Not long ago, about thirty-five years ago to be exact, the distant howls of an early morning steam whistle echoed through the valleys, bouncing off the hills and mountains along the way as I stood outside waiting on the school bus. From my vantage point, the sounds were coming from a southeastern direction toward Polksville, and was the train that passed daily from Olympia to Salt Lick along the Chesapeake & Ohio railway. I was fascinated when I saw the mighty trains pass along the way while traveling with my family, but had no idea at that early age the importance and impact these machines made to thousands of people over time.
Bath County's rich natural resources were harvested or mined, then traded by people long before the advent of modern travel. Natives traded furs and food among themselves and with the occasional pioneer trader as they passed on horseback or by foot. Early settlers used mule, ox, or horse drawn carts to move goods across the mountain passes and fields to river towns where the items would be placed on flat boats and sailed down the Licking River to the Ohio River ports in Maysville. The abundance of timber along the Licking River in the southeast region of Bath County gave rise to thriving settlements called Yale and Ragland Mills, while the iron ore and mineral deposits in the central part of the county spawned booming iron smelting operations. At the time, cart and river travel was a long, tedious and sometimes dangerous journey; terrain, weather and encounters with Native Americans caused delivery of these goods much delay. Passenger travel at that time was by stagecoaches along dusty, bumpy and sometimes very treacherous paths that also took long periods of time. One of Kentucky's first stagecoach lines ran from Lexington to Olympian Springs, along the wooded paths that passed through Mount Sterling and Winchester.
The first railroad to operate in Kentucky was the Lexington & Ohio Railroad, built in 1832-1833. It ran from Lexington west to Frankfort, with substantial financial backing to continue onward to other points along the Ohio River. In 1852, the Lexington & Big Sandy Railroad connected the heart of Kentucky to the state's eastern coal fields and beyond to the eastern seaboard. The proposal for railroads through Bath County was brought to the table for voters to consider in July, 1852. A purchase sum of stock worth $150,000 in the Lexington & Big Sandy, or L&N, Railroad was required for the creation of the rail system. The vote was 854 in favor, 408 opposed. In April, 1853, Bath County subscribed to the stock at $1,000 each, payable in thirty years at six percent annual interest. The stock was payable bi-annually through the Bank of North America, housed in New York. By 1876, twenty-two of these stock certificates were bought, then retired. The remainder of the balance then went to a financial institute in New York and the county refused to pay any further interest. A lawsuit resulted against Bath County, with judgement awarded to the plaintiff, Amey & Company. Bath County Judge E.V. Brother negotiated a settlement sum of approximately $234,000, of which Amey & Company agreed to reduce another $25,000 off the debt. Bath County paid a little over $31,000 back, with a remaining seventy-five bonds sold between 1880 and 1886; the last finally paid off twenty-five years later under the administration of County Judge Executive C.W. Goodpaster. Because of this, the railroad project was derailed for some time.
|Proposed map of the Elizabethtown, Lexington & Big Sandy Railroad, 1853|
|Photo courtesy of www.gearedsteam.com.|
These rail systems utilized rail carts and horse drawn wagons to transport ore to markets in the area and were short in length; thus no regular freight or passenger service was ever established.
|Rose Run iron mining operation in Bath County,|
mining from Brassfield(Clinton) iron ore beds.
Photograph by A.M.Miller, 1919
An 1888 pamphlet published by F. L. McChesney, of Paris, entitled The Kentucky Midland Railway Company – Its Resources and Prospects said this about the PG&F Railroad route:
“Starting from Frankfort, the Capital of the State, a prosperous city of from 8,000 to 10,000 inhabitants, and one of the largest lumber markets . . . . proposed road will pass eastwardly . . . through Stamping Ground . . . . Georgetown is reached, a flourishing city of 3,000 inhabitants . . . . Here a junction is made with the Cincinnati Southern, opening to that road the most direct line to Frankfort and to Louisville. The Kentucky Midland will certainly divide the business south of its line with the Lexington branch of the Louisville & Nashville, and will also receive the entire traffic north of its line where there is no competing road.”“Traversing a magnificent section of Bourbon county, the road will reach Paris, a growing and enterprising city of between 5,000 and 6,000 inhabitants. The business of Paris is large . . . . the most important shipping point on the Kentucky Central Railroad.”
“after passing through Bourbon the road will enter the county of Bath within about one-half mile of Sharpsburg . . . . the farmers are well-to-do, and almost all have deposits in their local bank.”
“The road will pass through Owingsville, a prosperous, thriving, business town.”
“The Kentucky Midland will cross the Chesapeake & Ohio near Salt Lick, and thence will pass on through Morgan county. Near Salt Lick it will reach and cross the Licking river, and open up a large lumber trade.”
“In Morgan county, is the best defined and most reliable and largest cannel coal field in the known world.”
