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Exploring Cowan, Tennessee

Cowan is a charming small town located in the southern part of Tennessee, USA. Situated in Franklin County, in the heart of Middle Tennessee, Cowan offers a unique blend of history, natural beauty, and a close-knit community.

Historical Roots

Cowan’s history is deeply intertwined with the railroad. Founded in the 1850s, it served as a crucial hub for the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad, driving its growth and development over the years.

Population and Size

As of January 2022, Cowan is home to approximately 1,700 residents. Its relatively small size contributes to the tight-knit community atmosphere that characterizes the town.

Scenic Beauty

One of Cowan’s standout features is its stunning natural surroundings. Nestled amidst the hills of southern Tennessee, the town offers excellent opportunities for outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, and bird-watching.

Arts and Culture

Cowan boasts a vibrant arts scene, with numerous local artists, musicians, and craftsmen calling the town home. Visitors can explore local art galleries and enjoy cultural events that showcase the talents of the town’s residents.

Cowan Railroad Museum

A must-visit attraction in Cowan is the Cowan Railroad Museum. It provides a captivating journey through the town’s history, highlighting the pivotal role of the railroad in its development.

Natural Attractions

For outdoor enthusiasts, the nearby Fiery Gizzard Trail, located within South Cumberland State Park, is a popular destination. This scenic trail offers challenging hikes and breathtaking vistas, making it a favorite spot for nature lovers.


While Cowan’s history is closely tied to the railroad, its economy has diversified over the years. Today, small businesses, tourism, and the arts all play vital roles in sustaining the local economy.

Close-Knit Community

Cowan is renowned for its close-knit and friendly community. Residents often know their neighbors, and there’s a palpable sense of community pride that permeates daily life in the town.


While the railroad still plays a role in Cowan’s transportation infrastructure, the town is also accessible by road. U.S. Route 41A passes through Cowan, connecting it to neighboring towns and regions.

The Railroad’s Role in Shaping Cowan

Birth of a Town

Before the railroad’s arrival, Cowan was a virtual non-entity. The Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad’s (N&C) construction required a station at the Cumberland Mountains’ western base, where the iconic Cowan Tunnel was built. This station became the town’s nucleus, drawing settlers and businesses that thrived on railroad activities.


Economic Engine

The railroad served as Cowan’s economic lifeline, connecting it to major markets and facilitating goods transportation. Coal mining, timber, and agriculture in the surrounding areas flourished due to the efficient and reliable transportation provided by the railroad. This economic boom led to job creation, increased revenue, and overall prosperity for the town.


“Pusher Town”:

Cowan’s strategic location at the Cumberland Mountains’ foot made it crucial for “pusher” locomotives. These powerful engines assisted heavier trains in ascending the steep grades through the tunnel and over the mountain pass. This vital role solidified Cowan’s importance within the railroad network and attracted skilled workers to maintain and operate the pusher engines.


Cultural and Social Hub:

The railroad transformed Cowan from a rural crossroads into a vibrant community. The depot became a center of social interaction, with passengers, railroad workers, and locals gathering to exchange news, conduct business, and socialize. Hotels, restaurants, and other businesses catered to travelers and railroad personnel, fostering a sense of community and identity in Cowan.

Legacy and Preservation:

While passenger rail service no longer runs through Cowan, the town’s railroad heritage remains deeply embedded in its identity. The historic Cowan Railroad Museum stands as a testament to the town’s past, showcasing restored locomotives, artifacts, and exhibits that tell the story of the railroad’s impact on Cowan and the region.


Cement Plant


The Cumberland Portland Cement Company had a quarry in Cowan, Tennessee in 1938. In 1881, the Tennessee Coal and Iron Railroad purchased the Sewanee Furnace in Cowan, which is where the cement plant is located today. The plant took years to fully operate, and the city didn’t have enough housing for the workers at the time. In the 1970s, Cowan lost its two largest industries, the Marquette Cement Company and the Genesco shoe factory.



In conclusion, Cowan, Tennessee, is a hidden gem in the heart of Middle Tennessee, offering a delightful blend of history, natural beauty, and a warm, welcoming community. Whether you’re a history buff, outdoor enthusiast, or simply seeking a peaceful retreat, Cowan has something to offer everyone who visits this charming town.



  1. From The Tennessean Jun 26, 1881 https://www.newspapers.com/article/the-tennessean/30840805/ 

  2. This photo was from the Tenneessee Virtual Archive, titled “The Cumberland Portland Cement Co. quarry in Cowan, Tenn., showing the huge boulders left after a dynamite blast.”, dated Mar 25, 1938. Source: https://teva.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15138coll28/id/6061/