"Nestled In The Foothills Of The Cumberland Mountains"
Cowan, Tennessee is a small rural town situated at the foot of the Cumberland Plateau in the southeastern region of the Volunteer State on Boiling Fork Creek. In 1806, Major William Russell brought the first group of settlers into the area. The rich, fertile soil and abundant water supplies on Boiling Fork and in the surrounding coves of the Cumberland Mountains made this area a very practical and attractive place to settle and call home. The town got its name in the early 1800's from the Cowan family, of Scotch-Irish descent, that had also moved into the area in the early 1800's.
Coal was discovered in the Cumberland Mountains in the 1830's. Business investors from Nashville and even New York City were keenly interested in exploiting the coal resources and developing a mining business. Coincidentally and within a few years, plans were being drawn to build a railroad connecting Nashville and Chattanooga. The Crow Creek gap, on the south side of the Cumberland Mountain, was the best location to build the railroad not only because of its relatively low elevation, but because it was located in the immediate vicinity of the coal deposits discovered in the Cumberland Mountains. After construction began on the railroad, design engineers soon found out that even with the lower elevation through the Crow Creek gap, the grade of the rail line would still be impassable by railroad. The enormous project almost came to a standstill when an engineering consultant suggested that the railroad "bore a hole through it." In other words, build a railroad tunnel.
In 1849 construction began on the Cumberland Mountain Tunnel. Daytime and nighttime crews worked for three years crafting a tunnel through hard limestone rock using manual labor and very few explosives. The project was completed in 1852 and track was laid in 1853. The railroad was fully operational by 1855 and employed many local citizens, some of whom moved into Cowan to help build the tunnel. In that same time period, four prominent Episcopal bishops that had envisioned a higher education institution in the Southeast were negotiating a large land allotment with the Sewanee Mining Company on the mountain east of Cowan. The area, or town, was later known as Sewanee, and in 1860 the cornerstone was laid for The University of the South. \
The Civil War created a huge interruption to the progress in the area, but made Cowan and the Cumberland Mountain Tunnel a very strategic location for both union and confederate troops. Both sides considered destroying the tunnel, but then fiercely guarded it because of its critical importance during the war. Hundreds of troops camped out in Cowan and in the surrounding area at times during the war, and local historians have noted that Cowan appeared on several Civil War maps.
Following the war, the railroad returned to a normal operation, Bishop Quintard renewed efforts to build The University of the South atop Sewanee Mountain, and a logging business came into the area. Cowan quickly became an important railroad operations center, particularly with a fleet of extra locomotives on 24-hour call to push trains over the mountain. (Even with the tunnel, the mountain grade was still very steep.) Through the late 1800's, more and more families moved into Cowan, retail businesses opened, churches were built, and a boarding house built for the railroad was converted to a hotel.
In the early 20th Century, Cowan gained a cement company and several more retail businesses. The University of the South at Sewanee continued to grow, and helped make Cowan an important connection for the "Mountain Goat" railroad running from Cowan to Sewanee (and onward to the coal fields of Grundy County). In 1922 the town of Cowan was incorporated and chartered with the State of Tennessee. Soon after that, Cowan received a new manufacturing industry, a new public school, several new paved streets, and new public services that all contributed to substantial economic growth within the community.
Cowan was a thriving community through the mid-1900's with some of the finest manufacturing and retail industries in all of Middle Tennessee. Excellent railroad transportation was also a plus with 6 daily passenger trains between Chattanooga and Nashville. A round of new homes and neighborhoods were constructed following World War II, and the town developed a vibrant atmosphere centered round the fine dining, shopping, and entertainment establishments downtown. However, as the 20th century moved onward, dramatic changes in American society had detrimental effects on Cowan. The decline of railroad transportation prompted the discontinuance of passenger train service in the mid-1960's, about the same time that less-than-carload freight service disappeared. Cowan's enormous railroad shop was also closed and demolished. Genesco Shoe Manufacturing and Marquette Cement, two of Cowan's largest employers, closed forever in the late 1970's and early 1980's. A group of concerned Cowan citizens, representing a variety of interests, put up a brave fight to stop the decline of their beloved hometown. The citizens pulled together to save the old train depot, establish a railroad museum, and build a beautiful park around the railroad tracks downtown. Several Cowan businesses held on for better days, and a smaller manufacturing company moved in to replace Genesco. Despite everyone's very best efforts, the decline of Cowan only increased as the 20th Century drew to a close. Cowan lost some of its most valuable retail businesses, including a hardware store and pharmacy. New businesses tried to move in to replace the old ones, only to close soon thereafter. One historic downtown building after another was emptied, abandoned, and pushed into further decline. By the year 2000, Cowan had no resemblance whatsoever to its former self.
Cowan's devoted citizens were terribly discouraged by the town's declining economic state, not to mention Cowan's unfair share of bad publicity. The fight to reverse Cowan's economic and social decline was far from over. In 1999 the Cowan Commercial and Community Club, an organization founded in 1922 by some of Cowan's biggest "movers and shakers", re-organized and pulled together. Although pessimism was the most common town sentiment at that time, this group pulled together some of Cowan's remaining small businesses and developed new marketing initiatives with the railroad museum and specialty shops. The group also stirred interest in cleaning up and repairing the downtown railroad park, and promoted the idea that Cowan still had a great deal of untapped potential. One local business owner took a great deal of interest in restoring her building and breathing some life into her "corner of town". A local citizen then convinced the City of Cowan to auction off two city-owned abandoned buildings in hope that a new owner would restore them. One bright idea led to another, and by the Summer of 2001 there were four major building restorations moving full speed ahead in downtown Cowan. Ambitious new plans were being drawn to restore the old railroad hotel, develop urban style downtown housing, open a fine new restaurant, and repair another downtown building just as a new bakery and another fine downtown restaurant quickly moved into town and opened. Cowan's directional change was sudden, unexpected, and caught the attention of citizens throughout the area, particularly in the surrounding communities. "What in the world is happening in Cowan?" for example, was a topic of discussion at a small restaurant in nearby Winchester on a February morning in 2003. Yet another business moved into Cowan into yet another restored downtown building in the summer of 2003 and, shortly thereafter, the last abandoned historic building on Tennessee Avenue was purchased with plans for a full restoration.
Today, the town of Cowan is capturing the attention of people from far and wide. New businesses, restored features, and growing optimism are making this historic small town, once again, a real jewel for the State of Tennessee. What makes Cowan even more unique is that the town's dramatic turnaround was entirely the work of local citizens. The town of Cowan now looks toward a future that builds on its colorful past. Cowan is developing with a niche for back-road tourists, and a passion for charming small-town living in one of the most beautiful regions of the country!