Richard Martin Trail History


At a Glance

Name: Richard Martin Trail
Length: 10.2 Miles
Trail activities: Horseback Riding, Mountain Biking, Walking
Counties: Limestone
Surfaces: Crushed Stone, Gravel
State: Alabama

A Brief History

The history of the Richard Martin Trail as a corridor for trains, located north of Athens, Alabama, can be traced back to the pre-Civil War days when a small railroad opened the route for service. After the war, the company merged with two others to form a continuous system running from Nashville into Alabama. A short time later, the railroad came under the control of the growing Louisville & Nashville (L&N), a system created in Kentucky during the mid-19th century. Under the L&N the route became a key component as its main line into New Orleans, which ran as far north as Louisville and Cincinnati. Looking at the industry as a whole, the L&N was one of the South’s largest and most important systems, serving Evansville (Indiana), Memphis, Atlanta, Knoxville, and even Chicago in later years. Additionally, thanks to its key positioning, the road acted as an important interline network, funneling freight and passengers both north to south and east to west. Eventually, the L&N became part of the Seaboard System, which abandoned the corridor in April of 1986 just before its formal inclusion into today’s CSX Transportation.

The route that is today the Richard Martin Trail begins with the Tennessee & Alabama Central Railroad (TA&C), first chartered in 1853. Originally built to five-foot, wide-gauge (common at the time throughout the South), the TA&C was completed and opened from Decatur, Alabama, north to Elkmont near the state line (roughly 29 miles) during autumn 1859. Two other railroads would also play an important role in the TA&C’s history: the Tennessee & Alabama (T&A) and Central Southern (CS). The latter was chartered the same year as the TA&C and opened between the Alabama state line and Columbia, Tennessee (about 46 miles), by 1860. Finally, the T&A, largest of three roads, was also established in 1853 and completed its line from Nashville to Columbia by 1860. Both the T&A and CS also used the South’s standard five-foot gauge.

During 1867, all three roads formally merged to create the Nashville & Decatur Railroad, which connected its namesake cities along a main line that was roughly 120 miles. Enter the Louisville & Nashville. The L&N had been granted a charter by the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 1850 to connect its namesake cities as well as eventually reach the major Mississippi port of Memphis. Initially, construction moved swiftly, and before the end of that year, the railroad was opened between Louisville and Lebanon (about 70 miles). Financial problems and other issues delayed the L&N reaching Nashville until 1859; two years later, the company had also reached Memphis. Despite the Civil War, which resulted in the L&N essentially being split into two (Kentucky joined the North and Tennessee the South), it was able to weather the conflict more or less intact and quickly rebuilt afterward. Following the war, growth continued rapidly. In 1871, the L&N took over the Nashville & Decatur; within a year, it had reached Montgomery thanks to more acquisitions.

Throughout the rest of the 19th century, the L&N continued to expand across the South, mostly through acquiring smaller systems. In 1879, it purchased the Evansville, Henderson & St. Louis, which did not reach the latter city but did open an important gateway to Evansville, Indiana, that allowed it to reach Chicago via interchange traffic via the Chicago & Eastern Illinois (C&EI). Four other important acquisitions followed around the same time: the L&N entered New Orleans by taking over the Montgomery & Mobile and the New Orleans, Mobile & Texas while the purchase of one-time rival Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis (NC&StL) gave it a deeper reach across Tennessee. Acquiring the NC&StL was an ugly proposition because it resulted in a bitter and hostile stock takeover. In 1881, the company picked up the Louisville, Cincinnati & Lexington that pushed it into Cincinnati and allowed it to reach Lexington. By the last decade of the 19th century, the L&N had two north-to-south main lines running through Kentucky and Tennessee. By 1905, the secondary eastern route was open from Atlanta to Cincinnati via Knoxville. This corridor also included the famous “Hook & Eye” line north of Atlanta that passed over itself to gain elevation. It was later bypassed in 1906 with a gentler and easier grade.

Most of the road’s remaining growth during this time came in the form of coal branches, which brought in considerable profits. There were primarily four notable districts in western Virginia, southern Tennessee, Alabama, and western Kentucky. However, coal wasn’t the L&N’s only source of traffic. Thanks to its Southeast/Midwest positioning, the railroad moved significant interchange freight from such gateways as Atlanta, Cincinnati, Evansville, and Memphis to points both north and south. This also included passengers. While the L&N was never heavily involved with streamliners, and did not enter the market with sparkling and sleek trains until after World War II, it did have several notable names like the “Pan-American” and “Humming Bird,” both of which reached New Orleans and passed over the right-of-way that is now the Richard Martin Trail. The road’s New Orleans–Nashville–Cincinnati main line was always an important part of its system. This was especially true after the L&N finally gained entry into Chicago via its own rails when it acquired the C&EI’s Evansville line into the Windy City in 1969. An additional entry into Chicago came in 1971 when it purchased the classic Monon Railroad that reached the city via Louisville (and also served Indianapolis).

The 1970s also saw an independent L&N begin to disappear; it informally came together with the Seaboard Coast Line, Clinchfield, and West Point Route to affiliate as the “Family Lines System.” In 1980, proceedings began with the northerly Chessie System to form today’s CSX Transportation in 1987. The L&N formally disappeared in 1982 when the Family Lines merged as the Seaboard System. At its peak, the Louisville & Nashville stretched from Florida’s Northern Panhandle to Chicago, as far west as Memphis and St. Louis, and as far east as Knoxville and western Virginia. It was one of the South’s most prominent and important railroads as well as one of the best managed, having never fallen into bankruptcy during its more than 130-year history.

Railroad attractions near the Richard Martin Trail include the Fort Payne Depot Museum in Fort Payne and North Alabama Railroad Museum in Huntsville. Also, across the border in Tennessee is the Cowan Railroad Museum and Tennessee Central Railway in Nashville.

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