The COVID-19 pandemic has not slowed down the Tennessee Thunder Railroad this fall.
Under new owners Matt and Ashley LeFever, who acquired the property and business in October 2019, the one-quarter scale train is continuing to entertain children and families. The custom built train can carry up to 24 guests at a time on the .4-mile loop around the grounds off Kgal Drive north of Lebanon.
Matt LeFever said it’s really hard to tell if attendance has been impacted by COVID-19, but he and his wife remain very happy with their decision to purchase the local attraction.
“We can’t really judge it just due to the year. When we purchased it, we weren’t planning on a global pandemic. But as far as we know, it’s done really well,” he said, adding that they are working to follow all safety guidelines that are in place, including wearing masks and maintaining social distance. “We shut down our train station so nobody can go inside. We kept everything outside and kept everything in pods.”
Guests to the four-acre property can spread out to different parts of the grounds such as the pumpkin patch and the children’s play area, in addition to taking a ride around the loop. There are also spots set up specifically for taking photos.
The Tennessee Thunder Railroad has been in operation for about 17 years. The LeFevers moved to Albany in 2013 and Ashley LeFever first visited a few years later on a parent-child outing with their son, Reeve, now 6.
“Our son loves trains, that’s what brought us out here as visitors. We lived in Albany and we joked ‘If it ever comes up for sale, let’s do it.’ Not thinking it was going to happen this quick,” she said. “The previous owners put it up for sale last summer and we were the crazy ones who said that we wanted to buy the house and keep the business going.”
Despite the difficulties of the year, they have continued to invest in the business with an eye on the future. In the spring, they purchased a one-quarter size tender which now serves as part of the welcome sign at the front entrance.
In September, they purchased a trolley car from a fellow train enthusiast in Salem. It is built on the same scale as their train, but was designed for a slightly smaller track. Matt LeFever is working to adapt it to run on his 15-inch gauge track.
He serves as the train engineer and does all the maintenance on the track and on the engine, which is powered by a three-cylinder, turbocharged motor.
“It has plenty of power,” he said. “It’s lots of fun to work on.”
The couple has also been hard at work on the grounds. The train passes by numerous model structures and scenes on its loop, including a mining camp, a barn, a bank, a church, and a schoolhouse. The train even passes through a covered bridge, which is currently decorated with a Halloween theme.
When they need assistance, residents of the neighborhood are happy to lend a hand.
“I grew up in a rural community. That’s what I liked about this area,” Matt LeFever said. “The neighbors have been a huge help with this, a tremendous amount of help, keeping everything going. The other day I had six neighbors helping me with a project.”
The railroad has been open throughout October and will wrap up its fall campaign this weekend. The location will be open from noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 31 and Sunday, Nov. 1.
They will then close for November while they decorate the entire property in approximately 8,000 linear feet of Christmas lights. The railroad will then reopen in early December for holiday tours, offering families a safe, outdoor outing.
Ashley LeFever said the railroad has been a blessing to her family, which also includes daughter Matley, 3, during this difficult year and they look forward to being able to continue sharing it with others.
“It has been incredible. With the shock of the year … it’s honestly brought our family more joy. We’ve had something to focus on,” she said. “We’ve got people saying thank you to us for doing this. We enjoy sharing it. Really, it has been much more than I could have imagined.”
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