Growing up a fan of trains does not always translate into a decades-long career in the railroad industry and Herman Peter Valentine Claussen II, known as Pete, made other career stops before arriving at short lines.
Claussen learned to love railroads thanks to his German grandfather, who couldn’t speak English but who connected with his young grandson by taking him to a park near their New Jersey home to watch for trains that passed on adjacent tracks.
In college Claussen received a degree in English literature and went on to get his JD from Rutgers Law School, becoming an attorney with the Tennessee Valley Authority. He then became vice president and legal counsel for the Knoxville International Energy Expo, which organized the 1982 World’s Fair. Work on the World’s Fair was what first connected Claussen to different railroad projects. For instance, he helped establish the South Central Tennessee Railway in 1983 and was named its president, an introduction to buying and operating railroads. This introduction to buying and operating railroads came at an opportune time.
The passage of the Staggers Rail Act in 1980 allowed enterprising individuals to purchase small railroads from bigger companies and Claussen decided he wanted to take a similar chance. He founded Gulf & Ohio Railways Inc. (G&O) and on Dec. 31, 1985 Claussen’s first railroad, the Mississippi Delta, ran its first train.
Claussen grew his business by flipping railroads – buying them in poor condition for cheap, then rehabilitating and selling them to invest the profit in better properties. After acquiring the Mississippi Delta, Claussen added the Alabama & Florida Railroad in 1986 and the Wiregrass Central Railroad in 1987. Over the years Gulf & Ohio has owned and operated 18 railroads in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky.
Today, G&O, of which Claussen is chair, operates four short line freight railroads in Tennessee, South Carolina and North Carolina and one tourist excursion operation in Tennessee. The company also owns Knoxville Locomotive Works, a locomotive remanufacturing company that is making a name for itself developing environmentally friendly low-emission locomotive engines.
Over the years Claussen’s passion for trains has converged with his interest in studying history and preserving historical artifacts. In 1995 Claussen bought locomotive number 203, a steam engine built in 1925, for the Three Rivers Rambler excursion company. He named it Lindy, after his wife Linda. Among other older engines owned by Three Rivers Rambler is former SR 154, one of the oldest operating locomotives in the country. The 154, built in 1890, was restored by Gulf & Ohio after spending more than 50 years on display in a Knoxville park.
Though his business’s headquarters and operations are in the south, Claussen has long been active in historic preservation at the national level. He was a member of the board of the National Portrait Gallery Commission and the Smithsonian National Board. He was also a board member and served as chair of the National Museum of American History, which features the Linda and Pete Claussen Hall of Democracy. And visitors to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. will see another of Claussen’s contributions, a Jim Crow-era segregated railroad car that serves as one of the featured items in the museum’s Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom exhibition.
This passion for conservation is not limited to railroads. Claussen and his wife Linda were active in the development of the 360-acre Seven Island State Birding Park in Knox County, Tennessee, setting up the Seven Islands Foundation and donating two-thirds of the land for the park. In 2020 a passenger bridge in the park was dedicated the Linda and Pete Claussen Bridge.
Claussen has also served as chair of Zoo Knoxville and as board member to the Legacy Parks Foundation, the Museum of Appalachia and the Alliance for Better Non-Profits. He currently is on the board of a non-profit medical clinic in Knoxville and on the board of the East Broad Top Foundation. He has been chair of ASLRRA’s Legislative Policy Committee and served on the Association’s board and Executive Committee.
Like their dad, Claussen’s children Karen Bishop and Peter V. “Doc” Claussen have found their paths leading them into railroad careers at G&O. Doc Claussen is also the immediate past chair of ASLRRA’s Board of Directors.