The Role of a Railroad YMCA

Russell, Kentucky C&O YMCA

Railroad YMCA’s were once staples in the United States, offering lounges, recreational amenities, restaurants and a safe and convenient place for rest for the myriad of railroad employees. Russell, Kentucky is one such instance of a town that offered a YMCA.

Railroad YMCA’s were once staples in the United States, offering lounges, recreational amenities, restaurants  and a safe and convenient place for rest for the myriad of railroad employees. Russell, Kentucky is one such instance of a town that offered a YMCA.

Russell, located along the Ohio River west of Ashland, is best described as a sleepy river community that hugs the bottomlands between the water and the hills that surround. Not resembling much of eastern Kentucky, in terms of architectural styles or development patterns, Russell only saw growth with the expansion of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad westward into the town and again when the Russell rail yards were constructed and expanded. The city was never located near a major coalfield, nor was it located near coal processing plants unlike many cities to the south of it, although the adjoining rail yards were comprised of mostly coal cars that moved through the region, carrying a raw resource from mines to power plants and factories.

In 1880, Russell’s population was just 175, expanding to 1,758 by 1920. Consequently, the railroad  YMCA, which was constructed in 1896, had a membership of 384 by 1906, with 440 workers that used the facilities each day on average. By 1919, there were 557 members – and was the third largest in the state behind only Corbin and Louisville.

The 1920s saw an expansion of the yards, and a third main track was completed between Ashland and Russell which relieved congestion. By 1924, the YMCA had a membership nearing 1,000, and was the second largest railroad  YMCA in the state – behind only Louisville.

Early amenities included boarding rooms, a library and a cafeteria. An expansion in the mid-1920s added a swimming pool, playground equipment and tennis and croquet courts. Those features were added as the railroad YMCA was used more and more by the public.

By 1927, the YMCA was the largest railroad YMCA in the state, with 2,025 railroad members. But by the early 1940s, the existing space was far too small for the needs of the railroad and community, and a new railroad YMCA was completed in 1948 in the modern architectural style. The mammoth building contained new amenities, such as a bowling alley and gymnasium, meeting rooms and an updated restaurant. The railroad was also booming during this time, with the yards seeing a departure of 24 trains per day and over 1,000 car movements were occurring per day on average.

But the Russell railroad YMCA was the last constructed by the railroad, and one of the last in the United States. Steam locomotives were soon phased out for diesels, and as a result, overnight stays were no longer in demand – which reduced the need for rooms at the YMCA. Mechanization of labor also reduced the need for the YMCA. In 1984, the Chesapeake and Ohio had merged with the Louisville and Nashville and other lines that eventually became part of the Chessie System and then CSX Transportation. Soon after, CSX withdrew their support to the YMCA, and in 1992, the Russell Railroad YMCA closed.

In 2002, a redevelopment proposal called for the abandoned site to be converted into an independent living facility, although no work has begun.

Read more about the Russell, Kentucky YMCA, and view plenty of (dated!) photographs of the interior.

12 Comments

  1. Some how, the building still stands. A testimony in its own right, of how things were built then.
    The rail yard at Russell, KY. itself is in danger of closing. Tracks in the yrd are being pulled up now, as i watch. The Steel Mill in Ashland, KY., Closed.

    1. That quick? I know that traffic declined sharply since it was wholly dependent on coal for much of its traffic. I wish that CSX had decided to upgrade its line to handle stacked containers like NS did for its Heartland Corridor.

  2. i was up here today (oct 23 2014) and the building is totally ruined. trees growing out of the foundation, all windows broken. i stayed here quite a bit in the 70’s while working for csx, and although it certainly wasn’t plush, it wasn’t a bad place to stay. the way the building looks, makes me kind of sad really

  3. Thanks for this posting. I found it while researching for a short story I'm writing. I stayed here for two weeks in 1978. Can't say I loved it, but as I remember it, the staff was friendly and the price was right.

  4. Well, this information is now 10 years old. Has anything been done with this building as of 2012? I haven't driven through Ashland in years (I now live in Tennessee), but used to ride with my best friend back in the 70's when he delivered Lewis Pies to this YMCA from Portsmouth, Ohio.
    Anything new to report?

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