The PG& F route through Bath County would run from Paris to Sharpsburg, onward to Owingsville near the courthouse square, crossing the C&O Railroad at Salt Lick, then to Yale. During construction, the railroad's route shifted and the route into Bath County never went beyond the planning phase. The railroad instead went from Paris to Carlisle onward through Cynthiana, Falmouth, Maysville and Covington. During the expansion from Paris, the railroad's name changed to the Kentucky Midland Railway. A couple of other proposals from interested parties came to light in 1896 and 1897, with one route running from Jellico, Tennessee through Owingsville to the Ohio River, but neither proposal came to fruition. A new rail line from Midland to the mouth of Caney Creek, near the Caney Furnace location, was also proposed, but never got past planning. An electric railway was proposed by John P. Martin of Xenia, Ohio to run from Mount Sterling to Sharpsburg, carrying freight from the Cincinnati-Southern Railroad, but again, never came to be.
As the Twentieth-Century arrived, the towns of Olympia, Preston and Salt Lick became booming industrial ports for the railroad, which, in 1904 was consolidated and changed from the Elizabethtown, Lexington & Big Sandy to the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad. The railroad was especially important to Salt Lick; a large lumber operation was established on the southern outskirts of town.
|Coal Burning Train, Salt Lick Ky. 1900|
In 1914, the remaining rails from the Licking Valley Railroad were put down in Owingsville to establish the Owingsville & Olympia Railroad, or O&O. Five cars and a locomotive made up the O&O line, which was also known as the Little Dinky because of the narrow gauge rail and small Climax engine. The depot was located off what is now Paul Lewis Drive behind the old city hall building on Slate Avenue. The track ran down the hill, then turned south six miles to Olympia, rounding the hillside across from Kendall Springs Road; of which, the old rail bed can still be seen. Owingsville had finally secured it's place in the railroad age. The first train left Owingsville in the early part of 1915 and was managed by W.W. Hubbard, with John K. Richards being the local agent at the depot. The steam engine soon became impractical, probably due to the steep grade just outside Owingsville, and was replaced by a gasoline fueled engine that could haul the heavy freight and eventual passengers that would board.
The Little Dinky train was parked at the depot in Owingsville taking on freight one afternoon. Suddenly, the locomotive's brakes failed and the train barreled down the grade. It continued to the bottom of the hill and raced toward the curve going into the first trestle, gathering momentum. The train jumped the track at the first trestle and plummeted to the ground onto its side. The public became apprehensive about traveling on the O&O after the wreck and passenger service eventually came to a stop. The O&O continued to run freight, but without the funding from passenger service, the railroad became financially unstable. By 1916, hardly any trains were moving along the route and the Owingsville & Olympia Railroad ceased operations. The tracks were dismantled in 1918 and sold to coal companies. No trains have ever rolled into Owingsville since, and the O&O holds the distinction of being the shortest lived railroad in Kentucky.
|Salt Lick's depot, circa 1950|
|The George Washington, circa 1966.|
unfazed by the economic crisis. The Chesapeake & Ohio line was very prosperous despite the hardships, and helped contribute to the delivery of much needed goods to stricken major cities. During World War II the C&O trains were one of the main suppliers of materials and men to the ports at Newport News, with many of those trains loaded with war material and recruits passing through Bath County.
During the railroad age in Bath County, there were a few incidents recorded involving accidents and fatalities. A small article in the Owingsville News Outlook dated February 17, 1898 tells of Jessie Keesee, of Carter County, who was killed by a passing train as he slept near the tracks just outside of Preston. The Bath County World newspaper notes on the same date of publication that Will Kinsie, also of Carter County, was killed near Preston by a passing freight train; quite possibly the same person, just variations of the name. Pete Miller of Lexington was killed January 30, 1906 near Preston when the caboose he and another man, Edward Flynn, were operating overturned in a curve. It was reported that Miller was trapped in the caboose and the overturned stove set the car on fire. Flynn was badly injured, but survived. Albert Lewis was killed when he attempted to jump onto a platform between moving rail cars near Salt Lick February 22, 1906. Another person attempted to jump onto a moving train at the Stepstone freight station, which was located at the bottom of Sugar Grove hill, and was dragged to death in 1908. A few more incidents of pedestrians being struck are dotted among old newspapers, but perhaps the most bizarre incident is also chronicled in fellow writer Tom Byron's The Kentucky Files blog. Elbert Thomas of Olympia took a new Greyhound Bus from the terminal yard in Cincinnati one night in July, 1953. He drove the bus all the way back to Olympia, where he abandoned it in the middle of the railroad crossing on Highway 36. Shortly afterward, a freight train slammed into the bus, cutting it in half. No one was reportedly injured in the spectacular crash, but Thomas was arrested and charged with the theft of the bus.
