By John E. Leming, Jr. - 1997
The latter part of the 1800s brought an increase in rail construction in the United States. Bracken County, Kentucky, was no exception. A rail link with the C. and O. main line near the Ohio River would bolster business and industry, and provide a convenience to passengers and businessmen throughout the surrounding communities.
Younger Alexander, a banker and businessman, had been elected cashier at the Bracken County Bank, and married Miss Lyda Day at Brooksville in 1891. His business interests in the community cultivated his desire to build and operate a railroad linking Brooksville with Wellsburg on the main C. and O. line. He proposed a plan in 1895 that became a reality and served the communities for 34 years.
His proposal to a group of business partners was to construct a roadbed running along Locust Creek and its associated tributaries, eliminating the need for expensive grading, filling, and construction of tunnels. The line would run from Wellsburg, along the creek to Walcott, then to Cumminsville; passing by a steam mill and store, before terminating at its headquarters in Brooksville, a distance of 9.8 miles. The plans did not specify a turnaround, meaning the train would run forward to Brooksville, and then back up on the return trip all the way to Wellsburg.
In July 1895, work began in securing deeds for the 20-foot right-of-way. Articles of incorporation were drawn up and submitted, and with the support of many well-known businessmen, the Brooksville Railroad Company was formed on August 21st. Officials of the railroad were: Younger Alexander, president; John A. Downard, Martin Finn, J. B. Beckett, W. Haley, J. W. R. Corlis, W. W. Fields, W. B. Fronk, J. B. Clarke Sr., Ed Daum, James Feagan, D. J. Wallin, and J. W. Staton, directors. Capital stock amounted to $32,000, divided into shares equaling $50.00 each. Original shareholders, mentioned in the articles of incorporation, numbered 79.
Construction began in the fall of 1895, under the direction of Chief Engineer W. H. Venable of Charleston, West Virginia. A report in the Railroad Gazette magazine, dated February 1896, stated that the roadbed grading was complete, chiefly done by local laborers and farmers under the direction of E. S. Whitney. Work was slow and hampered by cold, wet weather, and a cholera epidemic, which claimed the lives of some of the workers. The report also mentioned future plans to expand the road from Brooksville to Mt. Olivet, a distance of 12 miles, but this plan never became a reality.
Bridgework, track laying, and surfacing began in late 1896. The ironwork and supplies were obtained from the Cincinnati Railroad Supply and Manufacturing Company, also known as Joseph-Joseph Brothers. In April 1897, the line began hauling limited freight using a flatcar, gondola, and the first locomotive, a Baldwin 4-4-0, obtained December 4, 1896, from Joseph-Joseph for $1,500. The engine was previously No. 7 on the C. and K. S. Railroad, and the original road name was "Vance." A passenger coach was soon added, being provided by Younger Alexander for $630. The coach was rebuilt from a straight passenger coach to a combination baggage and passenger arrangement. The car, known only as No. 5, was painted maroon with gold lettering. The car boasted gas lighting and pot-bellied stoves in both compartments. The smokestacks for the stoves were trimmed off short, to eliminate destruction by limbs of overhanging trees, which were very common along the route.
The May 1897 edition of Railroad Gazette reported operations were open to the public, using one small steam engine. The principal purpose of the road would be to transport passengers and agricultural products. Although the Gazette referred to the "Vance" as a "small" steam engine, it should be noted that she weighed some 53,000 pounds. The tender car carried a capacity of 1,200 gallons of water and several tons of coal.
Typical highball speed would have been in excess of 70 miles per hour on a good road, but being rather inhibited on a ten-mile unballasted track, she rarely reached speeds exceeding 15 miles per hour. Residents that can remember "Big Windy," as she affectionately became known, reported that you could almost walk behind the car and board the train at any given time, as she slowly wound her way through many of Bracken County's beautifully-wooded farms.
The railroad was an immediate success and reported gross earnings of $9,725. to the Kentucky Railroad Commission in 1899. Plans were quickly entertained to extend the road as far away as West Liberty. The small line had sidings at Walcott, near the now-famous covered bridge, and Cumminsville, near a steam-powered milling operation and general store. A well-equipped depot, express office, and repair facility were constructed at the Brooksville yard. A tobacco warehouse was built in the yard, which later became a distillery. The yard contained a coaling operation, a major improvement in itself to a community, which prior to the railroad, received all shipments of coal by horse-drawn wagons. Possibly the most successful business was the Jett hardware and steam-powered lumber mill, which flourished at the foot of Depot Hill for many years.
The train made two trips per day, one in the morning and one in late afternoon; delivering passengers, freight, groceries, and mail all along the route. Sunday runs were limited to special excursions, such as private trips to the river beach for a picnic or party, or possibly a special connection for a trip east or west on the C. and O.
Business continued to remain profitable until 1910, when a report to the railroad commission show-ed profits of only $2,100. By 1914, the freight business was being used mainly by the Falls River Construction Company of Louisville in the construction of a new courthouse at Brooksville. Profits for 1915 were at an all-time low of $561.34.
