The story of a forgotten America.

Cincinnati Southern Railway

The Cincinnati Southern Railway contains numerous bypassed tunnels and bridges along the “Rathole” between Cincinnati, Ohio and Chattanooga, Tennessee.


The Cincinnati Southern Railway is a railroad that operates between Cincinnati, Ohio, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. It is wholly owned by the city of Cincinnati, the only municipality in the country to own an interstate railroad. The Cincinnati Southern was leased to the Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific Railway (CNO&TP) in 1881, which fell under the control of the Southern Railway in 1893 which eventually became Norfolk Southern Railway (NS).

The construction of the Cincinnati Southern was spurred by a shift in shipping methods around Cincinnati which had favored major rivers and canals in the 1800s. The advent of railroads led the city to formulate plans to develop its own line in 1835. 2 The city sent a delegation to the Great Southwestern Railroad Convention in July 1836, but an economic downturn in 1837 put a stop to the project. In 1851, the Ohio Constitution was amended to prevent cities from forming a partnership with a stock corporation which prevented the city from constructing the railroad.

An attempt was made in 1859 at raising $1 million in cash from private entrepreneurs that would be awarded to the Cincinnati, Lexington & East Tennessee Railroad in exchange for establishing a route between Cincinnati and Knoxville, Tennessee. 3 The Civil War halted any development of that proposal, however, General Burnside offered a plan to establish a military railroad to the south which received a recommendation from President Lincoln to Congress in December 1861. Surveys were made but nothing further came about.

With the passage of the constitutional amendment in 1851, Cincinnati proposed constructing and owning the railroad outright. 2 This proposition, by Edward A. Ferguson, was proposed in 1868 and passed on May 4, 1869. On June 4, the Cincinnati city council adopted a resolution designating Chattanooga as the southern terminus of the proposed Cincinnati Southern Railway. 3 The citizens voted overwhelmingly on June 26 in favor of a $10 million municipal bond issue to begin construction of the north-south line.


On December 12, 1873, the first contract for $5,000 was awarded for the excavacation of a tunnel at King’s Mountain in Kentucky, 3 and construction began on December 23. 4 By May 1875, the initial $10 million bond issue had been exhausted and the city requested an additional $6 million from its citizens on March 14, 1876. 3 The measure passed.

The first train operated over the completed Cincinnati Southern from Ludlow, Kentucky to Somerset on July 23, 1877, but further work on the line was slow because of tight finances. 3 The city requested an additional $2 million but public opposition to the railroad was growing and voters were concerned that the latest request was too exorbent The measure was defeated by a slim margin on May 3, 1878. Another vote, taken on August 14, passed after an amendment was added that required the railroad not expend more than $2 million.

On December 10, 1879, the last rail was spiked within a few feet from the center of Tunnel No. 15 near Robbins, Tennessee. 4 The first through freight train rolled from Cincinnati to Chattanooga on February 21, 1880, followed by the first through passenger train on March 8. 2 3 To celebrate the completion of the Cincinnati Southern, a grand banquet was held at Music Hall on March 18. 2 Dignitaries by the trainload arrived and it was a celebration that “surpassed anything ever known on the continent.” 3

On September 7, 1881, the Cincinnati Southern was leased to Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific Railroad (CN&TP) for 25 years. 3 With the lease, the CNO&TP had a direct route from Cincinnati to New Orleans, which became known as the “Queen and Crescent” route. The CNO&TP divided the Cincinnati Southern segment into three districts:

  • The First District between Cincinnati and Danville, Kentucky;
  • The Second District between Danville and Oakdale, Tennessee;
  • The Third District between Oakdale and Chattanooga.

The Second District was nicknamed “The Rathole” for its steep grades, tight curves, and 27 tunnels. 1 The tunnels, which were 15 feet wide and 20 feet high, 4 included:

2King’s Mountain3,992 feet1963
5Sloans Valley1963
6Alpine189 feet1901
10270 feet1907
19360 feet1907
22 1Nemo1963
24 1Nemo1963
25 2Oakdale1963
26 1Oakdale1963
1 Tunnels 22, 24, and 26 were bypassed with new tunnels.
2 Tunnel 25 was enlarged.

Under the lease with the CNO&TP, the tunnels that were timber-lined were required to be relined with stone and brick. 4 Those that were through solid rock did not need to be lined. By the end of 1884, two tunnels had been relined with stone and brick and five others had been partially finished. Work continued over the next eight years until 16 tunnels were completed.

The lease also stipulated that the railroad, which had been built to a five-foot broad gauge, be converted to standard gauge. 1 Conversion of the gauge was completed in just 13 hours in 1886.

The CNO&TP, and by extension the Cincinnati Southern, was a financial success. By 1925, the CNO&TP had moved 1,688 million ton-miles of revenue freight on 388 miles which had increased to 4,116 million ton-miles on 337 miles. Revenue passenger miles, however, declined from a peak of 134 million in 1925 to just 15 million by 1967 mirroring the decline of passenger railroad travel nationwide.

The success of the railroad led to various companies trying to acquire Cincinnati Southern. The first attempt was by the Southwestern Construction Company in 1896, although the citizens of Cincinnati defeated that proposal by just 338 votes. 3 The CNO&TP lease, set to expire in 1906, was extended on November 5, 1901.


