Cincinnati Southern Railway

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


Proposal and Planning

The Cincinnati Southern Railway, a railroad connecting Cincinnati, Ohio, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, is unique as it is entirely owned by the city of Cincinnati. This makes Cincinnati the only city in the United States to own an interstate railroad. Established under the ownership of Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Southern Railway was leased in 1881 to the Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific Railway (CNO&TP). Later, in 1893, it came under the control of the Southern Railway and subsequently became part of the Norfolk Southern Railway (NS).

Initially, Cincinnati’s transportation was dominated by rivers and canals in the 1800s. However, with the emergence of railroads, the city decided to develop its own railroad in 1835. 2 Cincinnati participated in the Great Southwestern Railroad Convention in 1836, but economic challenges in 1837 halted the project. A significant change came in 1851 when the Ohio Constitution was amended, prohibiting cities from partnering with stock corporations, thus blocking Cincinnati from building the railroad with corporate collaboration.

In 1859, Cincinnati attempted to raise $1 million from private investors. This fund was to be given to the Cincinnati, Lexington & East Tennessee Railroad to establish a route from Cincinnati to Knoxville, Tennessee. 3 However, the Civil War disrupted these plans. In 1861, General Burnside suggested a military railroad to the south, a proposal endorsed by President Lincoln, but it did not materialize beyond surveys.

Circumventing the 1851 constitutional amendment, Cincinnati planned to build and own the railroad directly. 2 This idea, put forward by Edward A. Ferguson in 1868, received approval on May 4, 1869. Subsequently, on June 4, the city council resolved to make Chattanooga the southern end of the Cincinnati Southern Railway. 3 On June 26, the citizens overwhelmingly supported a $10 million municipal bond issue to start constructing this north-south rail line.


On December 12, 1873, the first contract, worth $5,000, was awarded for the excavation of a tunnel at King’s Mountain in Kentucky, 3 with construction commencing on December 23. 4 By May 1875, the initial $10 million bond raised for the project was depleted, leading Cincinnati to seek an additional $6 million on March 14, 1876, which was approved by its citizens. 3

The first train on the completed section of the Cincinnati Southern, stretching from Ludlow, Kentucky, to Somerset, ran on July 23, 1877. 3 However, financial constraints slowed further construction. In 1878, Cincinnati requested an extra $2 million, but this proposal was initially rejected by voters on May 3 due to growing public skepticism and concerns about the project’s escalating costs. A subsequent vote on August 14 passed after an amendment was added, limiting expenditure to no more than $2 million.

The final rail of the Cincinnati Southern was laid near Tunnel No. 15 close to Robbins, Tennessee, on December 10, 1879. 4 The inaugural freight train journey from Cincinnati to Chattanooga occurred on February 21, 1880, and the first passenger service followed on March 8. 2 3 10 To commemorate the completion, a grand banquet was hosted at Music Hall on March 18, 2 attracting numerous dignitaries and marking a significant celebration. 3

The Cincinnati Southern Railway initially managed the railroad, but it faced challenges in achieving success. In 1881, the city decided to seek lease bids for the right-of-way. 10 On September 7, 1881, the Cincinnati Southern was leased to the Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific Railroad (CNO&TP) for a 25-year term. 3 This lease gave CNO&TP a direct route from Cincinnati to New Orleans, famously known as the “Queen and Crescent” route. The Cincinnati Southern section was divided into three districts for operational purposes:

  • The First District, from Cincinnati to Danville, Kentucky.
  • The Second District, from Danville to Oakdale, Tennessee.
  • The Third District, from Oakdale to Chattanooga.

The Second District, due to its challenging terrain featuring steep grades, tight curves, 104 bridges and viaducts, and 27 tunnels, earned the nickname “The Rathole.” 1 10 These tunnels, measuring 15 feet in width and 20 feet in height, were significant engineering feats. 4 10

2King’s Mountain3978’/3,992′1963Abandoned
5Sloans Valley1963Abandoned
22 1Nemo1963Abandoned
24 1Nemo1963Abandoned
25 2Oakdale1963Active
26 1Oakdale1963Abandoned
1 Tunnel Nos. 22, 24, and 26 were bypassed with new tunnels.
2 Tunnel No. 25 was enlarged.

Under the terms of its lease with the Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific Railway (CNO&TP), the Cincinnati Southern Railway was required to reinforce its tunnels. 4 Tunnels originally lined with timber were mandated to be relined with stone and brick, while those carved through solid rock remained unlined. By the end of 1884, two tunnels had been completely relined, and five others were partially relined. This extensive work continued over the next eight years, resulting in the completion of 16 tunnels.

Additionally, the lease specified that the Cincinnati Southern’s track gauge, which was originally a five-foot broad gauge, should be converted to the standard gauge. 1 Impressively, this conversion was accomplished in a mere 13 hours in 1886.

Financially, the CNO&TP, and consequently the Cincinnati Southern, proved to be lucrative. By 1925, the CNO&TP had transported 1,688 million ton-miles of revenue freight over 388 miles, a figure that eventually increased to 4,116 million ton-miles over 337 miles. However, passenger traffic declined significantly, from a peak of 134 million revenue passenger miles in 1925 to just 15 million by 1967, reflecting the nationwide downturn in passenger rail travel.

The railroad’s success attracted interest from various companies looking to acquire it. The first notable attempt was by the Southwestern Construction Company in 1896, but this was narrowly defeated by Cincinnati’s citizens, with a margin of only 338 votes. 3 The original lease with the CNO&TP, due to expire in 1906, was extended much earlier, on November 5, 1901.


