Wilderness Road Trail History


At a Glance

Name: Wilderness Road Trail
Length: 8.5 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Horseback Riding, Mountain Biking, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Lee
Surfaces: Crushed Stone
State: Virginia

A Brief History

The Wilderness Road Trail travels a segment of a former coal branch built and operated by the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, one of the South’s best recognized systems. The L&N, also known by its slogan as “The Old Reliable,” competed against the Southern for many years between Cincinnati, Atlanta, New Orleans, and many other locations throughout the South. It was located farther away from the East Coast than other Class I’s (Atlantic Coast Line and Seaboard Air Line), although held a unique advantage thanks to its central location. Aside from its primary routes, the L&N fielded a number of lucrative coal branches primarily situated in extreme western Virginia and southeastern Kentucky that were built during the late 19th century. These would generate bountiful profits upon which the railroad greatly relied. Today, many are still in service, although some—like the Wilderness Road Trail corridor—have since been abandoned.

The Louisville & Nashville achieved the rare distinction of being one of the few classic American railroads to operate under its original charter for more than a century without experiencing a serious financial setback or bankruptcy. It was formed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 1850 to link its namesake cities while also connecting with Memphis, Tennessee. Progress was slow but service was opened between Louisville and Nashville by 1859, reaching Memphis in 1861. Unfortunately, the L&N was caught within the crossfire during the Civil War when the Kentucky sided with the Union and Tennessee aligned with the Confederacy. This division resulted in the railroad suffering tremendous damage during the war but the railroad managed to weather the conflict, rebuild, and move on afterward.

Through the acquisition of several small systems, a common theme in the L&N’s growth over the years, it had reached Montgomery, Alabama, in 1872. By the end of the 1870s, service was established to New Orleans and it had soon opened to St. Louis. In 1880, the L&N took control of the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis (NC&StL; “The Dixie Line,” a slogan it would later adopt as its own), while in 1881 it reached Cincinnati, via Louisville, by purchasing the Louisville, Cincinnati & Lexington. The company then focused efforts toward the east by extending to Livingston, via Lebanon, and Jellico, Tennessee, in 1883. Here a connection was made with what later became the Southern Railway. The goal was Atlanta with a secondary route into Cincinnati. Much of this growth, again, came through purchasing smaller carriers. First, it picked up the Kentucky Central Railroad in 1891 between Covington, Kentucky, and Livingston, then the company constructed a new line into Knoxville, connecting with the Knoxville Southern and Marietta & North Georgia. These two roads it would later acquire in 1902 for access to Marietta, Georgia. Finally, it arrived in Atlanta via the Western & Atlantic, a system leased to subsidiary NC&StL in 1890.

With the L&N’s through-routes in place, by 1905 the railroad shifted focus toward building up its freight business. Because lines were already located near the rich coalfields of eastern Kentucky, it seemed logical the railroad would build into these regions. The move also allowed the L&N to connect with the Norfolk & Western, which was constructing a western extension from its main line at Bluefield, Virginia (near the border with West Virginia). Work began on the new route in April 1886, extending away from the main line at Corbin, Kentucky, where it headed southeast toward Middlesboro, reaching there in 1889. The line then continued east to Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, before turning northeast to the small hamlet of Ewing. It is this segment that today’s makes up the Wilderness Road Trail. The branch would eventually connect with the N&W at a location known as Norton, via Big Stone Gap and Appalachia, in April 1891. These coalfields were extremely bountiful, so much so that four notable railroads eventually served the region, including the N&W, L&N, Southern, and the small Interstate Railroad (constructed solely for the purpose of moving black diamonds). The L&N would eventually come to own an entire cluster of lines here with other extensions reaching Glenbrook, Manchester, Herron, and Lynch (all located in Kentucky). Collectively, the network was known as the L&N’s Cumberland Valley Division. Traffic grew so strong that the railroad took the uncommon step of double-tracking the corridor between Corbin and Loyall (68 miles) in 1926. In 1910 the L&N further grew its coal business by acquiring the Lexington & Eastern Railroad running between the state capital and Fleming near the Virginia border. Several short branches were subsequently built here to serve additional mines. As with the Cumberland Valley Division, what became known as the EK lines (for “Eastern Kentucky”) were also double-tracked between Winchester and Blackey.

At its peak size, the L&N served most of Alabama, reached Pensacola and Chattahoochee, Florida, stretched across both Tennessee and Kentucky, where it fielded two lines to Memphis and Cincinnati, respectively. By 1950, the railroad was operating 4,779 route miles serving nine different states. Before losing interest in passenger service, it once fielded a notable and popular fleet of trains such as the “Pan American” (Cincinnati–Memphis/New Orleans), “Humming Bird” (Chicago /St. Louis/Cincinnati–New Orleans/Memphis), “Georgian” (Chicago/St. Louis–Atlanta), and “Gulf Wind” (New Orleans – Jacksonville). Thanks to the strategic layout of its network in the central Southeast, the L&N often worked with other railroads in connecting long-distance trains, including some of those mentioned above, to various cities. For instance, the “Crescent” was owned by the Southern Railway but worked with the L&N and Pennsylvania in seeing the train operate from New Orleans to New York City.

In 1969, the railroad finally reached Chicago thanks to its acquisition of the much smaller Chicago & Eastern Illinois via Evansville, Indiana. A few years later, it also picked up the historic Monon Railroad in 1971, another regional system serving the state of Indiana. By then the merger movement was gaining traction, and the L&N affiliated itself with Seaboard Coast Line, Clinchfield, and the West Point Route. The systems became known together as the “Family Lines,” a marketing ploy describing the companies’ close association. In 1980, the group merged with Chessie System to form CSX Corporation. In 1982, the L&N formally disappeared when it was absorbed into Seaboard System, a short-lived carrier that was folded into CSX Transportation in 1986. That same year, CSX would abandon a section of the old Cumberland Valley Division between Cumberland Gap and Hagans, Virginia, part of which is now today’s Wilderness Road Trail.

Railroad attractions in Virginia:

C&O Railway Heritage Center in Clifton Forge

Eastern Shore Railway Museum in Parksley

Fairfax Station Railroad Museum in Fairfax Station

Historic Cambria Depot & Scale Cabinetmaker Museum in Christiansburg

Carson Depot Library in Carson, part of the Appomattox Regional Library

Lancaster Antique Train & Toy Collection in Portsmouth

Richmond Railroad Museum in Richmond

Suffolk Seaboard Station Railroad Museum in Suffolk

Railroad attractions in Tennessee:

Casey Jones Railroad Museum in Jackson

Chattanooga Choo located inside Southern Railway’s former Terminal Station

Cookeville Depot Museum housed inside the town’s former Tennessee Central depot

Cowan Railroad Museum in Cowan

Dollywood Express Train as the popular park

Little River Railroad in Townsend

Lookout Mountain Incline Railway

Lynnville Depot Museum at the town’s restored Louisville & Nashville depot

Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Depot & Railroad Museum in Jackson

Secret City Scenic Excursion Train/Southern Appalachia Railway Museum in Oakridge Tennessee Central Railway Museum in Nashville

Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga

Three Rivers Rambler excursion based in Knoxville

Railroad attractions in Kentucky:

Big South Fork Scenic Railway in Stearns

Blue Grass Scenic Railroad & Museum in Versailles

Historic RailPark & Train Museum in Bowling Green

Kentucky Railway Museum in New Haven

My Old Kentucky Dinner Train in Bardstown

Paducah Railroad Museum in Paducah

Railway Museum Of Greater Cincinnati in Covington

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