Last revised: April 28, 2023
By: Adam Burns
Kentucky's history with railroads are quite similar to its northern neighbor, West Virginia; coal. The state's western region was rich with bituminous mines, served by the Louisville & Nashville (L&N) and Chesapeake & Ohio railroads.
There were also through main lines running from the north-to-south connecting Louisville, Cincinnati (Ohio), Paducah, Lexington, and other cities. These routes were served by the previously-mentioned L&N as well as the Southern Railway.
In addition, the Illinois Central (later Illinois Central Gulf), which largely served the Midwest and boasted a Chicago - New Orleans main line, linked Paducah with Louisville.
Kentucky was once home to many popular passenger trains, most of which connected either Louisville or Cincinnati southern points such as New Orleans, Miami, Memphis, Chattanooga, and Atlanta.
Notables on the Southern included the Ponce de Leon (Cincinnati - Jacksonville), Queen & Crescent (Cincinnati - New Orleans), and Royal Palm (Cincinnati-Chattanooga-Jacksonville) while the L&N operated the Pan American and Humming Bird between Cincinnati and New Orleans.
Both railroads, always profitable companies, fielded fine trains although it was the Southern who maintained service the longest with its Southern Crescent surviving beyond the start of Amtrak (1979).
Their dining service was far better than anything you will find today at Amtrak. For instance, the Louisville & Nashville's dinner menu in 1955 offered such things as the "Gulf Coast Seafood Platter" consisting of soft-shell crab from Lake Pontchartrain, Gulf Coast Jumbo Shrimp, Fried Tenderloin of Trout or Broiled Spanish Mackerel, and Bayou Cook Oysters.
Other dishes included sugar-cured ham, roasted turkey, fried pork chops, turkey and ham croquettes, and broiled fish from the Gulf Coast.
This railroad does not feature first-class dining although it does offer a "Coal Miner's Lunch," "Hobo Lunch," and "Coal Bucket Concession" for an additional ticket fee along their 16-mile round trip through the Daniel Boone National Forest and Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area. In addition, the Whistle Stop Restaurant & Steakhouse in Stearns offers lunch and dinner at select times throughout the week.
The history of the Big South Fork Scenic Railway can be traced back to the Kentucky & Tennessee Railway, a successful coal and lumber line which began operations in the early 1900s.
Today, the heritage railroad operates most of its original system, running from Stearns to Blue Heron along the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. The line also follows the Roaring Paunch Creek part of the way. It is a very scenic trip and has been recognized as one of the best in the south to see the fall colors each autumn.
Operated by the RJ Corman Railroad Group, a corporation which owns a number of short lines freight systems, this train is based in Bardstown and operates two to three days a week from during the summer season and at least once a week year-round.
The is one of the few to exclusively offer dining during the trip. It also one of the few which requires a formal dress code. And finally, it is one of the few to host trips on a year-round basis.
The excursion is one the oldest, as heritage railroads go, dating back to 1988 after RJ Corman acquired a former branch of CSX Transportation. The dinner train covers a distance of just over 18 miles between Bardstown and Limestone Springs Junction, Kentucky (37-mile round trip) as it winds its way along a former Louisville & Nashville branch line.
RJ Corman offers many special events throughout the year, such as during Valentine's Day, murder mystery specials, a Mother's Day Brunch, a New Year's Eve dinner, and more.
The Kentucky Railway Museum operates excursion trains on its property including a dinner train once a month during the operating season. The museum notes that casual dress is preferred while reservations are required.
The KRM's dinner train is a 1.5-hour trip with food service provided by the local Sherwood Inn. Please visit the museum's website for complete menu information.
Finally, they offer a bourbon tasting event. According to the museum: "Take a train ride from the Kentucky Railway Museum to Dant Crossing. The team at Dant Crossing will shuttle you from the train platform to The Legacy for dinner and tasting with Wally Dant. After dinner, a shuttle will take you back to Dant Crossing's train platform. The train will then return back to Kentucky Railroad Museum to retrieve your car."
The Kentucky Railway Museum (KRM), based in New Haven has a history that dates as far back as the late 1940s with its true beginnings in 1954. They are able to host excursions over a former Louisville & Nashville branch line acquired from CSX Transportation. It runs 17 miles from Boston to Mount Vernon. Excursions began in May, 1991.