Friday, November 27, 2015

In the Days of Iron Horses: Bath County's Railroads

While coming home from a recent business trip, my work colleague and I stopped in the Western Kentucky town of New Haven and visited the Kentucky Railroad Museum.  Outside the museum is a large train and some cars on display that bear a familiar moniker to many local folks; Chesapeake & Ohio.  For those who remember the days of the Iron Horses that ran through Bath County, and those who have yet to discover, this is the story of the railways that once crossed the fields and through our small towns.

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
On January 29, 1869, the Elizabethtown, Lexington & Big Sandy Railroad Company was established by an act of Kentucky's legislature, consolidating with the Western Division of the Lexington & Big Sandy Railroad.  The Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad was formed in 1869, incorporating several smaller rail lines from Richmond, Virginia to Huntington, West Virginia by 1873.  These rail systems would further link Kentucky to Atlantic sea ports, and provide much needed jobs for the post Civil War population.  Around the same time, small, narrow gauge railroads were being established in the coal mining towns in east Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.  The smaller locomotives were economical and could easily access narrow mountain passes along the way.  The Elizabethtown, Lexington & Big Sandy railway began construction in 1871, linking Lexington with Winchester.  By June, 1872, the railway was extended to Mount Sterling and stopped there due to lack of funding.  Plans were drawn out for the railroad to pass through Owingsville and sites were surveyed and mapped as early as 1853.  Right of ways were purchased, then abandoned, and eventually Owingsville was passed up as a train stop location.  In 1892, the EL&BS Railroad was bought out by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company and construction began connecting Huntington to the heart of Kentucky.  Meanwhile, between Yale and Ragland Mills, a three-foot narrow gauge railroad was starting to to be established to transport timber to ports along the Licking River.  Chartered by the Sterling Lumber Company in 1896, the Licking Valley Railroad came to life in April, 1897.  The rail line ran from the lumber mill at Yale to Ragland Mills, and onward twelve miles to Salt Lick, where it eventually connected with the Chesapeake & Ohio line.  The Sterling Lumber Company failed and dissolved in 1899, leaving the railroad up for purchase.  Yale Lumber took ownership of the mill and purchased the railroad for $29,000; renaming it Licking River Railroad.  In addition to freight hauling, a passenger service was established to generate much needed revenue for the railroad.  By 1905, the Licking River Railroad expanded into Morgan County to Blackwater, encompassing a total of thirty-five miles.  A total of thirteen Climax type locomotives
Photo courtesy of
operated along this route with five freight boxcars; a significant amount for such a small line.  A single passenger train ran daily from Yale to Blackwater, then to Salt Lick and back to Yale.  As the early Twentieth Century dawned, the intense logging operations began to deplete the forests at a rapid pace.  Native hardwoods became nearly obliterated and the lumber yards began to reduce operations.  By 1906, the Licking River Railroad became unprofitable due to the people leaving the area to find better work, and by 1913, the little railroad was abandoned.  The tracks were pulled up, the trains and cars were sold off; however, one locomotive, some cars and most of the rails remained in Bath County and moved to Owingsville.  A couple of other narrow gauge railroads sprang up during this era; one being used primarily for transport of iron ore at the Rose Run Iron Beds between Polksville and Olympia.
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
As the railroads expanded, the vision of a standard rail system through Bath County was finally a realization.  Construction began from Mount Sterling into Bath County in 1880, with freight depots built in Olympia, Preston, and Salt Lick.  A connector line was  proposed to run from Owingsville to Sharpsburg around 1886 when the Paris, Georgetown and Frankort Railroad was established.  The line would also connect Owingsville to Salt Lick and down the Licking Valley line to Yale.  Bath County would own and maintain the railroad, of which the county raised $2000,000 in bonds at 5% interest.  Additional principle would have to be borrowed from private sources solely on the good faith that the rail service would be prosperous.
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
Many local men were hired by the railroad as linemen, signal operators or performed other essential duties to maintain the rail line.  Owingsville, however, would be largely ignored by the railroad systems.  From 1907-1909, there was an interest in getting rail service from Salt Lick, through Olympian Springs, Owingsville and Sharpsburg, ending in Maysville.  Many prominent people of the day expressed a great interest and public meetings were held to generate support and potential financial backers.  It was estimated that the route would cost around $400,000, of which many of the county's businessmen were initially willing to help fund.  Engineers and surveyors from the Kaufman-Shaw Construction Company were hired to plot the route and land owners were contacted about right of way, but, like the several proposals before, the idea lost interest.  The Kentucky Midland Route was planned to run from Salt Lick to Paris, through Owingsville, but abandoned early in the planning stages.  The last consideration for Sharpsburg to gain a railroad was in 1909, when the Commercial Club of Winchester proposed a route from North Middletown in Bourbon County to Sharpsburg.  More public meetings were held, and great consideration was expressed, with right of ways agreed upon.  When the proposal was brought before the financial backing group from Philadelphia, the group deemed the railroad as unfeasible, and the project was scrapped.  It seemed efforts to establish an effective rail system in the northern section of Bath County, and into Owingsville, was lost. 
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.