The initial phase of reconstruction on the Cincinnati Southern Railway was primarily focused on tunnel improvements. By 1901, four tunnels were yet to be relined, but it was decided that two would be removed instead. 4 Tunnel No. 6 near Alpine, the shortest on the line at 189 feet, was daylighted, meaning it was opened up and no longer a tunnel. Masonry lining for Tunnel No. 27 was deemed impractical, leading to the construction of a bypass between 1902 and 1904. Additionally, Tunnel No. 10 was daylighted in 1907, and Tunnel No. 19 was bypassed in the same year.

Starting in 1919, the railway began adding a second track, which resulted in the removal of several tunnels. 4 The completion of 17.5 miles of double track by the fall of 1920 led to the bypassing of Tunnels Nos. 13, 14, 17, 18, 20, and 21. At Huffman, Tunnel No. 16 handled southbound traffic, while a new cut was made for northbound traffic. Tunnel No. 1, located south of Wilmore, was bypassed in 1930.

The construction of Cincinnati’s Union Terminal between 1928 and 1933 necessitated the remodeling of Gest Street Yard, the northern terminus of the Cincinnati Southern. 1

As part of the development of the Cumberland River basin, authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1938 and the River Harbor Act of 1946, the Wolf Creek Dam was built in Russell County, Kentucky, between 1941 and 1951. The creation of Lake Cumberland from the damming of the Cumberland River required the construction of seven new highway and railway bridges.

The high water level of the proposed Lake Cumberland threatened to flood part of the Pittman’s Creek bridge at the entrance to Tunnel No. 4. 4 In response, work began in the late 1940s to create a new alignment that bypassed Tunnels Nos. 3 and 4 with an 82-foot-deep rock cut and to build a new bridge over Lake Cumberland. On August 3, 1950, Tunnels Nos. 3 and 4 were closed to northbound traffic, and all traffic started using the new bridge on August 8, permanently bypassing the twin tunnels. 5 6

Finally, Tunnel No. 16, which had been used for southbound traffic before being downgraded to a passing siding, was abandoned in 1955 following the installation of Centralized Traffic Control. 4

Between 1961 and 1963, the Cincinnati Southern embarked on an extensive $32 million construction project. 4 This project involved bypassing several tunnels with new track routes, reducing steep grades, and smoothing out sharp curves. Key aspects of the project included:

  • Bypassing nine tunnels (Nos. 2, 5, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 15, and 23) with line changes, resulting in 25 miles of new track.
  • Constructing three new tunnels (Nos. 22 and 24 at Nemo, and No. 26 at Oakdale) as bypasses, each 20 feet wide and 30 feet high.
  • Enlarging Tunnel No. 25 at Oakdale.

The project was executed in several phases:

  • Project 1: Eliminated Tunnel No. 2 at King’s Mountain using a 140-foot-deep cut. This wrapped up in April 1963. 9
  • Project 2: Removed Tunnel Nos. 5, 6, 7, and 8 between Tateville and Greenwood, Kentucky, through a 160-foot-deep cut and 215-foot-high fills.
  • Project 3: Involved removing a tunnel at Parkers Lake, Kentucky, and realigning the track between Parkers Lake and Wiborg using a 116-foot-deep cut and 150-foot-high fills.
  • Project 4: Focused on constructing a new 1,618-foot-long bridge over the New River at Helenwood, Tennessee, which opened on July 10, 1963.
  • Project 5: Covered the area from Lancing to Nemo, Tennessee, and included the construction of Tunnel Nos. 22, 23, and 24.
  • Project 6: Involved enlarging Tunnel No. 25 and constructing a new Tunnel No. 26 at Oakdale, both with widths of 20 feet and heights of 30 feet. 10

The project was considered complete with the opening of the New River bridge near Robbins, Tennessee, on July 10, 1963. 4

Recent Developments

In a significant development in 1970, all stock of the Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific Railway (CNO&TP) was acquired by Southern Railway. Subsequently, in 1972, the Cincinnati Southern became part of Southern Railway’s Western Division. This arrangement continued until 1979 when Southern Railway merged with Norfolk & Western Railway to form Norfolk Southern (NS). 1

In April 2022, while renegotiating the lease agreement, NS expressed interest in purchasing the railroad. 8 At that time, the lease was generating $25 million annually for the city, which was allocated for infrastructure enhancements. The proposal suggested that the funds from the sale would be placed into a trust, and the investment returns from this trust would potentially double the revenue compared to the lease. NS formally announced its intent to acquire the Cincinnati Southern in November. 7

On November 7, 2023, 8 Cincinnati voters approved the sale of the Cincinnati Southern to NS for $1.62 billion. 7 With the voters’ endorsement, the transaction is expected to be finalized in the first quarter of 2024. As part of this agreement, NS will also donate approximately 20 miles of disused track along the NS Cincinnati District to the state of Ohio. The proceeds from the sale will be directed towards establishing an infrastructure trust fund that the City of Cincinnati can utilize for improving its infrastructure.

New River Bridge

N. Fork Cumberland River Bridge




  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.
  7. Voters approve sale of Cincinnati Southern Railway to Norfolk Southern.” Norfolk Southern Railroad.
  8. Coolidge, Sharon. “Issue 22: Cincinnati votes to sell its railroad.” Cincinnati Enquirer, 7 Nov. 2023.
  9. “Improvements Move Southern Into Space Age RR Services.” Advocate-Messenger, 14 Apr. 1963, p. 13.
  10. “City of Cincinnati Owns Right-of-Way of Southern Railroad to Chattanooga.” Paducah Sun, 2 Dec. 1966, p. 6.


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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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