Building a railroad isn’t easy. It was an even more difficult endeavor when construction led builders and engineers from the Lexington and Eastern Railway Company to the remote Appalachian mountains of Eastern Kentucky in the early 20th century.
It will be 100 years ago this coming Sunday that the result of months of toil led the first train to Hazard and opened up our sparsely populated community to a new mode of commerce.
It was 21 years after the railroad winded its way into Jackson before Hazard got its turn. It was the potential for an expanded coal industry that really resulted in the railroad’s coming to Hazard, and a major boost to the local economy, as a December 5, 1912 article in the Herald pointed out, several months after the train’s arrival: “The coming of the L&E put a new spirit into most of the towns along the line of the road. Hazard was the first to catch the spirit, and for a year or more the town has been steadily growing. A number of good business blocks have spring up, while in every part of the little mountain city there are new stories and residences – in fact practically every kind of business has come to Hazard.”
The first train made its way into Hazard on June 17, 1912, but the ease with which the car rolled into town belied the arduous task and thousands of hours of work it took to lay the track in the rough valleys and tunnel through the hills of Eastern Kentucky.
Fortunately, we have a myriad of information that keeps that history alive. Staff at the Hazard Herald, who were celebrating the paper’s one-year anniversary when the train rolled into town, spent the first year of the paper’s existence chronicling the movement of the tracks toward Hazard.
August 1911 was a “banner month” for railroad construction, especially with the Hazard Division, the paper reported. More than 2,100 men were employed to work on the line, and by September 1911 that number had climbed to 2,200.
A report in October 1911 noted that work on tunnels in the area was the mark of progress on the railroads. The Stacy tunnel at Quicksand in Breathitt County was driven 306 feet in September 1911. The Yerkes tunnel in Perry County was driven approximately 98 feet for the month. The Hazard tunnel, the longest on the line, was driven only 11 feet, as it was delayed by an accident. The Herald reported that the L&E Company had been expecting to begin track laying in October.
It was also in October when the Herald made note of the depot planned for Hazard, which the paper said was to be an “ornament” to the town.
Speaking of the paper’s readers, who were curious about the type of depot the city would have, the Herald reported: “To them, as well as all others, we are sure that it will be a source of no little gratification to know that we are assured by the officials that there will be erected at this place the finest depot between here and the city of Lexington.”
On November 2, 1911, the Herald reported again on the progress of the railroad making its way to Hazard, with actual track being laid all the way to the mouth of Troublesome Creek in Breathitt County.
By January 1912, following the cave-in at the Hazard tunnel months before, the Herald published a report on the tunnel’s progress, noting the railroad’s completion was still being planned with the original estimates, despite the setback.
“As the debris has been taken out, timbers have been put up carefully, and the spaces above the timbers, whence the material fell in the cave-in, have been carefully filled up, to prevent any further troubles from above,” the paper reported. “This has required long, hard, tedious work, and the railroad company has had to overcome the further severe difficulties of securing proper timbers. Altogether, the work is apparently being pushed with all possible vigor and energy consistent with both caution and foresight, and it may well be expected that the work will be completed as now estimated.”
In February, however, other than work on the tunnels, progress on the track was limited due to inclement weather.
“The weather has been so exceptionally bad that outside work has been practically out of the question,” the Herald reported.
But the paper also reported on the importance of the railroad to Perry County, in as much as local merchants would begin receiving shipments by rail, rather than on flat-bottom boats that slowly meandered up the North Fork of the Kentucky River toward Hazard, as was the custom before the railroad arrived. The rails would “be a great boon to this section in bringing corn, flour and other food supplies so much more accessible than heretofore,” the report read.
By May, the Herald reported that the track was to be about seven miles from Hazard, and to Hazard tunnel by June 10. That tunnel, known as Lennut (tunnel spelled backwards) Tunnel, is located near what is now the Ky. 15 bypass in Hazard.
“The work above Hazard is said to be almost completed,” the paper reported. “Nearly all the contractors are looking for a final estimate.”
On May 16, 1912, businessmen in surrounding counties were hotly anticipating the arrival of the train, and the opportunities it would represent.
“Merchants in Knott, Letcher, and other adjacent territories are already beginning to order their goods shipped to Hazard, for the delivery about the first of July,” the story read. “Time to wake up; the resurrection is at hand!”
On May 30, the Herald reported that some citizens of Hazard may have already been able to hear the engine’s whistle: “Probably by the time this issue of The Herald is being read, the citizens of Hazard will be delighted by the listening to the long anticipated music of the engine whistle, over at the other end of the tunnel, something over a mile from town.”
Finally, after literally months of work, on June 17, 1912 the first train car rolled into Hazard. “Hurrah! The Steam Cars Are In Hazard” the Herald’s main headline read.
A large crowd gathered to meet Engine No. 324 as it crossed the trestle and into town, and the newspaper declared Monday, June 17, 1912 as a red letter day in the history of Hazard as the a band onsite played “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” and then County Attorney Calloway W. Napier made a short speech to the crowd.
The crowd watched on as the workmen continued to lay rail at a rate of one per minute, and the train slowly moved forward every 16 feet.
It was also in this issue of the Herald that W.A. McDowell, of the L&E Railroad Company, announced that commercial service would be running on the rails from Jackson to Hazard. Prior to that day, Perry County residents had to make the arduous trip to Jackson to hitch a ride on the train.