Railroad YMCA’s were once staples in the United States, offering lounges, recreational amenities, restaurants and a safe and convenient place for rest for the myriad of railroad employees. Russell, Kentucky is one such instance of a town that offered a YMCA.
Russell, located along the Ohio River west of Ashland, is best described as a sleepy river community that hugs the bottomlands between the water and the hills that surround. Not resembling much of eastern Kentucky, in terms of architectural styles or development patterns, Russell only saw growth with the expansion of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad westward into the town and again when the Russell rail yards were constructed and expanded. The city was never located near a major coalfield, nor was it located near coal processing plants unlike many cities to the south of it, although the adjoining rail yards were comprised of mostly coal cars that moved through the region, carrying a raw resource from mines to power plants and factories.
In 1880, Russell’s population was just 175, expanding to 1,758 by 1920. Consequently, the railroad YMCA, which was constructed in 1896, had a membership of 384 by 1906, with 440 workers that used the facilities each day on average. By 1919, there were 557 members – and was the third largest in the state behind only Corbin and Louisville.
The 1920s saw an expansion of the yards, and a third main track was completed between Ashland and Russell which relieved congestion. By 1924, the YMCA had a membership nearing 1,000, and was the second largest railroad YMCA in the state – behind only Louisville.
Early amenities included boarding rooms, a library and a cafeteria. An expansion in the mid-1920s added a swimming pool, playground equipment and tennis and croquet courts. Those features were added as the railroad YMCA was used more and more by the public.
By 1927, the YMCA was the largest railroad YMCA in the state, with 2,025 railroad members. But by the early 1940s, the existing space was far too small for the needs of the railroad and community, and a new railroad YMCA was completed in 1948 in the modern architectural style. The mammoth building contained new amenities, such as a bowling alley and gymnasium, meeting rooms and an updated restaurant. The railroad was also booming during this time, with the yards seeing a departure of 24 trains per day and over 1,000 car movements were occurring per day on average.
But the Russell railroad YMCA was the last constructed by the railroad, and one of the last in the United States. Steam locomotives were soon phased out for diesels, and as a result, overnight stays were no longer in demand – which reduced the need for rooms at the YMCA. Mechanization of labor also reduced the need for the YMCA. In 1984, the Chesapeake and Ohio had merged with the Louisville and Nashville and other lines that eventually became part of the Chessie System and then CSX Transportation. Soon after, CSX withdrew their support to the YMCA, and in 1992, the Russell Railroad YMCA closed.
In 2002, a redevelopment proposal called for the abandoned site to be converted into an independent living facility, although no work has begun.