A Brief History of The Louisville & Nashville Railroad
by Charles B. Castner
The Louisville & Nashville Railroad was born March 5, 1850, when it was granted a charter by the Commonwealth of Kentucky “...to build a railroad between Louisville, Kentucky, and the Tennessee state line in the direction of Nashville." On December 4, 1851, an act of the Tennessee General Assembly authorized the company to extend its road from the Tennessee state line to Nashville.Laying of track began at Ninth Street and Broadway in Louisville in May of 1853. By 1855, the founding fathers of the L&N, most of them Louisville citizens, had raised nearly $3 million to finance the construction. The first train to operate over the railroad ran on August 25, 1855, when some 300 people traveled eight miles from Louisville at a speed of 15 mph!
A little more than four years later, on October 27, 1859, the first train operated all the way from Louisville to Nashville, joining the two namesake cities. For all practical purposes, the 187-mile railroad was complete. Scheduled trains began running a few days later, and with the exception of war, fire and several floods, they have been running ever since. The total cost of this original construction was $7,221,204.91.
By the time the Civil War began in 1861, the L&N had 269 miles of track. Located almost in the middle of the opposing armies, the L&N at various times served both the Union and the Confederacy as the tides of war changed. Although the railroad suffered considerable damage during the war years, it emerged in surprisingly good financial condition. It was so well off, in fact, that at the close of the war the L&N began expanding. Within a period of 30 years, through construction and acquisition of existing short railroads, the L&N extended its tracks to St. Louis in Missouri,Cincinnati in Ohio,Birmingham and Mobile in Alabama, Pensacola in Florida, and New Orleans in Louisiana.
Memphis, Tennessee was reached shortly after the close of the Civil War, and by 1872, the L&N had obtained sufficient track in Tennessee and Alabama to begin running trains between Louisville and Montgomery, Alabama. The acquisition of two smaller railroads, which made the route possible, also helped to create Birmingham. The vast deposits of iron and coal in the vicinity played important roles in the city's formation, and the first commercial steel produced there was financed in part by the L&N.
It is appropriate here to mention L&N President Milton H. Smith, who served in that capacity for nearly 40 years, longer than any other chief executive. Smith went to work for the railroad as a local freight agent in Louisville, just after the Civil War. Within three years, he had advanced to general freight agent, eventually becoming vice president and traffic manager, and finally president in the 1880s. Under Smith, the L&N grew from a small local carrier into one of America's major railroad systems.
The railroad's entrance into the Gulf of Mexico ports came in 1881. A 140-mile rail line, including roughly nine miles of trestles and bridges, linked Mobile with New Orleans, but there was little contact with the outside world until the L&N extended its tracks to Mobile and then acquired the line on into New Orleans. This acquisition enabled the railroad to extend its sphere of influence to international markets for agricultural products and goods manufactured in major cities along the L&N.
Also in 1881, the L&N began extending its Lebanon Branch (in Kentucky) across the Tennessee state line to Jellico. In 1891, a line was extended to Norton, Virginia, and another to Atlanta, Georgia. Between 1879 and 1881, through the purchase of track in Kentucky,Tennessee, Indiana and Illinois, the L&N gained access to the coal fields of western Kentucky. In 1883, the L&N completed a 170-mile rail link from Pensacola to Chattahoochee, Florida. In all, 56 railroads were acquired, leased, or constructed during the 1880s and 1890s, as the L&N system began to take its final form.
One of the L&N's most important expansions came early in the 1900s, when the railroad pushed its tracks deep into the coal fields surrounding Hazard and Harlan in eastern Kentucky. Acquisition in 1909 of two smaller lines and construction in 1911 and 1912 of more than 150 miles of track along the Cumberland River and the North Fork of the Kentucky River gave the L&N access to the landlocked bituminous coal riches of eastern Kentucky. In the preceding decades, the L&N built additional rail lines, not only in eastern Kentucky, but in western Kentucky,Tennessee and Alabama, to help develop new coal production points.
The L&N and other railroads were called on to move unprecedented numbers of passengers and amounts of freight during World War II. More than 90 percent of thenation's military equipment and supplies and 97 percent of all its troops rolled by rail tomilitary bases and ports of embarkation. With dozens of on-line training camps and defense plants, L&N traffic soared, with increases of 80 percent in freight traffic and more than 300 percent in passenger traffic. And yet, its successful handling of those increases was performed with comparatively little addition to power, rolling stock or personnel. During World War II, some 6,900 L&N employees were furloughed to the armed forces.
The postwar years brought swift, striking changes to railroading, as the L&N, which purchased its first diesel in 1939, retired its last steam locomotive in 1957. The L&N introduced streamlined passenger service with the advent of The Humming Bird and The. Georgian,and gradually updated the equipment on such passenger trains as The Pan- American, The Piedmont Limited, The Crescent, The Azalean, The Dixie Flyer, The Flamingo and The Southland. Other innovations included pushbutton electronic classification freight yards at major cities, computers, telecommunications and microwave transmission, hundreds of miles of continuously-welded rail, new signaling and centralized traffic dispatching systems and thousands of special-purpose freight cars.
The first major expansion following World War II occurred in 1957 when the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway, a subsidiary, was merged into the company. The NC&StL, some 1,200 miles long, connected Memphis,Nashville, Chattanooga and Atlanta.
In 1969, the L&N acquired a portion of the Chicago & Eastern Illinois Railroad between Evansville, Indiana, and Chicago, permitting it to enter that important midwestern railcenter. That same year, a 131-mile segment of the Tennessee Central Railroad between Nashville and Crossville, Tennessee was purchased. In 1971, the 573-mile Monon Railroad was merged into the L&N system. It connected Louisville with Chicago and provided a valuable second entry into the Great Lakes area. By the end of 1971, the L&N operated more than 6,574 miles of track in 13 states.
During that year, however, the Seaboard Coastline Railroad, which had owned 35percent of the L&N's stock for many years, bought the remainder of the outstanding shares, and the L&N became the wholly-owned subsidiary of Seaboard Coast Line Industries. On December 31, 1982, the corporate entity known as the Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company was officially merged into the Seaboard System Railroad, ending the L&N's 132-year existence under a single name. The Seaboard System quickly lost its own corporate identity as it and the Chessie System became CSX Transportation in 1986.
The name may now be gone, but thousands of miles of trackage still exist today, serving America's transportation needs under a different banner. They remain as a tribute to one of the nation's premiere railroads, the Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company.