Initial reconstruction efforts of the Cincinnati Southern were brought about because of the tunnel lining efforts. By 1901, four tunnels remained to be relinined but it was decided that two were to be removed instead. 4 Tunnel No. 6 near Alpine, the shortest on the line at 189 feet, was daylighted. Maonry lining for Tunnel No. 27 proved impractical and a bypass was constructed in 1902-04. Tunnel No. 10, at 270 feet was daylighted in 1907 and Tunnel No. 19, at 360 feet, was bypassed in the same year.

Efforts to add a second track along the railroad began in 1919 which led to the removal of many tunnels. 4 The completion of 17.5 miles of double track in the fall of 1920 led to the bypassing of Tunnel Nos. 13, 14, 17, 18, 20, and 21. Tunnel No. 16 at Huffman carried southbound traffic while a cut was provided for northbound traffic. Tunnel No. 1 south of Wilmore was bypassed in 1930.

The construction of Cincinnati’s Union Terminal between 1928-33 caused Gest Street Yard, Cincinnati Southern’s northern terminus, to be remodeled. 1

Authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1938 and the River Harbor Act of 1946 as part of a comprehensive plan to develop the Cumberland River basin, Wolf Creek Dam was constructed between 1941 and 1951 in Russell County, Kentucky. The damming of the Cumberland River formed Lake Cumberland and required the construction of seven new highway and railway bridges across the impoundment.

The high water level in proposed Lake Cumberland would flood a portion of the Pittman’s Creek bridge at the portal to Tunnel No. 4. 4 Work began in the late 1940s to build a new alignment to bypass Tunnel Nos. 3 and 4 with a 82-foot-deep rock cut and to construct a new bridge over Lake Cumberland. On August 3, 1950, Tunnel Nos. 3 and 4 were closed to northbound traffic; all traffic began using the new bridge, permanently bypassing the twin tunnels, on August 8. 5 6

Tunnel No. 16, which carried southbound traffic before being reduced in status to just a passing siding, was abandoned in 1955 when Centralized Traffic Control was installed. 4

Finally, the Cincinnati Southern undertook a massive construction project between 1961 and 1963 that saw many tunnels bypassed with cuts, and the reduction of steep grades and curves at the cost of $32 million. 4 Included in the project:

  • Nine tunnels (Nos. 2, 5, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 15, and 23) were bypassed by line changes that totaled 25 miles of new track;
  • Three tunnels (Nos. 22 and 24 at Nemo, and No. 26 at Oakdale) were bypassed with three new tunnels that were 20 feet wide and 30 feet high;
  • One tunnel (No. 25 at Oakdale) was enlarged.

The project sequence was as follows:

  • Project 1 removed Tunnel No. 2 at King’s Mountain with a 140-foot-deep cut;
  • Project 2 removed Tunnel Nos. 5, 6, 7, and 8 with a 160-foot-deep cut and 215-foot-high fills between Tateville and Greenwood, Kentucky
  • Project 3 removed tunnel at Parkers Lake, Kentucky and realigned track from Parkers Lake and Wiborg with a 116-foot-deep cut and 150-foot-high fills;
  • Project 4 included the construction of a new 1,618-foot-long bridge over the New River at Helenwood, Tennessee. It opened on July 10, 1963.
  • Project 5, from Lancing to Nemo, Tennessee, included the construction of Tunnel Nos. 22, 23, and 24.
  • Project 6 included the enlargement of the Tunnel No. 25 and the construction of a new Tunnel No. 26 at Oakdale.

The completion of the reconstruction project was heralded when the New River bridge near Robbins, Tennessee was opened on July 10, 1963. 4

In 1970, all CNO&TP stock was purchased by Southern Railway with the Cincinnati Southern line falling under its Western Division in 1972. The company merged with Norfolk & Western to form Norfolk Southern in 1979. 1

Tunnel No. 2 at King’s Mountain, Kentucky

Tunnel No. 3 and 4 at Burnside, Kentucky

North Fork Cumberland River Bridge at Burnside, Kentucky

Tunnel No. 5 north of Sloans Valley, Kentucky

New River Bridge near Robbins, Tennessee



  1. Tipton, Rick. “The PRR in Cincinnati.” The Pennsylvania Railroad in Cincinnati. By Rick Tipton and Chuck Blardone. Altoona: Pennsylvania Railroad Technical and Historical Society, 2004. 3-103.
  2. “The Birth of an Idea.” Cincinnati Southern Railway. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2014. Article.
  3. “Historical Timeline.” Cincinnati Southern Railway. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2014. Article.
  4. “90 Years to ‘Daylight.'” Ties Aug. 1963: n. pag. Print.
  5. Ties Oct. 1951: cover. Print.
  6. “New Cumberland River Bridge.'” Ties Sept. 1950: n. pag. Print.


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Article is very interesting because in trips to Florida from Fairfield Glade, Tennessee, our route on U.S. Highway 27 southbound from Rockwood to just north of Chattanooga, travels alongside the Cincinnati Southern Railway tracks for 60 miles or so, We frequently see Norfolk Southern trains, a welcome sight since I am a stockholder of this very successful Company.

In 1971, me and a buddy hopped on a freight car from Chattanooga to Cincinnati without a stop. The train stopped in what we later learned was Ludlow, KY. We had to walk across the train tressel to get to Cincinnati. Our entire trip was from Atlanta to Port Jervis, PA. It was one hell of a trip. I wrote a short story about it.

Looking for information on 1891 railroad depot constructed in Cincinnati and dropped off on rail line in Glen Alice, TN, Main purpose to pick up peaches. Was abandoned in 1050’s and sold. Do you have a suggestion as to finding more information and a picture of the original building.

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