A - Development of Railroads in Central Kentucky

The City of Lexington was founded during 1779 and quickly grew for the first three decades into the commercial center of the then “Western Frontier.”  Lexington became the principal city of Kentucky, known as the “Athens of the West.”  City streets were lined with commissioned merchants, whiskey brokers, tobacco warehouses, mercantile shops and dry goods stores.  Eastern goods were “imported” along the old Limestone Road from Maysville and distributed to the frontier – south to Nashville, west to Louisville and north to Cincinnati and Ohio Valley.  Turnpikes radiated from Lexington.  Lexington was the hub of a wagon wheel, with goods and commerce flowing along the spokes.

In addition, beef, pork, bacon, whiskey, hemp and tobacco were exported to the Deep South.  These articles were usually shipped down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to Natchez and New Orleans (which were Spanish and then French possessions).  From New Orleans, these commodities were shipped around the world on sailing vessels.  These items were shipped on flatboats or keelboats made of native timber.  Once in New Orleans the trade goods were sold, then the riverboat broken up and sold for lumber.

However, with the introduction of the steamboats during the late 1810s, river cities along the Ohio River quickly replaced Lexington as the hub of commerce.  Louisville, Covington and Cincinnati flourished and grew into major cities.  Lexington, being landlocked in the interior of Kentucky, stagnated economically from the burden of high shipping costs.

In 1830, Lexington’s civic leaders and merchants proposed to build railroads to reduce shipping costs.  Proposed routes included lines to the Ohio River, along the spokes to Maysville, Covington, Louisville and Ashland. The first line was planned from Lexington to Frankfort and Portland (south of Louisville).  This line connected with the Kentucky and Ohio Rivers.  It was estimated that one freight car would replace from six to ten freight wagons and be operated at the same expense.

In 1832, the Lexington & Ohio Railroad began construction from Lexington and by January 1833 the first six and half miles were placed in service.  In June 1833, the line was finished to the midway point to Frankfort, where the company founded the town of Midway.  In late January 1835, the first run by the steam locomotive from Lexington into Frankfort was completed, a total of 28 miles, in 2 hours 29 minutes, averaging twelve miles per hour

Over the next two decades, additional railroads were chartered to connect north with Paris and Covington and south to Nicholasville.  In 1849 and 1850, the Covington & Lexington and Maysville & Lexington Railroads built lines from Covington to Paris and Lexington to Paris, respectively.  In 1855, the Lexington & Danville Railroad built its line past Nicholasville before construction ended due to financial problems.  These lines were consolidated as the Kentucky Central Railroad.

During the Civil War, these lines were critical to the Federal government in supplying their forces in Tennessee and Georgia.  These lines were repeatedly fought over, being destroyed and rebuilt a number of times.

Following the Civil War, additional railroads were constructed to interconnect Lexington with the surrounding region.  The importance of these lines can be measured by the amounts the City of Lexington invested in these ventures.  By 1890, the city had subscribed over $1,525,000 in seven different companies.  The total assessed value of real estate in Lexington was approximately $25,000,000 at the time.  In today’s dollars, this investment would be conservatively valued at between $500 million to $1 billion dollars.



Lexington & Ohio Rail Road

$     25,000

Maysville & Lexington Railroad            

         $   200,000

Covington & Lexington Railroad

$   200,000

Lexington & Danville Railroad

$   200,000

Elizabethtown, Lexington &

   Big Sandy Railroad

$   500,000

Louisville Southern Railroad

$   100,000

Kentucky Union Railroad

$   300,000




In 1872, the Elizabethtown, Lexington and Big Sandy Railroad began building a line to Ashland.  By 1889, the Louisville Southern had also completed its line from Louisville to Lexington, by way of Versailles.  The Lexington & Eastern Railroad (formerly Kentucky Union) also completed a line from Lexington to Jackson, to service the timber and coal resources in Eastern Kentucky.  During 1889, the Belt Line Railroad was built to connect the railroad lines around the northern edge of Lexington.