A bridge was erected across Slate Creek near the Bourbon Furnace, and is still standing behind the Church of the Latter Day Saints on Kentucky 36.  A couple of smaller trestles were erected over the smaller streams between Owingsville and Slate Creek, one of which was at the bottom of the grade just below the depot.  The O&O was very profitable hauling goods and a passenger service was envisioned, but in October, 1915, ideas for passenger service came to a dashing halt.
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.
As the Twentieth Century dawned, the railroad system was booming nationwide.  Trains took over the once prosperous river routes and wagon trains that once raced across country.  In Bath County, Salt Lick was the key railroad depot and shipping point.  The town grew into a thriving business district; the rails created much needed jobs for local residents and stores and shops began to line main street in the small town.  In addition to freight, passenger service along the C&O Railroad became routine.  The route could whisk passengers to Washington, DC where they could be connected to other rail lines anywhere up the East Coast.  Steam and coal powered engines still chugged down the lines, but the passenger trains in the early 1900's moved to gasoline power for better efficiency.  Several passenger trains passed through daily, but two were considered the luxury lines of the rails; and made stops at Bath County's local depots.  The first was the Fast Flying Virginian, or FFV for short, which ran the daytime route from Washington, DC to Cincinnati.  The FFV was brought into service in 1889, and was the first train in the Chesapeake & Ohio fleet to have a dining car.  Another amenity was enclosed passages between cars to allow for passenger safety.  The George Washington had air conditioned cars  that provided an extra layer of comfort for passengers on their trip.  The George Washington was probably the most famous of all of the C&O passenger trains due to the level of comfort and scenic views it traveled. Many of the C&O trains were coal burners and rightfully so as the main route ran right through the heart of coal country.  During the Great Depression of the 1930's, the rail system seemed
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
Residents of Preston were going about their usual routines the morning of Thursday, April 13, 1978.  Eula and Arnold Miller were at their breakfast table around 6:30 a.m. and heard the eastbound freight train approaching the town's crossing by Rube Blevins' store; what the Miller's saw and heard next would be the beginning of a harrowing twenty-four hour ordeal.  A train hauling sixty-nine cars jumped the track at the crossing, scattering thirteen cars, debris and twisted rails all around.  One empty coal car nearly plowed through a house down the street along the tracks.  Mrs. Miller watched in awe as the cars crashed into each other.  Neighbors began going door to door to check on each other, when suddenly, a crewman on the train ran up telling everyone that three cars were loaded with deadly hydrocyanic acid.  Mike Cassidy, who lived near the tracks, alerted the fire department on his CB radio and ran up to the scene to see what he could do to help.  When told that there were hazardous chemicals involved, he and a few others began evacuating people from the immediate area.  According Eula Miller's interview in the Bath County News Outlook's April 20, 1978 edition, there was no panic as people began to move away from the accident location.  Soon, the fire department and rescue squad were on location and with help from the sheriff's department and Kentucky State Police, they began evacuating residents within a mile radius of the accident.  The acid was being transported in three 11,000 gallon tanker cars, with one receiving a large dent from being sandwiched between other tanker cars; none of the three overturned thankfully.  An evacuation center was located at the Owingsville Church of God and by 8:30 a.m., evacuees were starting to fill the church.  About 300 people were evacuated to either the church or to other family members' homes.   In some cases, residents had just enough time to gather a handful of items before they had to leave, so most just had what clothes they were wearing and no other provisions.  The church, schools, and local residents assisted the evacuees in their basic needs and provided meals; a true community wide effort.
A representative from DuPont inspects a damaged rail car, Preston, 1978
The incident command post was established at a residence on Kendall Springs Road and by mid-afternoon, representatives from DuPont, the owner of the chemical tankers, had been flown into Preston.  Preston had become the center of media attention and curious on-lookers.  Several low-flying airplanes and helicopters surveyed the wreckage from above.  Kentucky State Fire Marshall's office representative, Carl Mastin, arrived on scene and presided over some of the operations during the incident, with the local fire department standing by.  Vernon Barber organized the rescue squad to assist Sheriff Dan Swartz in keeping the radius secure and allowed only essential personnel into the scene's perimeter until it was deemed safe.   Once representatives from DuPont arrived, they indicated that the tankers were not leaking the deadly materials and the clean-up process began.  Evacuated residents were allowed back home after a tense twenty-four hours.  Chessie System representatives  began moving the cars still on the tracks the following Monday, and by Tuesday, April 18, all of the wreckage had been cleared out from Preston.  It is believed that the cause of the derailment was that the tracks had become unstable at the Preston crossing after so many years of train travel.  Mike Cassidy stated during an interview with the Bath County News Outlook that he had seen the tracks sway up and down several times over the years.  At the time of the accident, there was only one foreman and two rail hands that were tasked to maintain the tracks, most certainly an undaunting task for such a small crew.  No one was injured during this incident, and other than the property owned by the railroad company, no homes or personal property was lost. 
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


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