Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Lexington Subdivision

Railroad / Kentucky

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 with the goal of connecting Lexington with the Big Sandy River near Cattlettsburg. 1 The city of Lexington subscribed $150,000 towards its construction. Between 1854 and 1857, 12 miles of track were completed from Ashland to Coalton at Mt. Savage iron furnace. Further west, only portions of the right-of-way were surveyed. The Panic of 1857 caused the L&BS to cease operations and the roadbed was sold at auction for $60,000 in 1860. 2

The L&BS continued to be operated under the name until 1865 when it became the L&BS Eastern Division until 1880 and the Ashland Coal & Iron Railroad until 1885. 2

The Elizabethtown, Lexington & Big Sandy Railroad (EL&BS) was organized as the successor to the Lexington & Big Sandy in 1869. 1 The city of Lexington and Fayette County both contributed an additional $250,000 each in capital for the new railroad. 3 The company acquired portions of the right-of-way for the Lexington & Big Sandy. It was estimated that it would cost $2.6 million to finish the line from Lexington to Ashland. 2

Construction by Hutson & Bibb 4 began at Scott’s Pond on Winchester Road at the city limits of Lexington heading east towards Clark County on November 6, 1871. 1 The city of Lexington granted EL&BS the right to build from the city limits west to the Louisville, Cincinnati & Lexington Railroad (later Louisville & Nashville) at Water and Patterson streets on December 16.

The first rail was laid on Water Street on March 2, 1872 and by June, the EL&BS was completed east to Mt. Sterling. 1 Construction stopped at Mt. Sterling for a lack of money. The EL&BS did connect with the Kentucky Central Railway at Winchester, providing needed traffic for the line.

In June, the EL&BS was leased to the Louisville, Cincinnati & Lexington; 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.

The Newport News & Mississippi Valley Railroad (NN&MV), owned by Collis P. Huntington, began surveying in June 1879 to complete the central section of the EL&BS. 6 Huntington soon gained full control of the EL&BS. Flush with cash, construction resumed on the EL&BS in 1881, proceeding east from Mt. Sterling to Mt. Savage. In December 1881, the first train operated over the route from Ashland to Lexington, a distance of 109 miles. 2 At Ashland, the NN&MV connected with Huntington’s Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad (C&O) that extended east to Newport News, Virginia. The NN&MV operated in conjunction with with the C&O.

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 NN&MV constructed a two-story brick station at Water Street and South Limestone in 1882. It was shared with the Kentucky Central, controlled by Huntington, and the C&O.

In February 1892, the NN&MV was consolidated into the C&O as its Lexington Subdivision. 1 8

Later Years

The C&O Lexington Subdivision connected to several railroads, notably the Kentucky Central Railway at Winchester and the Morehead & North Fork at Morehead. The line served numerous small industries, and coal and limestone mines, clay pits and brick kilns, especially east of Mt. Sterling.

Local traffic on the line began declining in 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 CompanyLee Clay Products and Olive Hill Fire Brick Company, were closed by the 1970’s. The completion of most of Interstate 64 by 1969 caused traffic to drop further. 11

In 1981, Bath County constructed a spur into an industrial park in Mt. Sterling at a cost of $325,000. 11 In adjoining Montgomery County, officials were anticipating on an oil-shale project in Means that was expected to bring jobs and carloads to the C&O, but the project never materialized due to low crude oil prices.

Passenger service, via the George Washington, was offered on the Lexington Subdivision between Lexington and Louisville until Amtrak was instituted on May 1, 1971.

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. 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 notice that the railroad desired to abandon 10.1 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 stopped running trains between Lexington and Winchester in April 1981. Tracks were removed for 7.5 miles from Chilesburg east to Winchester that autumn.

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 relay track and restore some equipment.

When a fertilizer business closed in Chilesburg in 1983, the line westward to Palumbo Drive in Lexington was abandoned, with the tracks 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. Between 1981 and 1985, the C&O operated trains 391 and 392 between Russell Yard near Ashland and Patio Yard at Winchester, but did not continue west to Lexington and Louisville on the L&N.

In 1982, Chessie notified the Interstate Commerce Commission that it intended to seek to abandon its line between Winchester and Rush within three years. 11 About four cars per mile per year originate on the line, far below the 50 to 100 cars per mile per year that was needed to be profitable, according to Chessie. The company filed preliminary paperwork to abandon those 93 miles on September 11, 1984. It was formally abandoned in June 1985.

The remnant between Rush and Ashland was left in place to serve Kentucky Electric Steel at Coalton, a brick kiln at Princess, and an Armco pipe fabrication shop at Summit. Additional trackage from Coalton to Rush was left in place to serve a proposed landfill that never came to fruition and was later dismantled.


A plan for a regional landfill at Coalton in the 1990’s called for it to be no larger than 7,000 tons over its lifetime. 10 The landfill was developed per plan but in 2005, it was amended to allow for as much as 43 million tons, with much of the waste deriving from New York and New Jersey via rail. To accommodate the expansion, a three track yard was constructed at Coalton to serve Big Run. The trash containers, which numbered over 300 per day, required the installation of heavier, welded rail and modifications of tunnels at Ashland and Princess for increased clearances.

Big Run grew to become the state’s largest landfill and one of the largest in the nation, accepting more than 3,500 tons of waste per day. 10 In September 2013, Big Run experienced a massive landslide involving more than 800,000 tons of waste. It damaged the landfill’s methane gas collection system, causing odor complaints to surge. The odors were so strong that it began making student athletes at a nearby high school sick. The chemicals leeching 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 what was called an unconstitutional expansion of the landfill. 10 The lawyer argued there was no due process when Big Run Landfill transitioned from a regional landfill to one that accepted out-of-state garbage. It was joined by the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition on May 5 who began the legal action with a notice of intent to sue under the federal Clean Air Act.

Envirosolutions, announced on August 18 that it would cease rail trash intake by the end of the following year. 9 It would mark a 75% reduction in total volume compared to the current intake. The final rail waste operation was conducted on April 20, 2016.



  1. Lexington Transcript. 19 Dec. 1882: 1.
  2. “Lexington & Big Sandy Railroad.” Lexington History Museum, article.
  3. Observer & Reporter [Lexington]. 17 Jul. 1869: 3; 6 Jan. 1871: 4; 2 Jun. 1871: 4; Lexington Transcript. 19 Dec. 1882: 1.
  4. Lexington Press. 4 Nov. 1871: 4; 2 May 1872: 4.
  5. Lexington Herald-Leader. 20 Feb. 1966.
  6. Lexington Transcript. 17 Jun. 1879: 1; 22 Jun. 1879: 1.
  7. Lexington Daily Transcript. 5 Dec. 1881.
  8. Lexington Herald-Leader. 20 Feb. 1966.
  9. “UPDATE: Big Run Landfill to stop rail waste operations ahead of schedule.” WSAZ. 18 Aug. 2015. Article; 25 Nov. 2015; 31 Mar. 2016.
  10. Bruggers, James. “Trash trains bring stench, misery to Ky. county.” Courier-Journal [Louisville]. 15 May 2015. Print.
  11. “Eastern Kentucky officials may fight Chessie’s move to close track.” Courier-Journal [Louisville]. 12 Sept. 1984: B1. Print.
  12. Hershberg, Ben Z. “Can Seaboard, Chessie find new strength in union?” Courier-Journal [Louisville]. 11 Feb. 1979: E1, E3. Print.
  13. “Museum needs cash to get on track.” Courier-Journal [Louisville]. 12 Jul. 1982: B4. Print.