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Exploring the railroads of Carter County

Local author discusses findings of his historical research

By Jeremy D. Wells

Carter County Times

Neal Salyers is humble when it comes to discussing his knowledge of local railroad history. He’ll point out that others know more about general railroad history than he does. He also told the crowd gathered for his presentation last week that he hoped some of them had additional information – or knew someone with more information – on some of the smaller spurs and lines in the county.

Despite this, however, Salyers research has uncovered a great deal of information on the early railway lines of the county that most of us aren’t familiar with.

We all know about the EK and the C&O. We can identify their now abandoned rail beds running parallel to – or in some instances making up – the modern roadway.

But according to Salyers’ research there were up to 14 rail lines active in the county, established between 1871 and up until 1928. While some of them were large commercial shipping lines of the sort we have today, as well as commuter lines, others were short lines that served specific industries such as clay mines or lumber companies.

One of the earliest established railways in the county was, of course, the Eastern Kentucky (EK) Railway, which was established in 1871. While some historical researchers have shared conjecture that the EK delayed expansion due to conflicts related to the Underwood War and other outlaw activities in Carter and Elliott Counties, Salyers said based on his research that might not have been the case. Based on the dates of the Underwood War and the documentation he could find on the establishment and expansion of rail lines, that rail line may have been the Elizabethtown, Lexington & Big Sandy (EL&BS) which was established in 1881 and ran through the Olive Hill area.

The EL&BS ran through Olive Hill and on to Huntington, with a commuter line, but it had a reputation for have a rough crowd on passenger trips.

Other rail lines established in that period included the Ohio Kentucky Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, established in 1874 and serving the Boone Furnace area, the Ashland Coal & Iron (AC&I) in Denton, also established in 1881, and the Carter Caves & Olive Hill Railroad established in 1882.

Salyers related how he used historical documentation and oral history – including an old family photo labeled “this is where the railroad men stayed” to locate an area where he believed the tracks for that railway may have been located. A careful survey of the area with metal detectors revealed the location of a few rail spikes. After discussions with other railway historians, with a knowledge of standard rail widths, they were able to detect other areas to confirm a more exact location for the trackway.

The Bullseye Spring Railroad, located in Bullseye, connected to the EK at Pactolus. It was established in 1885 and forced into bankruptcy just four years later in 1889.

That was the case for a number of this industry specific lines, whose existences were tied to the iron, timber, and firebrick industries.

Some of these other rail lines included the Newport News and Mississippi Valley Co. which came through Olive Hill in 1886, the Lexington & Carter County Mining Company Railroad, established in 1888 to serve Music, and the Fisher Pole Road, in Webbville. That one has less clear origins, Salyers said, but what he does know about the Fisher Pole Road Railway is that it was established sometime in the 1880s, to transport logs out of the woods, and that it reportedly ran on wooden rails.

The Panther Gap Railroad, established in 1890 and running through the Limestone area, was also owned by a lumber company and featured a unique short base for the high grades and sharp curves of the area.

The Portsmouth & Tygart Valley Railroad was established in 1893 so that brickyards in Portsmouth, Ohio could access clay mines at Brinegar. It lasted until 1908 when the line was discontinued and the track was dismantled.

The Kinniconnick & Freestone Railroad was also established in 1893, and ran from Garrison (or Stone City at the time) to Carter City and the Oligunuk Caverns, bringing passengers to the caves and hauling timber and stone out of the area, until it merged with the C&O in 1906.

He has also found references to a Stinson Branch or Stinson Spur line, which may have been a spur of the EK or may have been its own small line. Though he isn’t clear on its association, Salyers knows the spur was established in 1893 as well.

The final railway to be established in the county was the East Kentucky Southern Railway, which ran from Grayson to Webbville beginning in 1928.

Eventually, however, the automobile and truck won out over the train – especially as intense old growth logging slowed, firebrick production and clay mining slowed, and the iron industry changed, and many of the old trackways were abandoned and dismantled.
The last passenger run of a train out of Olive Hill was in 1971, Salyers said, and since then the trains have been relegated to history.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still much to discover. He said there may be even more small spurs and lines that were never fully documented, or documented only in the records of now defunct companies. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be forgotten forever, he said. The Carter Caves & Olive Hill, and his discoveries there, are proof of that, as well as comments from the crowd – including the revelation that a granite mine at Gregoryville, eventually abandoned due to the quality of the stone according to Salyers, may have provided enough quality stone to furnish the capital building in Minneapolis.

The full content of the presentation was livestreamed to the Facebook page of the Carter County Historical Society – which sponsored the event – and an archived recording of that livestream can be accessed there.

Contact the writer at editor@cartercountytimes.com

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