The Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad (C&O) Lexington Subdivision is a mostly abandoned 109-mile route between Lexington and Ashland, Kentucky.
The Lexington & Big Sandy Railroad (L&BS) was chartered in September 1852 to connect Lexington with the Big Sandy River near Catlettsburg. 1 As one of the primary proponents for the line, the city of Lexington subscribed $150,000 towards its construction. Between 1854 and 1857, twelve miles of track were completed from Ashland to Princess and to Coalton in 1858. 14
The right-of-way was surveyed as far west as the Mt. Savage furnace in Carter County before the economic Panic of 1857 forced the railroad to cease operations. 2 The roadbed was sold at auction for $60,000 in 1860.
In 1869, 1 the Elizabethtown, Lexington & Big Sandy Railroad (EL&BS) was organized with the city of Lexington and Fayette County each contributing $250,000 in capital. 3 It was estimated that it would cost $2.6 million to complete the line from Lexington to Coalton. 2
Construction of the EL&BS began at Scott’s Pond on Winchester Road in Lexington by Hutson & Bibb 4 and proceeded eastward towards Clark County on November 6, 1871. 1 On December 16, the city of Lexington authorized the railroad the right to build a connection to the Louisville, Cincinnati & Lexington Railroad (later Louisville & Nashville) at Water and Patterson streets. The first rail was laid on Water Street on March 2, 1872, and by June, the EL&BS was completed east to Mt. Sterling.
Construction stopped at Mt. Sterling for a lack of money but at the least, the railroad connected with the Kentucky Central Railway at Winchester that provided much-needed traffic and revenue. 2
In June, the EL&BS was leased to the Louisville, Cincinnati & Lexington whereas the EL&BS received a third of revenues. 5 The company constructed a combined passenger and freight depot along Water Street in downtown Lexington, a freight yard nearby, and a roundhouse on Drake at Water streets.
Further east, the Lexington & Big Sandy Railroad Eastern Division was formed in 1872 and the L&BS was extended from Coalton to Rush. 2 14 It was then acquired by the Ashland Coal & Iron Railway (AC&I) in 1880 which had railroad, iron manufacturing, and coal mining operations in the area.
The Newport News & Mississippi Valley Railroad (NN&MV), owned by Collis P. Huntington, began surveying in June 1879 to complete the EL&BS from Mt. Sterling to Rush. 6 Huntington soon gained full control of the EL&BS and the railroad, and in 1881, flush with cash, resumed work on the line proceeding east from Mt. Sterling. The final spike was driven at Denton west of the Means Tunnel where it met the AC&I in December, and the first train was able to operate over the 109-mile route from Lexington to Ashland. 2 14
In December 1881, the Louisville & Nashville Railroad (L&N) granted trackage rights to the NN&MV between Lexington and Louisville along the “Old Road,” a former Lexington & Ohio Railroad line. 7 The railroad then constructed a two-story train station at Water Street and South Limestone in Lexington in 1882 that was shared with the Kentucky Central (also controlled by Huntington) and the C&O. Finally in February 1892, the NN&MV was consolidated into the C&O becoming the Lexington Subdivision. 1 8
The C&O Lexington Subdivision connected to several railroads, notably with Huntington’s Chesapeake & Ohio Railway (C&O) in Ashland, the Kentucky Central Railway in Winchester, the Morehead & North Fork in Morehead, and the Louisville, Cincinnati & Lexington Railroad in Lexington. It served numerous small industries, and coal and limestone mines, clay pits, and brick kilns, especially east of Mt. Sterling.
But local traffic on the line began declining by the middle of the 20th century when the early coal mines were exhausted. Most of the brick kilns and their associated clay pits, such as the Kentucky Fire Brick Company, Lee Clay Products, and Olive Hill Fire Brick Company, were closed by the 1970s. Competition from Interstate 64 by the 1970s caused traffic to drop further. 11
Passenger service along the Lexington Subdivision was offered until Amtrak was instituted on May 1, 1971. Because of low volumes, Amtrak elected not to continue passenger operations along the line.
Two projects in the 1980s promised more traffic for the railroad. In 1981, Bath County constructed a short spur into an industrial park in Mt. Sterling at the cost of $325,000. 11 In adjoining Montgomery County, officials were anticipating an oil-shale project in Means that was expected to bring jobs and carloads to the railroad, but the project never materialized due to low crude oil prices.
The Chessie System Railroad (Chessie), a holding company, was formed in February 1973 by the C&O. Its roster included the C&O, the Baltimore & Ohio, and the Western Maryland railroads. The Chessie merged with Seaboard Coast Line, which had previously merged with the Seaboard Air Line and the Louisville & Nashville, to form CSX Corporation in November 1980. The C&O was not merged out of existence until July 1986 when CSX Transportation (CSXT) was founded.
The C&O posted a notice that the railroad desired to abandon 10 miles of mainline between Chilesburg and Winchester and exercise trackage rights over the Louisville & Nashville Railroad (L&N) between Lexington and Winchester in 1978. The C&O formally stopped running through trains between Lexington and Winchester in April 1981 and tracks were removed for 7½ between Chilesburg east to Winchester that autumn. The segment between Lexington and Chilesburg remained in place to serve a fertilizer business.