Throughout the early years of rail travel, there were few major accidents involving derailments. Aside from the Owingsville & Olympia wreck, there was an incident of a Licking Valley train jumping track due to a portion of track being washed out along the route. Another was the derailment of the caboose that killed Pete Miller. Two major incidents in the 1970's had the potential for deadly consequences; not only for the rail crews, but to the general public. A freight train pulling thirty-four cars derailed November 8, 1976 adjacent to a farm belonging to Dick Lyons near the Stepstone freight station. Twenty-six cars left the track, including a tanker hauling 4,000 gallons of sulfuric acid, tearing out over 500 feet of track. The damaged tanker car began leaking the hazardous chemical into Stepstone Creek, a short distance upstream from Slate Creek. The fire department responded to insure there was no fire hazard and the fledgling Bath County Disaster Emergency Services, led by Vernon Barber, responded to assist. A bulldozer was called to the scene to construct a dam in order to keep the chemicals from further flowing into Owingsville's water supply point, located about five miles away, behind the Lion's Club Park off Kendall Springs Road. State and railroad emergency response crews arrived on the wreck scene and began using a limestone filter system to neutralize any contaminated water down stream. Several hours later, the spill was mitigated and the threat was over. Recovery crews from the Chessie System began moving the train cars the next day and repairing the damaged tracks. No injuries were reported during this incident, but it was a very close call for the public.
|The derailment at Preston, April 1978. Courtesy of the Bath County News Outlook|
|Wrecked rail cars dangerously close to homes after the 1978 Preston derailment|
|A representative from DuPont inspects a damaged rail car, Preston, 1978|
As transportation shifted from rail to interstate highway and air travel, fewer goods and passengers traveled the rails through Bath County. To accommodate over the road commercial vehicle travel, a bypass route had to be established in Salt Lick due to the low clearance of the C&O bridge. Bypass Road was built across from the BP gas station and paralleled the railroad, exiting onto US 60 in Midland. When US 60 was widened and rerouted in the early 1990's, the C&O overpass was left standing and now sits on privately owned land just barely out
|The C&O Overpass in Midland, 2005. Photo by TJ Mahan|
|The O&O bridge site, 2015. Taken by Andy Crouch|
of sight. Passenger trains dwindled in Bath County by the mid Twentieth-Century and the Chesapeake & Ohio line merged with two other rail systems and renamed the Chessie System. Yellow and black diesel locomotives replaced the older streamlined trains and the older classic style trains had become that of nostalgia. By 1970, Passenger service had ceased along the railroads that passed through Bath County. Freight trains carrying coal and tanks of various substances passed through daily, but not as frequently as they had before. The old railroad beds at Yale and Ragland Mills were lost to history when Cave Run Lake was built and the old Ore Mines rail beds were, and still are, used as farm roads. Today, the trail of the Owingsville & Olympia Railroad can be seen as a driveway to a home below the Owingsville Cemetery and along the hillside across from Kendall Springs Road. As mentioned before, the Slate Creek Bridge support structures are still standing behind the church of Latter Day Saints, but is on private property. The trains continued to roll down the rails until the early 1980's. Preston's railroad depot burned down and was never rebuilt, and the Olympia depot closed and was eventually torn down. The Chessie Railroad and Seaboard Coast Line Industries merged to form the CSX Corporation in 1980, absorbing the nearby Baltimore & Ohio and Lexington & Nashville lines. The existing rails, which ran well away from the C&O line, were kept in service for the new CSX trains. Fewer and fewer trains ran through Bath County, and eventually, all service was discontinued through the county. The last train to roll through Bath County was in 1985, bringing an end to the era of the mighty iron horses. The tracks were torn up and hauled away, however, many people bought the wooden ties to use for various purposes. The old rail beds were eventually abandoned all together by the railroad company and sold to neighboring residents. Some of the old railroad beds have been converted into roads, both private and county maintained; an example of this is Vista Lane in Olympia. Salt Lick's depot stood until the late 1980's, when it was torn down and the Salt Lick Fire Department was built in nearly the same location. Some neighboring counties have preserved their depots and created community centers or museums out of the once bustling structures. The last train I personally remember seeing was along US 60 in Rowan County in the mid 1980's. For those who lived and was raised in Olympia, Preston and Salt Lick during the age of the iron horses, the trains hold a special place in their hearts and memories. Lifelong Salt Lick resident Bob Frizzell published a book called Memories of Old Salt Lick and has some great references to the railroads, and if you walk into the home/office of Brad Frizzell, several railroad artifacts such as lanterns, spikes and old photographs adorn the walls; most of which were acquired in Bath County. Train travel remains a romanticized method of travel and there are places in Kentucky that still offer short excursions that take one back into that nostalgic age away from the busy interstates. The Kentucky Railway Museum in New Haven offers some great insight on the railroads that ran throughout the state, and has some unique and rare artifacts. Outside, visitors get a treat by seeing the mighty trains up close, such as the Chesapeake & Ohio Number 2716 locomotive. The C&O 2716 may not have rolled through Bath County, it was primarily used in West Virginia, but the nod to Bath County's local history painted on the side would make anyone who remembers the age of the iron horses smile with some pride.
There are many, many more stories associated with the railroads in Bath County, probably far too many to put into a short story context. While this volume of Bath County's history is only a brief summary, there are still many people who can tell their own stories about the railroads and how they impacted their lives in some way.
Ghost Railroads of Kentucky by Elmer G. Sulzer
Bath County News Outlook, April 20, 1978 edition- Special Thanks to Donna Conway for use of this paper!
Andy Crouch-photo credit
Robert Wright-Salt Lick Depot photo credit
An Illustrated History of Bath County, by John Adair Richards