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Lost mural found, on display at museum

Unicoi County’s history, including a mural that recently resurfaced after years in storage, will be on display this weekend during the official opening ceremony of the Unicoi County Heritage Museum and the Clinchfield Railroad Museum.
Curator Martha Erwin said the theme of the ceremony, which will begin at 1 p.m. on Saturday, May 2, is “Clinchfield Pride.” The ceremony will take place at the railroad museum and everyone is invited to attend and celebrate the county’s railroad history.
“Clinchfield Pride is the railroad museum’s chosen theme,” Erwin said. “The spirit of pride is always in style when we are perpetuating and promoting our area’s railroading heritage for preservation and posterity.”
Erwin said the Clinchfield Railroad Museum opened in June 2011.
“The museum originated from a mere railroad room inside the Unicoi County Heritage Museum, sponsored by the Clinchfield Railroad Historical Society,” Erwin also said. “The museum was built with community support and pride. Also, monies were derived from hobo dinners, silent auctions and other fundraisers. The Clinchfield Railroad Museum renders a definitive service countywide. It is utilized by schools, East Tennessee State University, churches, civic organizations, reunions and continues to be a must-see destination for tourists and the public at large.”
Helping promote the need for a railroad museum in Unicoi County was the play, “Hear That Whistle Blow … Erwin Train A Coming,” Erwin said.
“The play brought national acclaim to the Unicoi County Heritage Museum and to Erwin,” she added. “The script was compiled from railroaders’ oral histories.”
The play was performed regionally and eventually made it to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
“The play’s notoriety created an atmosphere of Clinchfield pride marked by strategic growth for the construction of the Clinchfield Railroad Museum,” Erwin also said.
Construction of the railroad museum was done using inmate labor provided by the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department and the Northeast Correctional Complex in Carter County, according to Erwin.
“The museum is a replica of a turn of the century railroad depot,” she continued. “Five rooms exhibit many one-of-a-kind artifacts and memorabilia, when Clinchfield was known as the ‘Gateway to the South’ and was the largest employer in Unicoi County.”
The Clinchfield Railroad was known as the safest and largest coal-carrying route in the United States, Erwin said. It crossed 211 miles from Dante, Va., to Bostic, N.C., and traveled through 35 tunnels.
“No other route in the country had as many tunnels,” Erwin said.
One of the newest exhibits on display at the Clinchfield Railroad Museum is a large mural that was recently found in the basement of the J.F Toney Library, which is located in what was once the depot of the Clinchfield Railroad.
Members of the Erwin Art League, including Eileen Vaughn, Virginia Hatcher and Edith Price, led the charge to create the mural.
“They researched what to put on the mural,” Erwin said.
Painter Ken Ferguson is credited with creating the mural, which depicts trains, a countryside, settlers and even a moonshine still. Erwin said Ferguson was the “prot´ege” of the famous painter John Alan Maxwell who was raised in Johnson City and taught painting for a time at East Tennessee State University.
“Those three ladies went to the university and took art lessons from John Alan,” Erwin said. “He was well known. He lived most of the time in New York, but would come back to Johnson City and live on Locust Street.”
The art league provided Ferguson, who Erwin described as a wonderful painter, with the paint and boards for the 20-foot mural.
When the mural was completed in 1970 it was displayed in the library when it was located in the building that was once home to Erwin National Bank at the corner of Main Avenue and Union Street downtown.
“When the library got too big, they decided to move it to the railroad depot,” Erwin recalled.
It was during the move from the bank building to the depot that the mural was forgotten.
“When they moved, it got lost in the shuffle,” she added. “No one knew where it was. Being a member of the Erwin Art League, I wanted the mural for the museum.”
The mural was recently found in pieces behind a furnace in the library’s basement.
“It tickled me to death that we found the mural,” Erwin said. “It is part of our history.”
Erwin also thanked the library for allowing the museum to take the mural and put it on display at the Clinchfield Railroad Museum.
The May 2 opening ceremony will include a book signing by attorney and author Frank Kilgore from St. Paul, Va., for his book, “Far Southwest Virginia: A Postcard and Photographic Journey.”
Erwin said the book has been expanded to include the counties of Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Tazewell, Washington and Wise and the city of North.
“The book covers countless photographs, including many tunnels, trains, bridges, depots and coal mines,” she added.
Also included in the book is information about George L. Carter, the founder of the Clinchfield Railroad Company and Clinchfield Coal Company.
Performing during the ceremony will be Keith Paxton, vice-mayor and business owner from Greeneville.
“He will sing Josh Turner’s rendition of ‘Long Black Train’ and other songs,” Erwin said.
The Unicoi County High School drama club will perform a railroad skit and the UCHS bluegrass band will perform.
Also on hand will be Ray Poteat, editor of the Jitterbug, a national railway magazine, according to Erwin.
The Unicoi County Heritage Museum and Clinchfield Railroad Museum are located on the grounds of the Erwin National Fish Hatchery. For more information about the opening ceremony, the museums or the exhibits, call 743-9449.