Recently, on my way to Greenbo Lake for some fishing, I paused south of Argillite to peer into a tunnel that once carried the steam locomotives of the Eastern Kentucky Railroad on the journey from Greenup to Webbville.
I wondered if there is anyone who would remember the time when they ran. The 36-mile-long tracks of the old EK were an important part of the economic development of Greenup, Carter and Lawrence counties. For 50 years the railroad served as about the only means of transportation up and down the Little Sandy River Valley, daily hauling coal, lumber, iron, cattle, mail and people.
It tunneled its way through the hills in at least eight places, whistled across the valley floors at 40 miles an hour, plunged across streams on 15 bridges, and huffed and puffed into a dozen depots and whistle stops along the way.
Construction of the EK Railroad began in 1866 on the banks of the Ohio River at Riverton, now a part of Greenup. The line opened for traffic to Grayson on June 10, 1871. In 1873-74 it was extended on to Willard, where the owners of two blast furnaces had bought a large tract of land for to mine its coal and iron ore.
The track was laid on to Webbville, in Lawrence County, in 1889. The owners had big plans to extend the line farther south and to cross the Ohio River for a connection to Lake Erie. Greenup and Webbville, however, remained the terminal points, as gasoline- powered trucks and better roads loomed in the future.
The line was abandoned between Greenup and Grayson in 1925 and between Grayson and Webbville in 1933. The Blue Goose, a passenger coach powered by a Ford gasoline engine, continued for several years after that to carry passengers on the rails that remained on the southern end of the line.
It’s difficult now to find someone who remembers riding the train. In 1982, while working as a reporter for the Ashland Daily Independent, I set out to interview folks who would remember hearing the engines whistle through the
One man I talked to then, the late Alva Baldridge, 71 at the time, stood in his yard on a hill overlooking Argillite and gazed longingly down along the Little Sandy River where the tracks used to run.
“It seems like sometimes I can still her that old locomotive whistle as she pulled into the station down there,” he said, his face tinged with sadness.
Dennis Griffith of Greenup, 75 at the time, had some interesting memories about the railroad. He told a story that illustrated the condition of the roads along the Little Sandy as late as 1924.
At that time, Griffith was operating a Ford dealership in Greenup.
“I was selling Model-Ts that year,” he said. “A man came in from Pactolus and bought a new one, and he wanted it delivered. In order to do that, I had to drive the car to Ashland, take Route 60 to Grayson, then drive the railroad
tracks three miles to Pactolus. I left the car and caught the evening train back home.”
Griffith said that as a youngster he walked the railroad tracks into Greenup to school because the roads were in such poor condition. One day he was walking the tracks when he heard a loud rumbling noise behind him!
“I looked back and saw a coach and a boxcar rolling down the tracks toward me,” he said. “I leaped off the tracks just in time as the cars rolled by me. I found out later they had broken loose at Three-Mile Station. They were stopped by a derailer thrown before they could reach the junction with the C&O.”
On the south end of the line, Charlie McCoy, 77, remembered walking out of Lawrence County when he was 14 “with all the clothes I owned in a bag. I caught the train down to Hitchins, where I got a job at the brickyard there.” McCoy said Hitchens was called EK Junction in those days.
“Two passenger trains passed each other there, and the awfulest crowd of people you ever saw would gather on most evenings just to see them.”
Today, Ky. 1 – the “EK Road” – follows much of the old railroad bed. A motorist traveling the route can still see a few traces of the railroad – here and there a stretch of roadbed crossing a pasture, the gaping mouth of a tunnel, a railroad bridge still standing and now carrying vehicle traffic, or maybe just foot traffic..
There’s a public swimming pool at Greenup in the pit of the turntable that turned the engines around. Those who marveled at the steam locomotives traveling the EK – those who touched them, rode them, heard the pleasant sounds they made – are left to mourn their passing.
But maybe it’s not really gone at all, and never shall be. In the late Elmer G. Sulzer’s book, “Ghost Railroads of Kentucky,” this witness is recorded:
“And when the moon is full and the fog settles in the valley, if yew lissen clost, yew kin hear th’ little ol’ train a-puffin,’ just like it usta, whenever it crossed the crick and started up the fir side of the mountain, carrying all the folks yew usta know…kinda makes a feller wonder…
“Listen! I kin hear it now. Cain’t yew?”
Reach G. SAM PIATT at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 932-3619.