Beginning in the 1890s, these lines began to consolidate into the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, Southern Railway and Chesapeake & Ohio Railway.  These regional lines for the next sixty years were the primary means of commerce and shipping.  Following the Second World War, interstate highways replaced railroads as the primary means of transportation.

The mainlines along Water Street were originally viewed as encouraging Lexington’s economic growth.  These tracks were adjacent to the downtown business district, allowing goods to be offloaded at or near the destination.     By the 1950s, the various tracks along Water Street were viewed as a deterrent to economic growth, causing congestion of the city streets.  In 1968, the city finally succeeded in removing the tracks from downtown.  Over the next decade, many of Lexington’s railroad lines were abandoned.

Today, Norfolk Southern continues to operate the old Southern Railway and R J Corman operates portions of the old Louisville & Nashville Railroad and Chesapeake & Ohio Railway systems.  The Norfolk Southern line was originally the Lexington & Danville, while the Corman lines were part of the Lexington & Ohio, Covington & Lexington, Maysville & Lexington, Elizabethtown, Lexington & Big Sandy, Louisville Southern, Kentucky Union and Belt Line railways.


Other Central Kentucky Railroads

Frankfort & Cincinnati Railroad:

In 1871, the Paris, Georgetown & Frankfort Railroad Company was established with plans to connect Louisville, thought Frankfort to Jackson.  In 1888, the name was changed to the Kentucky Midland Railway Company.  The lines between Frankfort to Georgetown and Georgetown to Paris were built during 1888 - 1889 and 1889 - 1890, respectively.

In 1894, the Kentucky Midland entered receivership and was sold at foreclosure in 1899.  The company was reorganized as the Frankfort & Cincinnati Railway Company.  In 1927, the company again reorganized as the Frankfort & Cincinnati Railroad Company.  The line ceased operating from Paris to outside of Frankfort and the remaining Frankfort sections in 1970 and 1987, respectively.[i]


Richmond, Nicholasville, Irvine & Beattyville Railroad:

In October 1889, the Louisville Southern Railroad supported the construction of the Richmond, Nicholasville, Irvine & Beattyville Railroad (known as the “Riney-B”).  This line connected with the Louisville Southern at Versailles.  This route ran from Versailles, Nicholasville, Valley View, Richmond, Irvine and Beattyville.    The line was completed in the summer of 1890 to Irvine.  Financial problems forced this line into receivership in December 1891.[ii]

During 1897, the company was sold at foreclosure and reorganized as the Louisville & Atlantic Railroad.  In November 1902, the route between Irvine and Beattyville was completed.  The Beattyville & Cumberland Gap Railroad was acquired to connect with the Lexington & Eastern Railway at Airedale.  The line was known as the Kentucky River Route.

In 1909, the Louisville & Atlantic was acquired by the Louisville & Nashville Railroad.  The Irvine to Millville, including Valley View, portion was abandoned during 1932.  Cliffside (Frankfort) to Millville was abandoned during the 1990s.


Kentucky Highlands Railroad Company:

In April 1907, the Kentucky Highland Railroad constructed a line from Frankfort to Millville.  At Millville, the line served the Old Pepper, Old Taylor and Old Crow Distilleries.

In 1908, the Louisville & Nashville acquired the company and in 1911 connected Millville with Versailles.  The branch operated as part of the Louisville & Atlantic (old Richmond, Nicholasville, Irvine & Beattyville) Division of the Louisville & Nashville.  The original portion was abandoned during the 1990s.[iii]


Chartered, But Not Built Railroads

Charleston & Cincinnati Railroad:

In 1835, the Charleston & Cincinnati Railroad was chartered by the South Carolina legislature, to build a railroad line from Charleston, South Carolina to Cincinnati.  In January 1836, the Kentucky legislature granted a charter to the line, with the proposed route passing thought Lexington.  In addition, the charter required branch lines from Lexington to Louisville and Maysville (by way of Paris).  The company had the option to establish railroad banks at each city were it establish a station.  The project failed during the “Economic Panic of 1837,”  due to lack of financial support from the state (especially from the Louisville delegation).[iv]

