In an unpretentious East Tennessee store building where, at one time, one could buy anything from boots to buckwheat, there exists now a small but jam-packed museum definitely worth a visit.
Given that the only admission price is whatever you may choose to drop into a jar just inside the front doors, and also given that the place is open seven days a week (10 a.m. To 5 p.m. weekdays and afternoon-only hours on Sundays) and is just a stone’s throw from Greene County, there’s no good excuse for missing out on this unique spot. And I say that as one who missed out on it for years.
The Bulls Gap Railroad Museum is a surprising place, or at least it surprised me. When I went inside the first time in my life earlier this week, I was amazed to see a humongous model railroad tabletop diorama that fills much of the interior space and looks like a railroad town in miniature. Tracks circle between hills and alongside streets lined with houses, businesses, churches, schools, water towers … about anything you’d find in a real town.
And model railroad cars? There are hundreds of them on that diorama, some lined up on sidetracks or in miniature rail yards, others linked together and powered to travel the tracks. I turned into a 10-year-old boy again the moment I saw those model trains, and that even though I’ve never been a model railroading hobbyist.
I’ve always loved trains, though. I remember from my preschool days how the sound of the train passing late in the night behind the Cookeville apartment where my family lived when I was little would draw me out of bed and across to their room, where a window looked out in the direction of the dark railroad and I could hear the train better and catch glimpses of boxcars moving on the far side of the trees. The feeling roused by that train rolling through the night was pure excitement for a little fellow such as I was at the time.
Now I’m a significantly older fellow, but I can get that same feeling again just by remembering the rumble and nocturnal whistle blast of that midnight train. Trains wordlessly tell stories, and make me want to tell them too.
But back to the Bulls Gap Railroad Museum. The man overseeing the place is Bill Haskins, a soft-spoken man with a pleasant demeanor and welcoming personal style. He’s the son of a Morristown fireman, but the grandson and great-grandson of railroad men. He was clad in overalls when I met him, and I’m betting that’s frequent garb for this East Tennessee native.
Though he was raised in Morristown, Bill’s mother was raised in Bulls Gap, and Bill spent many weekends and summers there when he was a boy.
Bill officially is retired after a career mostly in the grocery business, but curating the museum keeps him occupied almost around the clock. He’s also president of the incorporated group that owns the museum and the historic Gilley’s Hotel and White’s Hotel buildings nearby.
The old hotel buildings, which stand side by side and from the front appear to be a single structure though they actually are not, are deteriorating and weathered, but are sufficiently sound structurally that they could be restored, Bill said, for about $1.5 million.
He, like Mike Solomon, town administrator for Bulls Gap, believes in the strong potential for Bulls Gap to develop as a tourist destination, particularly if some of the historic structures there could be restored and made operational, maybe even the old hotels.
The original plan decades ago, or at least the original hope, was that one day the hotels might be the site of a railroad museum. Back in 1982, Bill was quoted in The Greeneville Sun in a Bob Hurley story about hopes for the hotel as a museum.
“A lot of people believe we can transform the historic old hotel into a fine railroad museum, perhaps one of the finest in Tennessee,” Bill told Bob.
That didn’t happen because the costs simply were more than the small group working on the project could gather, so instead the museum wound up in the smaller store building where it is today.
It was an appropriate spot, really, considering that the building once was home to a railroad company store.
Grants and donations helped fund the creation of the museum, and sales of various items in the museum today continue to give support to its operation.
One feature from the building’s store days remains in place today and is probably unique in East Tennessee and maybe beyond.
It’s a sort of compact clothing store that stands in a front corner of the building, It has two side-by-side cubicles that in the old days held clothes hanging on rods that could be telescoped out so that the clothing could be examined and selected.
The clothes cubicles have windowed doors. A third cubicle has a solid door, and behind that door is the small fitting room where potential clothes buyers, the non-claustrophobic ones, anyway, could try on garments.
Perhaps this kind of arrangement was commonplace in stores years ago, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one before. It was a masterpiece of space efficiency.
In the back of the museum is a large open room used for meetings and also available for private gatherings, receptions and so on.
There’s music at the museum, too, every Friday night from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
That’s the time for “Pickin’ on the Porch at the Bulls Gap Railroad Museum,” featuring bluegrass and gospel music. Light refreshments are available for purchase.
Though there is limited parking immediately around the store building, a large graveled lot is just across the railroad tracks. The lot is owned by the railroad, but is freely used by Bulls Gap residents and visitors.
A website for the museum is in development at bullsgaprrmuseum.com, but in the meantime the active online presence of the Bulls Gap Railroad Museum is on its Facebook page. You can access that by searching Bulls Gap Railroad Museum at Facebook.com.
The museum is at 153 S. Main St. in Bulls Gap. The phone number is 393-4429, or the museum can be messaged via a link on its Facebook page.
There’s far more to tell about remarkable little Bulls Gap. I plan to further explore this historic neighbor of ours in columns to come. Meanwhile, Greene County folk could find much to enjoy through a visit.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt has been to Bulls Gap, twice. The first time was an unannounced stop as he traveled by train to the dedication ceremony for the Smoky Mountains National Park. The second time was when his funeral train passed through.
Bulls Gap is just across the county line, in Hawkins County, between here and Morristown.