Kentucky railroads, much like those in West Virginia will always be known for one thing, coal. Ever since railroads first began building rail lines in the state in the mid-19th century they have been tapping the very lucrative black diamonds, which today still makes up a significant portion of most railroads' profits across the industry. Today, Kentucky railroads still move millions of tons of coal annually (it remains the state's top originating traffic source) and the only thing that has really changed is the number of companies doing so. There are currently four Class Is serving Kentucky (BNSF Railway, CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern, and Canadian Pacific), although the two eastern carriers operate the majority of the state's rail network (BNSF and CP merely pass through Kentucky's western tip). Additionally, a few regionals and a handful of shortlines also serve the state. In any event, the information included below aims to give you a brief history and overview of Kentucky railroads including current operations.
Kentucky railroads date back to 1830, just three years after our nation's first common-carrier, the Baltimore & Ohio was chartered, when the Lexington & Ohio Railroad was chartered to connect Frankfort with Lexington, a distance of about 31 miles. The railroad was able to complete the line by 1834 and by 1851 had connected Louisville along the banks of the Ohio River. The company would eventually become part of the Louisville & Nashville system and today, its original line is still operating by RJ Corman, a diversified railroad business which owns several shortlines in Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and other southern states.
Following the completion of the L&O, Kentucky would boast several classic eastern and southern carriers, most of which gained entry or built into the state to tap its rich coal reserves. Even some Midwestern systems reached the state given that the western region of Kentucky was geographically in both the Midwest and South. In any event, these companies included (the below pages will take you to pages here at the site providing a further history of these companies):
Baltimore & Ohio (Reached Louisville)
Pennsylvania Railroad (Reached Louisville)
Norfolk & Western Railway (A scant presence with just a few coal branches in extreme eastern Kentucky)
Milwaukee Road (Amazingly, the Milwaukee did have trackage rights between Chicago and Louisville in later years.)
Today, Kentucky railroads are mostly the domain of Norfolk Southern and CSX mentioned before with CN and BNSF also having a small presence in the state. While the two eastern Class Is operate Kentucky's east-west main lines they also control several miles of branch and secondary lines to tap its still-lucrative bituminous coal reserves. and to a lesser degree Canadian National with the former railroads operating both through main lines as well as branch lines (most of which are used to serve numerous coal mines) within the state. Aside from the Class Is Kentucky is home to regionals Paducah & Louisville and Indiana Rail Road as well as shortlines RJ Corman, Kentucky & Tennessee Railway, Kentucky West Tennessee Railway, Louisville & Indiana Railroad, Tennken Railroad, Transkentucky Transportation Railroad, West Tennessee Railroad, and the Western Kentucky Railway.
To learn more about these railroads please click here. This page will take you to career information for those interested in gaining employment with a Kentucky railroad. However, it also provides a brief description and contact information for the companies operating there in the event you may be researching such. Today, Kentucky railroads operate a little over 2,600 miles of track although during the industry's heyday this number peaked to nearly 4,000 miles. Given that the state has lost just over 33% of infrastructure this is actually not bad given that most states have seen declines of 50% or greater since the 1920s. In any event, for a more in-depth look at Kentucky railroads in regards to its route miles through the mid-19th century to today please refer to the chart below.
Passenger trains like the IC's City of New Orleans, C&O's George Washington, and L&N's Pan-American no longer operate through Kentucky, at least by these former railroads. Today, Kentucky's passenger rail system is operated by Amtrak and includes the tri-weekly Cardinal between Chicago and Washington, D.C., and the City of New Orleans between Chicago and New Orleans. You can learn more about the streamliners that operated through Kentucky by clicking here to visit the section of the website here covering many, including the ones mentioned above. Additionally, please click here to visit Amtrak's website to learn more about the current services it offers in Kentucky.
There were several Kentucky logging railroads in operation within the state during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most of the lumber companies that used railroads to move logs to their mills did so via three-foot narrow-gauge lines. However, a handful also operated standard-gauge routes, notably the Brimgardner Lumber Company, Brodhead-Garrett Lumber Company, Dana Lumber Company, Turkey Foot Lumber Company, Leatherwood Lumber Company, Paducah Cooperage Company, S.T. Berry Lumber Company, and the Bond-Foley Lumber Company. Most of Kentucky's timber railroads were in use from the early 1880s through the mid-1930s when trucks finally became advanced and sturdy enough to move logs more cheaply and economically. The information also provides data on where the lines operated, dates, and which lumber company owned the property. Also, please note that the information below lists as many logging railroads in the state for which information could be found. This is, by no means, a complete overview of every operation.
Big Woods, Red River & Lombard Railroad
The Big Woods, Red River & Lombard Railroad was owned by the Big Woods Lumber Company, which operated the line to three-foot narrow-gauge standards. Its connections to the outside world included the Lexington & Eastern Railway, where finished lumber was interchanged. The railroad began operations in 1902 and utilized about 15 miles of track in all. It remained in use until only 1909 using two Climax locomotives, #1 and #2.