In 1842, the line was reorganized in South Carolina and built a line from Charleston to Chattanooga.  The company began operations in 1851.  This line would later become a key component in the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railroad.[v]


Lexington & Kentucky River Railroad:

The Lexington & Kentucky River Railroad Company was chartered on February 23, 1846.  The Commissioners from Fayette County were Robert Boggs, John Brand, Joseph Bruen, Waller Bullock, David T. Carr, John G. Chiles, Benjamin W. Dudley, Robert Dunlap, Jacob Embury, Thomas Grant, James O. Harrison, Richard Higgins, John Hudson, John W. Hunt, Thomas H. Hunt, Madison C. Johnson, D. C. Overton, Richard Pindell, George Robinson, William Rodes, Robert C. Rogers, James Shelby, Robert Simpson, Robert S. Todd, Parker E. Todhunter and Owen D. Winn.

The corporation was authorized to construct a railway from “the city of Lexington to such points on the Kentucky river, within the counties of Fayette, Clarke or Jessamine.”  Capital stock was set at $200,000, with 4,000 shares of $50 par value authorized.  After organization, the company was to be known as “The Lexington Railroad Company.”[vi]

The company appears never to have been organized.  The company may have been an attempt to hold the proposed routes, so that another investor group would be required to purchase the charter.


Lexington, Owingsville & Big Sandy Railroad:

The Lexington, Owingsville & Big Sandy Railroad Company was chartered on March 3, 1851.  The Commissioners from Fayette County were Jacob Hughes, Thomas Hughes, Thomas B. Megowan, D. C. Payne and Robert Wickliffe.  In addition, commissioners were appointed for Bath, Montgomery, Carter and Greenup Counties.  The corporation was authorized to construct a railway from Lexington, through Owingsville to the Big Sandy River (presumably Ashland).  The company appears to never have been organized beyond the charter.[vii]


Lexington, Harrodsburg & Bowlinggreen Railroad:

The Lexington, Harrodsburg & Bowlinggreen Railroad Company was chartered in Frankfort on March 24, 1851.  The Commissioners from Fayette County were George Bowman, Joseph Bryan, William Bryant, Joseph H. Christman, H. S. Elgin and Benjamin Gratz.  Additional Commissioners were from Mercer, Warren, Washington and Marion Counties.  The company was authorized to build from Lexington to Harrodsburg, Bardstown, Springfield and Bowling Green.  The line was also permitted to connect with any line building to Nashville.  The line was not built.[viii]


Lexington & Richmond Railroad:

In 1866, the Lexington & Richmond Railroad was formed to connect Lexington to Richmond.  The proposed route was out Tates Creek Road, to Valley View and then to Richmond.  The railroad was organized by John B. Wilgus, a Lexington grocer and banker.  The proposed line made several unsuccessful attempts to obtain public subscriptions from Fayette and Madison Counties.  The proposed road would have absorbed the Kentucky Central’s trackage and continued south to Knoxville.  At the time, Wilgus had a conditional contract on the Kentucky Central Railroad for $3,150,000.  The total cost to Knoxville was estimated at $14,000,000.[ix]

During the 1890s, several unsuccessful attempts were made to revive this proposal and connect with the Richmond, Nicholasville, Irvine & Beattyville Railroad.[x]


[i] Hixson, Kenneth R., Forty Miles, Forty Bridges – The Story of the Frankfort & Cincinnati Railroad, Henry Clay Press, Lexington, 2007.

[ii] Sulzer, page 33-42.

[iii] Sulzer, page 36.

[iv] Fisher, page 12, Curry (Leonard), page 16 – 17 and Perrin, page 83 – 86.

[v] Curry (Leonard), page 16 – 17.

[vi] Acts of Kentucky, 1846, page 285 – 288.

[vii] Acts of Kentucky, 1851, page 247 – 250.

[viii] Acts of Kentucky, 1851, page 560 – 563.

[ix] Perrin, page 86 – 89.

[x] Perrin, page 86 – 89.

William M. Ambrose, Bluegrass Railroad, Limestone Press, Lexington, 2009.