ETOWAH, Tenn. — The 101-year-old Etowah Depot in McMinn County is in line for almost $55,000 in updates in what Etowah Historical Commission officials call an "ambitious" upgrade project.
A $54,800 USDA Rural Development grant was awarded recently to the Etowah Historical Commission for extensive improvements to the historic Etowah Depot. The money will fund the development of new interpretive exhibits throughout the depot and upgrading the downstairs restrooms to meet federal ADA requirements.
"The downstairs exhibits were put in there in 1989, so they've been there a long time," historical commission volunteer Linda Caldwell said. Caldwell, long affiliated with the depot, commission and Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association, said the commission's board has been enthusiastic and excited about the coming improvements.
The current exhibits focus on why the railroad came to the area and the relationship over time between the railroad and the people of the community and how they shaped one another.
"That scene will continue but it will be presented in different ways," she said. "We're going to have different things on exhibit, new panels, newer artifacts that we've collected, new cases. It'll just be completely refreshed downstairs."
Two new exhibits installed upstairs in 2015 focus on the "old line railroad" that passed through the area before the L&N System and depot and company town were built. That rail system was known then as the "new line."
The junction of those rail systems became Etowah. L&N laid out a planned township and sold sections to the business district for businesses and other lot for homes and left spaces for churches, parks and schools, Caldwell said.
The Etowah Historical Commission was created by the City of Etowah in 1978 to raise funds for acquisition of the Etowah Depot and to oversee the initial restoration. The organization’s current mission is to preserve and share the history of Etowah through preservation of the Etowah Depot, educational programs for the public, advocacy, and collaboration with other organizations and local government to achieve shared community objectives. Find out more by contacting the commission at 423-263-7902.
"Their intention was to build a community that had a good quality of life," she said. "It was astounding to me what the town achieved."
Caldwell believes those early plans and the young families that filled the new town left behind expectations that the town would always take care of its history. Efforts to preserve the town's Gem Theater, Carnegie Library and Etowah Depot are examples of that continuing desire, she said.
She said that in years past the city and McMinn County have taken important roles in preserving the town's history.
The Etowah Depot was built in 1906 by the L&N Railroad to serve as a passenger station and the Atlanta Division headquarters for the L&N system, according to commission officials. L&N also built a large railroad center and the planned community for workers at the same time.
The city of Etowah purchased the Depot in 1978 and spent three years restoring it. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and opened to the public in 1981.
Caldwell said more than 40,000 people a year visit the Etowah Depot, making it an important tourist attraction for the area, as well as a museum and historic site.
Commission and local officials agree and they praised Rural Development officials for help funding the work.
"The Etowah Depot is the centerpiece of Etowah. It serves as a museum, visitor center, festival venue, and home to the Hiwassee River Rail Adventure," Mayor Gene Keller said.
"We are excited to begin work to improve the museum's interpretation, expand its educational outreach, and enhance the experience for residents and visitors who enjoy coming to the depot," said Jim Caldwell, historical commission chairman and Linda Caldwell's husband.
"This project will involve a great deal of volunteer work. Fortunately, we have committed commission members and productive partners to help us complete the task," commission member Paul Barnett said.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.