On November 17, 1917, the Brooksville Railroad went into receivership and became the property of J. T. Watson. In 1919, a group of ambitious businessmen at Brooksville purchased the line for $20,000 and hoped to make it a success once again. New articles of incorporation were filed on June 30, 1919, and the name was changed to the Brooksville and Ohio River Railroad Company. The articles specified that the road would be used for passengers and freight, but it appears that the passenger service was dropped before operations began on October 1st.
New directors of the line were: H. O. Lucas, L. J. Cook, J. W. Flannery, E. E. Corlis, W. T. Breeze, W. B. Wallin, J. D. Finn, H. L. Corlis, W. H. Stevenson, Johann Kalb, J. T. Watson, A. R. Langley, John Kearn, Garrett Jett, W. A. Byron, D. J. Davis, and Dr. Mark Insko. The amount of capital stock issued was $50,000, divided into 1000 shares of par value at $50 each.
Rehabilitation of the line began, and by 1923, the directors spent $3,200 for the purchase of a used Danforth 4-4-0 steam locomotive from the C. and O. Railroad. Known only as No. 195, the locomotive was, no doubt, a last-ditch effort to improve services, and to assure the public that the railroad could continue to run and be reliable.
The mid-1920s brought better turnpikes, automobiles, and trucks to the communities served by the railroad; and the net effect of lower profits were again reflected in the maintenance of the equipment and track. The roadbed itself needed major renovations, and it had been noted that as one tie would rot away, a sapling along the route would be cut and fitted into its place. Residents joked among themselves, stating, "If you hear Big Windy's whistle blowing, repeatedly, she is probably off the track again and is in need of assistance."
With all joking aside, derailments were becoming too common, and without any reliability, the train could not deliver freight on time. This spelled doom for the line. A pair of jacks was carried on the train to assist in rerailing; farmers along the route would generally help place the engine and/or cars back on the track.
By 1930, the inevitable was becoming a reality, and talk of abandonment came to the railroad, just as it was coming to so many small operations all over the United States. Railroad Age magazine reported in 1930 that the miles of abandoned track in the United States far exceeded the miles of track still under construction. Applications were made to the Interstate Commerce Commission on April 11, 1931, stating that the construction of state highways and increased truck and automobile traffic, which operated a prompt and efficient service, had caused the company to lose funds needed to maintain track and equipment. The C. and O. Railroad had been asked to take over the line, but finding it prohibitive to spend the money needed to build a new roadbed, it wanted no part of the small operation.
On June 6, 1931, the commission granted the request to abandon the line and the Brooksville and Ohio River Railroad ceased operations for good.
Of the two remaining locomotives, one was returned to service on the C. and O., and the other was run to Wellsburg and scrapped. The passenger coach was sold to a farmer near Wellsburg, and was used as a chicken house and tobacco stripping room. In an attempt to rescue a car stranded at Brooksville, the C. and O. sent a wrecker and reported that 21 derailments were made in the ten-mile return trip to Wellsburg. Two additional tank cars belonging to the C. and O. were left at Brooksville. These were loaded onto flatbed trucks and sent to Augusta for rerailing.
By the time the railroad had served its major importance to the community, Younger Alexander had moved on to create the Bluegrass Traction Railway; which ran from Lexington to Paris, and later became instrumental in the development of the Woodford Gas and Oil Company.
It is ironic to note that the railroad, no doubt, carried several Bracken County men away to serve in World War I. Although operations were non-existent in the 1940s, "Big Windy" served once again, when many of the rails and equipment were removed and used to support the local scrap drive efforts of World War II.
The once busy area at the foot of Depot Hill became quiet as the businesses disappeared. By the late 1960s, the area posed a problem because many of the older buildings were considered dangerous to children playing in the area. A proposal to renovate the area and build a park became a reality, and on June 13, 1969, Jett Memorial Park was dedicated; named in honor of successful businessman and ex-mayor of Brooksville, Garrett Jett.
Although 69 years have passed since the abandonment, much of the old right-of-way is still visible. Farmers along the route still report finding spikes and frog plates. On a recent walk along the portion of roadbed between Walcott and Wellsburg, much of the roadbed was still visible. At least three trestle sites were found, although there were no remnants of the trestles themselves. Culvert drains and rock footings are still visible. Perhaps, some day, a section of the old right-of-way can be used for a walking trail; but for now, the Brooksville and Ohio River Railroad will be remembered as an important piece of early Bracken County industrial history.
John E. Leming, Jr., 5 Sturbridge, Cold Spring, KY 41076, is an author and historian, who writes many articles related to history in Bracken County. He is the past vice-president of the Bracken County Historical Society, and has written the "Looking Back" column in the Bracken County News at Brooksville for the past five years. He has also published several volumes of obituary books, and a volume on tombstone inscriptions.