The Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad (C&O) Russell YMCA is located in Russell, Kentucky and provided overnight lodging, baths, meeting space, and other accommodations for railroad workers before closing in 1992.
Until the advent of the C&O, Russell was a small community along the Ohio River between Greenup and Ashland. When the railroad was completed west from Ashland, the city flourished, with its population increasing from 175 in 1880 to 743 by 1900 and 1,758 by 1920.6 The completion of the Russell railyard for the C&O, the largest in the world at the time of its completion, fueled an explosion of employment opportunities in the region. The majority of the traffic in and out of the railyard dealt with coal, which was being mined at a furious pace in southeast Kentucky and southwest West Virginia.
The C&O, like most other railroads, partnered with local YMCA’s to provide overnight lodging, baths, meeting space, and other accommodations for railroad workers.6 The first YMCA, a simple two-story frame structure at Russell,7 was constructed in 1896.6 It was owned by the YMCA and administered by the local YMCA board. By the early 1900’s, the building was renovated and enlarged into a three-story Victorian, with an addition constructed by the 1920’s.
There were 384 members at the Russell YMCA by 1906, and 440 railroad workers used the YMCA’s facilities on an average day.8 In addition, 4,854 workers attended Bible classes that year, and 25 were involved in regular training courses.9 By 1919, there were 557 members, making it the third largest railroad YMCA in the state, behind The Louisville & Nashville Railroad’s (L&N) YMCA’s in Corbin and Louisville.10 The Russell YMCA was valued at $10,000.
The 1920’s saw an increase in employment and activity for the Russell railyard.
The YMCA boasted a membership of 966 and a constituency of 20,000 railroad workers by 1924, making it the second largest railroad YMCA in the state.12 It was valued at $320,000. A third main track was constructed between Ashland and Russell in 1925, and a 100-feet turntable, water softening plant, and conveyor for transferring coal from bad order cars were constructed.11 The engine terminal was also improved. A $1.25 million underpass for U.S. Route 23 was completed, allowing automobile and truck traffic to bypass an at-grade railroad crossing.
During the mid-1920’s, the YMCA’s role expanded to not only include programs for the railroad workers but for the local community. A playground on theRussell YMCA grounds was constructed by local Russell YMCA Secretary Arch Morgan, which included a tennis court, croquet court, swimming pool, and associated equipment. A baseball field was also graded.13
By 1927, the YMCA had a membership of 2,025 railroad members, making it the largest railroad YMCA in the state.14 It had become apparent that the three-story Victorian and annex was far too small to serve not only the needs of the railroad workers but the local community. The Russell Times newspaper in 1942 clamored for a bigger, more modern YMCA facility.15
In response to overcrowding conditions at the old YMCA, the C&O constructed a new $1 million facility in 1948.5 16 The new YMCA included amenities such as a bowling alley, gymnasium, auditorium, barber shop, restaurant, meeting rooms, library, and sleeping rooms. For workers of the C&O, there were 142 beds and laundry. The Russell YMCA was the only such facility constructed post-World War II for the C&O. The advent of diesel engines instead of steam engines meant fewer stops for refueling and layovers by railroad workers, conductors and engineers.
A 1974 article in the Russell Times noted that the YMCA was in good condition and that it served the “largest railroad yard in the country” that was operated by one railroad.17 The Russell rail yard featured the arrival and departure of 24 trains, four turns, and 1,000 car movements per day.
By 1984, the C&O had merged with the L&N, among other lines, that eventually became part CSX Transportation (CSX). Soon after, CSX withdrew its financial support to the YMCA due to mechanization of labor which reduced the yard’s workforce.18 In 1992, the YMCA closed.2
In the 2000’s, the abandoned YMCA was acquired by Lucasville, Ohio resident Kay Renolds for $35,000 at auction.2 3 4 The building was then purchased by Russell YMCA, LLC, a new entity primarily owned by Louisville resident George T. Breathitt, in December 2002.2 4 Breathitt, who also owned American Housing Incorporated, proposed to renovate the complex into an independent living facility for the elderly at a cost of $4 million.2 4 The project entailed rehabilitating the building to support 47 residential units for adults aged 55 and older. Breathitt sought state tax credits as part of the financing package.
Work was scheduled to begin in 2003 but a lack of state tax credits led Breathitt to abandon the project.3