The NC&StL branch line ran between a junction with the NC&StL main line at Dechard, Tennessee and Gadsden, Alabama with the help of a ferry boat that traversed the Tennessee River from Hobbs Island (near  Huntsville, Alabama) to Guntersville, Alabama.

The Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis car ferry operation was operationally similar to car ferry operations such as the BEDT, but it operated over greater distances and was in service long after it should have been discontinued.  The NC&StL completed the Huntsville Branch in 1893, connecting Gadsden, Alabama, (a major industrial area), to the rest of the NC&StL system.  Gadsden, in turn,  was part of a larger industrial area which began at Birmingham, Alabama and stretched up to major industrial operations at Chattanooga, Tennessee.  Birmingham was an area where deposits of coal, iron ore and limestone converged, all the major requisites for steel making.  In turn, railroad development extended out from Birmingham to reach other mineral deposits and to connect to other industries that were established because of Birmingham’s presence.  Gadsden was such an area; several steel related operations were located there.

A twenty two mile segment of the Huntsville Branch involved a car float operation which connected Hobbs Island (just below Huntsville) with Guntersville.

NC&StL Ferry Loading

This unusual railroad operation  continued until 1957 or 1958, when service was discontinued. The NC&StL car float operations continued in spite of their  inefficiency. In the early days of operation, from 1893, the car float was propelled by the sternwheel paddle boat Huntsville.  This  boat was replaced in 1946 by the diesel powered tow boat Guntersville.  While the Huntsville was only able to push one car float, the Guntersville was able to push two car floats for a total capacity of about twelve freight cars. 

The Huntsville branch offered passenger service until about 1928, with the line becoming freight only until service was discontinued in 1957.  Although there may have been trains which were devoted solely to passenger service on this line at one time, it is assumed that, in later years, passenger service was offered on a mixed train of both freight cars and a passenger car.  It is also assumed that railroad  passengers exited the passenger car during the car float portion of the journey on the Huntsville branch.  NC&StL car No. 851, a baggage & coach combination car, was used on the Huntsville branch for many  years. Presumably, 851 was used on the Huntsville branch trains instead of a caboose car.

Photographs of the car float operations indicate that the NC&StL had a separate locomotive for the segment of track between Guntersville and Gadsden.  It is likely that other locomotives were stationed at Gadsden for the purpose of switching cars with the local industries served by the NC&StL.  Initially, these locomotives could have been transported to Gadsden via other railroads to avoid the problem of moving the heavier locomotives on the car float.  Or, the car float  could have moved the locomotive singly, keeping the engine on home road rails and avoiding paying transportation charges to another railroad.

Closure of the ferry operations occurred shortly after the NC&StL merged with the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, which had controlled the NC&StL since 1897. The L&N had two lines which served Gadsden, and the ferry operation was an unnecessary additional expense. Because of the access allowed by the L&N lines, former NC&StL shippers were not affected by the discontinuance of the car float operations.  The float operations ceased “in the late 1950’s”€¯ (Castner).

Interestingly, the rail portions of the Huntsville Branch remain largely intact and in service as of this writing.  In the 1970’s, the L&N would be merged with a group of other Southeastern railroads to become known as the “Family Lines”€¯, which would in turn be merged with the Chessie System to form the present day CSX. The fact that the Huntsville Branch continues in service indicates the continued presence of viable shippers.  In any case, this Tennessee River railroad car ferry operation was an unusual one for the southeastern United States.

Source Data

Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway, The Dixie Line by Charles B. Castner, Jr; (Carstens Publications, Inc., 1995).  ISBN 911868-87-9, (photos and caption information).

The Historical Guide to North American Railroads compiled by George H. Drury; (Kalmbach Books, 1985).  ISBN 0-89024-072-8, (information on NC&StL and L&N).

Comprehensive[Railroad] Atlas of North America, Southern States by Mike Walker; (Steam Powered Publishing, 2001).  ISBN 1-874745-14-5, (maps).

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