There are many people interested in former transportation companies, whether they were trucking companies, railroads, airlines or ocean lines. These companies are called “fallen flags,” and the term describes companies whose corporate names have been dissolved through merger, bankruptcy or liquidation.
Today’s FreightWaves Classics profiles another fallen flag – the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (reporting mark LN; commonly called the L&N). The L&N was a Class I railroad that provided freight and passenger services in the southeast United States.
The railroad operated under one name continuously for 132 years; it survived the Civil War, the Great Depression and numerous social and technological changes. As one of the major Southern railroads, the L&N’s reach went far beyond its namesake cities. It stretched to St. Louis, Memphis, Atlanta, the Florida Panhandle and New Orleans.
Financially strong throughout its tenure, the L&N’s nickname was “The Old Reliable.”
Early history (1850-1900)
The L&N was chartered on March 5, 1850 by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. According to the Louisville & Nashville Railroad Historical Society, the L&N charter stated “…to build a railroad between Louisville, Kentucky, and the Tennessee state line in the direction of Nashville.” On December 4, 1851, Tennessee gave the L&N legal authority to construct a line from Louisville to Nashville.
The railroad’s owners then sought construction funding; they did so, and construction began in May 1853. The L&N’s first segment officially opened on August 25, 1855, while work continued to lay rails to Tennessee.
Four years later the railroad’s charter was finished; on October 27, 1859 service to Nashville began. However, the Civil War stopped any additional growth; moreover, the war was very detrimental to the L&N’s rail lines.
Because its rail lines were located in both the United States of America and the Confederate States of America, much of the L&N’s track was destroyed by troops from both sides of the conflict. Nonetheless, the L&N survived the war in relatively good shape financially. The railroad began rebuilding and expanding in the decade after the war ended. The L&N management’s post-war goal was a direct route to the Gulf Coast.
By 1872 a series of small acquisitions helped the L&N reach Montgomery, Alabama. Also, in the area around Birmingham deposits of coal and iron were discovered, which spawned a new steel industry. Carrying freight for the industry helped pay for L&N’s further expansion.
During the late 1870s and throughout the 1880s the L&N made a number of acquisitions which saw its rail lines extend significantly.
The L&N made acquisitions that helped it extend to St. Louis. It purchased two components of the St. Louis & Southeastern Railroad (StL&SE). First, it purchased the railroad’s Kentucky and Tennessee divisions between Nashville and Henderson, Kentucky in 1879. Then, on May 1, 1880, it purchased the StL&SE’s Illinois and Indiana divisions between Henderson/Evansville and St. Louis.
The L&N’s management sought to dominate rail service throughout Tennessee. To do so, it acquired the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis (NC&StL) through a hostile takeover in 1880. Known as the “Dixie Line,” the railroad had rail lines to Memphis, Chattanooga and Nashville. Despite its acquisition, the Dixie Line remained largely independent from the L&N. A decade later, the NC&StL leased the Western & Atlantic Railroad from the state of Georgia; this action provided a direct connection to Atlanta.
The L&N reached New Orleans in 1881 via Mobile, Alabama. This was possible because of the Montgomery & Mobile Railroad and New Orleans, Mobile & Texas Railroad. Then in 1883 the railroad opened a 170-mile corridor from Pensacola to Chattahoochee, Florida.
In addition to extending its rail lines to New Orleans in 1881, the L&N gained control of the Louisville, Cincinnati & Lexington during the same year. This acquisition provided access to Cincinnati, as well as a branch line to Lexington via the state capital at Frankfort.
With a route established to Cincinnati, the L&N’s management focused its efforts in eastern Kentucky. From Cincinnati, the railroad extended its rails to Livingston, via Lebanon and Jellico, Tennessee. This was accomplished by 1883; it also provided a connection with what later became the Southern Railway. The L&N management’s goal was to have a rail line that would serve Atlanta and provide a more direct route to Cincinnati.
The railroad continued making strategic acquisitions. It purchased the Kentucky Central Railroad in 1891, which ran between Covington, Kentucky and Livingston. The L&N then constructed a new rail line into Knoxville; it connected there with the Knoxville Southern and Marietta & North Georgia railroads. (It went on to purchase both railroads in 1902, which provided it a link to Marietta, Georgia, just a few miles north of Atlanta.)
The L&N was able to serve Atlanta via the Western & Atlantic, which as noted above, was leased to its NC&StL subsidiary in 1890.
The L&N had rail lines near the eastern Kentucky coalfields; its management sought to increase its coal freight and expanded further into those areas.
This decision also brought connections with the Norfolk & Western Railroad (N&W), which was constructing a western extension from its main line at Bluefield, Virginia (near the border with West Virginia).