Brodhead-Garrett Lumber Company
This timber operation owned a small standard gauge railroad that served its mill near Lombard. It began operations in 1914 but was a very shortlived railroad as the tracks were taken up by 1917. The line owned two Climax locomotives, 35-ton Class B Climaxes. For information about one of these locomotives please click here.
Bull's Eye Spring Narrow Gauge Railroad
This logging railroad was built early in the industry's era as it was first constructed in 1882. The line owned about five miles in total at its peak and served the company mill, owned by Andrew Brown, located near Olive Hill. It was built to an odd narrow-gauge, 42.5 inches (about 3 1/2 feet), and utilized three small Lima-built Shays. Information on two can be found here: #119 and #79. The railroad remained in use until only 1893.
Dana Lumber Company
The company's railroad was named directly after it and moved logs located in the Red River Gorge region to a saw mill located near Lombard. The railroad was only a few miles in length but featured a tunnel, cut between 1911 and 1912, a rarity in the logging industry back then (usually lines were laid haphazardly through creeks and up mountainsides). However, the tunnel served an important purpose of linking the operation to a main line interchange to ship out finished lumber. The railroad used two Climax locomotives purchased new. Operations began in 1906 but were sold in October, 1914 to Brodhead-Garrett Lumber.
Kentucky, Rockcastle & Cumberland Railroad
This railroad was an affiliate of the Turkey Foot Lumber Company. Its mill was located at the end of the railroad where spurs were constructed to reach its timber holdings as well as the small hamlet of Caryton, where a connection with the Louisville & Nashville Railroad was established. The railroad was chartered on December 3, 1913 taking over a few miles of track already built and completed about 18 miles of line in total. It was a standard gauge operation that utilized a fleet of five geared steam locomotives. The railroad was slowly cutback starting in 1923 and was completely abandoned by 1935.
Licking River Railroad
The Licking River Railroad was owned by the Yale Lumber Company having been organized on November 15, 1899. It dated back to the Licking River Railway that was chartered in 1896 by the Sterling Lumber Company but failed in 1899. When Yale took over the operation 15 miles had already been completed between Yale, where the mill was located, and Salt Lick where a connection to the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway had been established. Under Yale's ownership the railroad was vastly expanded and by 1905 reached Blackwater, giving it a total system of 35 miles. The line was always three-foot narrow-gauge and owned 13 Climax locomotives, a massive fleet for a logging operation. Additionally, the Licking River was large enough that it also scheduled some local passenger service over the line. Unfortunately, it no longer was profitable after 1906 and was abandoned by 1913.
Mowbray & Robinson Lumber Company
This logging operation first utilized a narrow-gauge railroad around 1910 connecting its sawmills at West Irvine and Quicksand with the nearby L&N. At its peak the railroad was operating 40 miles of track and eight geared locomotives. In 1923 the timber reserves had been exhausted and much of the property was donated to the University of Kentucky.
Big Sandy & Cumberland Railroad Company
This railroad was an affiliate of the W.M Ritter Lumber Company, the largest timber company in the United States who owned vast tracts of hardwood in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia. Likewise, Ritter operated numerous railroads to move logs to his mills as well as the finished lumber. The BS&C was located in the corners of all three states mentioned above with a connection to the Norfolk & Western Railway at Devon, West Virginia. It was a 42 inch narrow-gauge system (3 1/2 feet) and at its peaked operated about 33 miles of track.
Rockcastle River Railway
This logging line was owned by the Bond-Foley Lumber Company and began operations in 1912 on a standard-gauge system. It connected Viva to Bond, with the former location being where an interchange was established with the L&N. During peak operations the company owned nearly 27 miles of track and a fleet of seven locomotives. Operations were discontinued in 1931.
Triplett & Big Sandy Railroad
This railroad was a shortlived operation owned by the Hixson-Rodbourne Lumber Company. It began operations in 1890 on a five-mile section of track connecting Rodburn to nearby timber interests located along Christy Creek. A narrow-gauge line it featured one geared steam locomotive and remained in use until only 1894. For a list of Kentucky logging railroads please click here.
Freight and passenger railroads aside, Kentucky railroads also include a number of railroad museums and excursion trains, like the RJ Corman-owned My Old Kentucky Dinner Train based in Bardstown (what's even better, it operates year-round!). These include, Big South Fork Scenic Railway, Bluegrass Railroad Museum, Kentucky Central Railway, Kentucky Railway Museum, Paducah Railroad Museum, and the Railway Museum of Greater Cincinnati. All in all Kentucky railroads have plenty to offer, whether you are a vacationer, railfan, or maybe even a Bluegrass local interested in some sightseeing or something to do! For more reading about the state's history with railroads you might want to consider Ghost Railroads of Kentucky by author Elmer Sulzer which specifically looks at the state's history with railroads and how they shaped Kentucky. In any event, if you're interested in the book please visit the link below which will take you to ordering information through Amazon.com.