The Eastern Kentucky Railway (EK) is a former 36-mile railroad between Riverton (Greenup) and Webbville, Kentucky. Although it served several mines and early pig-iron blast furnaces, the EK was abandoned in 1933 during the height of the Great Depression.
The EK was rooted in speculative land purchases by Nathaniel Thayer and Horatio Hollis Hunnewell, who obtained a charter under the Argillite Mining & Manufacturing Company on March 4, 1865. 1 Both were involved in railroad investments in the Northeast and the Midwest. With the charter, Thayer and Hunnewell were able to acquire lands they believed to be rich in timber, iron ore, and coal, including 25,000 acres of land south of the Ohio River in the vicinity of Riverton and Argillite. 1 3 The company name was amended in December 1865 to the Kentucky Improvement Company and it was proposed to construct a railroad.
The first section of Kentucky Improvement Company’s Eastern Kentucky Railway opened from Riverton to Argillite in 1867 and included the boring of the Barney and McIntire tunnels. But the cannel coal that was mined was disappointing, as it was of low quality and quantity. 1 Two pig-iron blast furnaces were acquired but could not able to operate at full capacity due to a lack of iron ore and coal. Kentucky Improvement deeded to the railroad its line, two blast furnaces, and land holdings on January 1, 1870. 1
The EK’s first president was Thayer, who had acquired a majority of the stock in the railroad. An extension from Argillite south to Hunnewell was finished later in 1870, which included the Argillite, Callahan, Ramey, and Shelton tunnels. 3 The EK reached Grayson on June 10, 1871, which included the Big and Hopewell tunnels, and approached Willard by 1874. An additional 1.77 miles was built to Webbville in 1889. 1 3
There were several small branches, the most notable being the Stinson Branch as it contained more straight track than the mainline itself. 3 The Lick Branch and Lost Creek branches were located near Grayson and led to several coal mines and camps. The EK had only one connection, with the Elizabethtown, Lexington & Big Sandy Railroad (EL&BS), in Hitchens, where the two railroads shared a depot. 1 3 The EL&BS interchanged with the Ashland Coal & Iron Railway in Denton. The EK’s offices and shops, which included a turntable, water tower, scales, and engine house, were located in Grayson. 3
Thayer and Hunnewell had anticipated in the EK becoming a major north to south route and desired a connection to the Southern Atlantic & Ohio Railroad at the breaks of the Big Sandy River in Pike County, and to the Scioto Valley Railroad in Scioto County, Ohio. 1 The plan also called for a new railroad from the Ohio River north to Lake Erie. Another proposal called for the extension of the EK south to Hickory and Statesville, North Carolina, using the Norfolk & Cincinnati Railroad and a portion of the Chester & Lenoir Railroad. The combined trackage would be a part of the Consolidated Southern Railway.
In 1909, the EK ran its first deficit, and on March 31, 1919, the First National Bank of Greenup filed suit against the EK for $2,000 in missed payments. 1 The EK declared bankruptcy, and the portion south of Grayson was reorganized as the Eastern Kentucky Southern Railway. On June 1, 1926, an application was made to the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to abandon the EK, although not without much protest, especially from those who lived in Grayson, Willard, and Webbville. 2 The line from Grayson south to Riverton was dismantled by May 1927. 1
The tracks from Grayson to Webbville had not been maintained for nearly a decade, and it was considered unfit for travel by large steam locomotives. 2 To continue to provide service, an open-topped gasoline-powered car was fitted onto the tracks, which was replaced with a covered vehicle, the Blue Goose. The Blue Goose was constructed at the Grayson shops with a motor from a Ford Motor T, 2 and made two daily round trips. 3 The EK offered a school package during this time, allowing children to take the Blue Goose from Willard to Grayson to attend school for just $7.20 a month.
In 1928, residents along the EK purchased the remaining operating segment and formed a new company, the East Kentucky Southern Railway Company. 2 To increase revenues, a new gasoline-powered car was built, No. 215, also called the Queen, which resembled a school bus but with a smaller engine than the Blue Goose. While the EK made a small profit with each year, track maintenance continued to be deferred, and it soon became unadvisable to continue to use the rails.
On December 12, 1932, an application for abandonment was filed to the ICC, which was soon granted. 2 Dismantling of the remainder of the EK began in late January 1933.