The L&N began work on its new route to service the coal fields during April 1886. It constructed an extension from the main line at Corbin, Kentucky and headed southeast towards Middlesboro, reaching the town in 1889. It then continued laying track east to Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, then laid track northeast to Ewing, a small village. This branch eventually connected with the N&W at Norton, via Big Stone Gap and Appalachia, during April 1891.
The coal deposits in the region were very large; eventually four railroads served them, including the N&W, L&N, Southern Railway, and the small Interstate Railroad, which was built solely to haul coal.
Hauling coal was so profitable that the L&N acquired a number of rail lines in the area; it soon had extensions that reached the Kentucky towns of Glenbrook, Manchester, Herron and Lynch. Collectively, the network was named the L&N’s Cumberland Valley Division. Coal traffic was so good for more than three decades that the L&N double-tracked its 68-mile corridor between Corbin and Loyall in 1926.
Milton H. Smith
Milton H. Smith was appointed to manage transportation on all military railroads in the occupied South during the Civil War. He worked for several railroads after the war, then was hired in early 1882 by L&N as vice president and traffic manager. In 1891 he was elevated to the presidency of the railroad, a position he would hold for 30 years. Under Smith the L&N grew to be a 6,000-mile system serving 14 states. Smith died at the age of 84 in 1921 of a heart attack.
L&N history from 1900-50
Financier J.P. Morgan’s attempts to control the U.S. railroad industry and the trans-Atlantic shipping industry have been covered in previous FreightWaves Classics articles. In 1902 Morgan’s financial machinations meant that control of the L&N went to one of its rivals, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad (ACL). However, the ACL took a “hands-off” approach to managing L&N operations, and Smith and his team continued to actively manage the railroad.
Most of the L&N’s major growth and through rail lines were in place by 1905. Smith turned his attention to increasing the railroad’s freight business. For example, the L&N continued to expand its coal-hauling operations.
In 1910 the L&N further expanded its coal business by acquiring the Lexington & Eastern Railroad. Its length was less than 100 miles, but it served the heart of the Kentucky coal fields. Seeking even more coal business, the L&N built several short branch lines to serve more coal mines. As with its Cumberland Valley Division, the L&N double-tracked its EK Lines (for “Eastern Kentucky”) between Winchester and Blackey.
World War I and World War II provided new opportunities for the L&N, although its rail network was strained during both wars. It provided transport for both war materiel and civilian and military passengers.
Like many railroads, the L&N shifted gradually from steam-powered locomotives to those powered by diesel following World War II. The railroad focused primarily on upgrading its rail lines and its rolling stock.
As of 1950, the L&N’s track mileage was 4,779 miles. It continued to haul coal, which was a key commodity for energy production. In addition, the railroad also carried a variety of other freight ranging from agricultural and forest products to general merchandise and chemicals.
After operating the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railroad as a separate subsidiary since 1880, it was fully merged into the L&N in 1957.
The 1960s and beyond
In the 1960s, the L&N made acquisitions of smaller railroads in Illinois that provided its long-sought entry into Chicago. In addition, the railroad purchased pieces of its long-time rival, the Tennessee Central Railroad.
At the end of 1970, the L&N operated 6,063 miles of railroad track. The Seaboard Coast Line Railroad, which was the successor to the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, purchased the remaining shares of the L&N it did not already own in 1971. The L&N then became a subsidiary of the Seaboard, no longer managed independently.
Congress passed the Staggers Rail Act of 1980 and it was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter. The legislation significantly deregulated the American railroad industry, as well as replacing the Interstate Commerce Commission as the industry’s regulatory agency.
The Staggers Rail Act led to a bout of industry consolidation. The Seaboard Coast Line completely absorbed the L&N. The newly merged company was known as SCL/L&N, and the Family Lines. The L&N’s rolling stock was rebranded with the Family Lines’ logo and colors. Over the next few years Seaboard made several smaller acquisitions that resulted in the creation of the Seaboard System Railroad.
Industry consolidation continued; in 1986, the Seaboard System merged into the Chessie System, which consisted of the railroads owned/controlled by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The new company was named CSX Transportation (CSX).
The L&N’s primary corridors were mostly double-tracked by the railroad when it was still an independent unit of the Atlantic Coast Line. The double-tracked routes included: Cincinnati-New Orleans; Cincinnati-Atlanta: Evansville-Louisville/Nashville; and Memphis-Nashville-Atlanta. A number of key secondary lines extended from these main lines.
Except for some routes that were abandoned or sold, the CSX has owned and operate all of the former L&N rail lines since it was created in 1986. While the L&N is now another fallen flag, its former system continues as an important part of CSX’s southern lines.
Author’s note: This article would not have been possible without the resources made available by Adam Burns of American-Rails.com. Those interested in learning more about the railroads operating in North America – and those that are now “fallen flags” – should explore the American-Rails site.