In July 1982, the Bluegrass Railroad Museum began a $1.5 million fundraising campaign to operate a tourist railroad between Chilesburg and Winchester. 13 The campaign would afford the museum the ability to make a $50,000 downpayment on the railroad and $150,000 to re-install track and restore some equipment. But when the fertilizer business closed in 1983, the line between Palumbo Drive in Lexington to Chilesburg was discontinued and the tracks were removed shortly thereafter.
The C&O had previously operated through freight trains between Ashland and Louisville via trackage rights over the L&N between Lexington and Louisville. Starting in 1981, the railroad operated trains 391 and 392 between the Russell Yard near Ashland and Patio Yard in Winchester but did not continue further west to Lexington and Louisville on the L&N.
With a lack of traffic, the C&O’s successor Chessie notified Interstate Commerce Commission that it intended to seek to abandon the Lexington Subdivision between Winchester and Rush by 1984. 11 About four cars per mile per year originated on the line, far below the 50 to 100 cars per mile per year that Chessie needed to keep the line profitable. On September 11, 1984, the railroad filed preliminary paperwork to abandoned 93 miles of the line and it was formally discontinued in June 1985.
The remaining portion of the Lexington Subdivision between Ashland and Rush was left in place to serve Kentucky Electric Steel at Coalton, brick kilns at Princess, and an Armco pipe fabrication shop at Summit. Additional track was left in place from Rush to Coalton to serve a proposed landfill; it was later removed after the landfill never came to fruition.
The Big Run regional landfill was proposed in Coalton in the 1990s and was constructed between 2001-04. 10 Originally proposed to collect only 7,000 tons of trash over its lifetime, the landfill’s plan was amended to allow for as much as 43 million tons of trash from New York and New Jersey to be accepted. The trash would be shipped to Big Run via the Lexington Subdivision. To accommodate the heavier, taller railcars, a three-track yard was constructed at Coalton, welded rail was installed on curves, and the Ashland and Princess tunnels were enlarged to accommodate the taller cars.
By 2013, Big Run had become the state’s largest landfill and one of the biggest in the nation, accepting more than 3,500 tons of waste per day. 10 Nearly 90% of the waste collected at the site was from outside of the state.
In September, the landfill experienced a massive landslide involving more than 800,000 tons of waste which damaged the methane gas collection system, causing odor complaints to surge. 10 The smell was so strong that it made student-athletes at a nearby high school sick. The chemicals leaching from the landfill were detectable in the air up to ten miles away.
Citing violations since 2009, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet in January 2014 entered into an agreement with the landfill owner, Envirosolutions, to come into compliance by May 23. 10 It fined the company $275,000.
In April 2015, a local lawyer filed a class-action lawsuit against Envirosolutions and other related companies over the landfill expansion. 10 The lawyer argued there was no due process when Big Run transitioned from a regional site to one that accepted out-of-state garbage. On May 5, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition gave notice of intent to sue under the federal Clean Air Act. On August 18, Envirosolutions announced that it would cease accepting trash via rail, and the final waste operation was conducted on April 20, 2016. 9
As of 2021, the sole customer on the Lexington Subdivision is Kentucky Electric Steel’s successor, Steel Dynamics’ Steel of West Virginia division.
The C&O passenger depot in Ashland was constructed in 1925 along Carter Avenue between 10th and 11th Streets and was used by the C&O until 1971 and Amtrak from 1971 until 1975 when a new station was built between Ashland and Catlettsburg. Amtrak later relocated to the former C&O freight depot in March 1998.
Mt. Sterling Depot
The Mt. Sterling depot and baggage depot were constructed in the Prairie architectural style in 1910 on land acquired from the Chiles Thompson Grocery Company and H. Clay McKee. 15 It remained in use by the C&O until 1971.
- Lexington Transcript. 19 Dec. 1882: 1.
- “Lexington & Big Sandy Railroad.” Lexington History Museum, article.
- Observer & Reporter [Lexington]. 17 Jul. 1869: 3; 6 Jan. 1871: 4; 2 Jun. 1871: 4; Lexington Transcript. 19 Dec. 1882: 1.
- Lexington Press. 4 Nov. 1871: 4; 2 May 1872: 4.
- Lexington Herald-Leader. 20 Feb. 1966.
- Lexington Transcript. 17 Jun. 1879: 1; 22 Jun. 1879: 1.
- Lexington Daily Transcript. 5 Dec. 1881.
- Lexington Herald-Leader. 20 Feb. 1966.
- “UPDATE: Big Run Landfill to stop rail waste operations ahead of schedule.” WSAZ. 18 Aug. 2015. Article; 25 Nov. 2015; 31 Mar. 2016.
- Bruggers, James. “Trash trains bring stench, misery to Ky. county.” Courier-Journal [Louisville]. 15 May 2015. Print.
- “Eastern Kentucky officials may fight Chessie’s move to close track.” Courier-Journal [Louisville]. 12 Sept. 1984: B1. Print.
- Hershberg, Ben Z. “Can Seaboard, Chessie find new strength in union?” Courier-Journal [Louisville]. 11 Feb. 1979: E1, E3. Print.
- “Museum needs cash to get on track.” Courier-Journal [Louisville]. 12 Jul. 1982: B4. Print.
- Coleman, Lon. “Timeline.” The Williams Creek Basin in Northeast Kentucky, 2021.
- United States. Dept. of the Interior. Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Passenger and Baggage Depots. Comp. Helen Powell. Washington: National Park Service, Dec. 1990.