By Stephen D. Bowling
For nearly 120 years, a tall, metal structure stood silently beside the railroad tracks in Jackson as a reminder of the economic power that Jackson once held in the mountains. The structure, built in 1904, remains one of Jackson’s icons despite its rust and tattered roof. Its visual strength and steady presence symbolize an era when coal and timber were kings and transportation technology brought revolutionary change to people in the mountains.
In the decades following the Civil War, interest in the vast deposits of minerals and timber in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky grew. One factor slowed the development of these natural resources and puzzled would-be barons for decades. No viable option existed to transport timber and coal out of the area except down the Kentucky River.
Mountain roadways were often nothing more than muddy animal trails that wound around the steep hillsides and over the mountains of Breathitt County. Despite the efforts of the Fiscal Court to upgrade travel conditions, little progress had been made since the first county road was improved through “Snake Valley” from Jackson to Quicksand in 1840. The river provided one transportation option, but water flow was often too low to transport goods, and steam vessels found it difficult to navigate the Narrows near Airedale in Lee County. Investors quickly turned to the railroad as a possible source of economic development.
Originally incorporated on March 10, 1854, by the Kentucky Legislature, the Kentucky Union Railway Company (KURR) was organized to build a serviceable railroad into eastern Kentucky, through Big Stone Gap, and eventually to Abington, Virginia. Between 1854 and 1873, the company completed only the work of acquiring some coal and timber rights.
A group of investors from across the state sent agents into the mountains to sample coal and to “cruise” timber. The reports from speculators confirmed that the resources could support the construction of a railroad into the foothills despite the significant cost that was calculated. According to one estimate, more than 5 million logs were being rafted annually from the mountains to the sawmills of central Kentucky. Most estimates believed that the railroad would bring an additional 100 million board feet of cut lumber out of the forests of the foothills. Investors voted to move ahead.
Construction of the railroad, initially pick and shovel work, started under the supervision of engineers in 1885. From the junction just outside Winchester, the railroad builders started east and crossed flat, open fields of Clark County with relative ease. The line reached Clay City, 14.7 miles away, in late 1886. By the start of 1887, the KURR laid 16 miles of track at an estimated cost of $16,000 per mile. This high price nearly cleared the company’s funds and almost bankrupted the corporation. The investors approached Lexington’s leaders and asked for a significant investment into the railroad and agreed to bring the tracks to the city’s east side.
From Clay City, crews completed the survey work and settled on a “workable” route. Under this plan, the tracks would proceed from Lexington through Indian Fields, through Clay City to Stanton and Natural Bridge, and on to Jackson via Campton and Frozen Creek. Unforeseen difficulties with terrain changed the route to a location near the confluence of the North Fork and the Middle Fork of the Kentucky south of Beattyville.
The work progressed at a steady pace, and the railroad had pushed to the new station at Elkatawa, five miles from Jackson, by July 16, 1890. The workers had, by this point, dug six tunnels and constructed 21 bridges to span the many creeks and streams the railroad bed traversed. A large, curved tunnel near the mouth of Cane Creek separated the community of Elkatawa from the KURR’s primary destination at Jackson, just 3.07 miles away. Workers dug and blasted what was to become known as the O&K Junction Tunnel from June 1890 until the first train rolled into Jackson on July 15, 1891.
One of the properties that the KURR purchased early in the land acquisition process was a large tract of land known as the Myers Farm, opposite the booming little town of Jackson. The purchase of the farm from the heirs of Thomas Sewell was completed on April 20, 1883, and the KURR proposed a large freight and passenger station that would be the end of the line. The land acquisition gained the company more than 1,000 acres of flat, river bottom for $11,000. The wooden station, christened “Inverness,” was nearly completed when the first train arrived. Numerous outbuildings and support facilities, including a wooden water tower, were constructed to continue the operations of the Kentucky Union Railroad before financial troubles stopped the work.
The extreme expense of blasting and the sheer number of hands needed to grade the bed and lay the track took its toll on the KURR’s finances. On February 10, 1891, the railroad company entered receivership and was later sold in March 1894 in a foreclosure sale. The highest bidder was the Lexington & Eastern Railway (L&E) which took control of the operations of the KURR line on October 16, 1894.
The Lexington & Eastern Railroad Company found that the work that had been completed by the KURR met the necessary requirements with ballasted track and 60-pound steel rail which was enough to handle the loaded coal and timber trains. The L&E continued to make its primary monies from commercial traffic but added daily passenger trains. By March 1903, the Lexington and Eastern was looking for an efficient route to Quicksand and hoped to extend the tracks on to the rich coal fields of Hazard, more than 35 miles away.
In order to support his extension, a secured water supply was needed, and the open-topped, wooden water tower needed to be replaced. The Lexington and Eastern Railway Company sought bids and awarded the construction of the metal water tower to the Chicago Bridge and Iron Works Company from Chicago, Illinois. The construction of the tower was completed in 7 months and included an electric pump and lines that supplied water from the nearby river. The tower, which included insulated piping, an agitator, and a heater to make sure the water did not freeze, went into operation in 1904.
While the tower stood beside the tracks, the L&E started the extension work, but soon found itself in much the same situation as the Kentucky Union. In June 1909, the Louisville & Nashville Railroad entered discussions to purchase the L & E Railroad with all of its properties and lines including the water tower and fixtures. The tower was used until the 1940s when the power and efficiency of diesel-powered engines started to replace the obsolete steam engines on the tracks. Later, numerous other railways acquired the tower which is currently owned by the CSX Transportation Corporation from Jacksonville, Florida.
Through fires, neglect, and upgrades to railroad technology, the old water tower still stands silently and is often hidden from view by kudzu. It endures as a reminder of Jackson’s glory in our early days as the first modern commercial and industrial center of the mountains.
© 2023 Stephen D. Bowling