Florida mangrove in search of waterfowl, cross-country skied in sub-zero temperatures in Vermont and stared in horror at Edvard Munch’s oeuvre at a Boston art museum.

All aboard the train to childhood reparations.

As I drove into the massive parking lot of the Wild West theme park in Blowing Rock, N.C., the Blue Ridge Mountains rose above me, a towering landscape that was comforting in the bright sunshine and intimidating under darkening clouds. At the ticket booth, I studied the map layered with rides, restaurants and activities, all with a pioneer streak: Gold Panning, Gem Mining, Miner’s Mountain Theater, Tweetsie Palace Saloon. I located the train’s embarkation point by the jail and stroller-rental stand. I knew what I wanted, and yet I hesitated, the uncertainty of my quest twisting my expression.

“You’ll love it,” an older male customer with a long gray ponytail assured me.

I bought the adult ticket for $44, even though I was entering as a child.

The 99-year-old coal-powered steam locomotive is the centerpiece of the park. Grover Robbins opened Tweetsie Railroad in 1957 with a one-mile ride aboard the No. 12, the only surviving narrow-gauge engine from the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad. (The owner added the No. 190, the Yukon Queen, in 1960.) A year later, he expanded the scenic trip to three miles and adopted the American frontier theme, which included live-action shows of a train robbery and a rumble between the two sides of the Western divide.

“Now nobody really wins or loses,” said Chris Robbins, the CEO whose father and two uncles established the business. “No one gets shot or killed or left on the ground dead, and no one is demeaned, except for maybe the stupid deputy.”

The train departs every 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the day’s crowds and the actors’ timing. Sometimes they zip through the acts that unfold at two stops along the route; other times they draw out the semi-improvisational performance.

The track was empty when I arrived, but while riding the chairlift to the top of Miner’s Mountain, I heard the train’s piercing whistle. Whoo-whoo-wee-o! The sound was forlorn, like a lonely wail in a Grimm forest. But when I finally saw the teal green train chugging into the station, I realized it was hardly lonesome. Kids, parents and grandparents filled the five cars, their faces plastered with smiles.

“It’s been 40 years since I’ve been here,” said Lonnie Shull, a Utah resident who was traveling with his wife and 4-year-old son. “I probably had a better time today than I did when I was his age.”

I took a seat in a middle car on the right side – better views of the pastoral scenery and romps. A folksy voice cut through the excited chatter to offer a short history lesson. The nickname Tweetsie comes from the sound of its whistle. The locomotive uses up to five tons of coal and 5,000 gallons of water. The railroad’s sobriquet was Eat Taters and Wear No Clothes.

A cowboy with shaggy hair, a red bandanna and a holster walked through our row, shaking hands with guests and asking, “How ya doing?” We passed Boot Hill, a graveyard with footwear poking out of the ground, and crossed Dead Horse Trestle before braking at Frontier Town, a Hollywood-style set with a saloon, bank, Pony Express outpost and swaggering sheriff.

A cowboy hopped off the train and ordered his cohort to steal the gold. “Get something nice, too, like fudge,” he added.

Keystone Kowboys hilarity ensued, complete with exaggerated punches and soft insults. I tried to follow the plot but lost the thread after one of the actor’s microphones malfunctioned. Finally, an outhouse blew up, and a cowgirl on a palomino horse high-fived us through the window. The train then moved on to Fort Boone and the next scene, a fight between Indians and cowboys over a soldier’s inappropriate advances toward the chief’s daughter.

“That was a lesson to not flirt unless the dad gives you permission,” a mother told her son.

The park doesn’t come with a disclaimer or warning, so here’s a brief PSA. The gift shops sell such divisive toys as rifles, pop guns, headdresses and tomahawks. Depending on your position, you will find the sight of a kid wielding a weapon or dressed in a Halloween version of a Native American either distressing or a benign throwback to a pre-politically correct era.

I rode the train three more times that afternoon and returned the next day for several more trips. With each spin, my unbridled enjoyment increased. I started to appreciate Tweetsie for its silliness, sweetness and earnestness. And I was hardly alone.

“Tweetsie keeps me laughing,” said Anna Rhyne, an octogenarian who visits nearly every weekend. “It keeps me young. It keeps me living.”

As evening approached, my journey into yesteryear was coming to an end. But in the stillness of my car, I could still hear Tweetsie’s whistle, the comforting sound of innocence – and time passing on.

The park reopens for the season April 8. For information, go to tweetsie.com.