Riding the Rails

The railroad and its trains have
long been a staple in La Grange, Ky.

About 30 trains run through the downtown each day

LA GRANGE, Ky. (May 2021) – What many might consider an unusual feature, citizens of La Grange, Ky., consider to be normal. A train track snaking right through the middle of Main Street has given the town a unique character and draws many visitors annually to witness a slice of history where as many as 30 CSX freight trains a day roll through town.
Since its beginning, the railroad has played a vital part in the history and growth of La Grange and Oldham County. Established by the mid-1850s, La Grange had by that time begun to flourish as the county seat. Visitors and residents alike no longer had to travel by foot or horse over dusty roads or by boat down the Ohio River.
The establishment of the railroad brought about a new mode of transportation for goods and provided a quicker route from point A to point B for those who could afford to travel on a train. It connected communities and brought easier access for development.

Train observatory

Photo by Helen McKinney

The observation tower at the La Grange Train Museum offers visitors a unique perspective to watch the trains traveling through town each day.

Railroad transportation was aided by the commercial rivalry that arose between Lexington and Louisville with the advent of the steamboat. The only way for one city to win out over the other was to devise a program of land transportation that would be the quicker and more efficient route.
Thought was given to a railroad two decades earlier when a charter was obtained from the Kentucky State Legislature on Jan. 27, 1830. It called for a railroad to be named the “Lexington and Ohio.” This railroad was to be built from Lexington to a point to be determined along the Ohio River.
Progress was extremely slow, with only two miles of track laid by Aug. 16, 1832. A year later the track was completed from Lexington to Villa Grove, a distance of six miles. Cars made regular trips delivering mail and carrying passengers along this first division of the track.
The panic of 1837 caused the state to take over the railroad. Two private operators took it over in 1843, but it returned to the state in 1848. The railroad was then sold to a new corporation, the Lexington & Frankfort Railroad.
The western section had been acquired by another corporation the previous year and became known as the Louisville and Frankfort Railroad Co. Luckily for La Grange, the town was located on the main route.
As the pioneer period of railroad construction in the state waned, a new period of expansion was born. From 1850 to 1860, more than 12 railroad charters were granted to various lines. The most important railroad chartered during this time was the Louisville & Nashville, wrote William H. Strategier in his book “History of Railroads in Kentucky.”
By the end of 1860, railroad builders in Kentucky had placed 596.93 miles of railway in operation. Lines slowly extended across the state, traversing tiny towns that would soon grow and prosper. As evidence of this, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act in 1862, authorizing the construction of the first transcontinental railroad.
In 1869 the Louisville & Frankfort consolidated with the Lexington & Frankfort to form the Louisville, Cincinnati & Lexington Railroad Co. A “short line” was established between La Grange and Covington, making La Grange the junction town. Many hotels sprang up as a result of the railroad. One of the most important tasks of the railway was that of delivering mail.
For many years the main line traffic over the L&N from the Bluegrass Region to the west funneled through La Grange and Eminence in nearby Henry County. In 1896, an 8.51-mile cut-off was completed between Christiansburg and Shelbyville, shortening the Louisville-Lexington route by 10 miles. This reduced traffic through La Grange.
By 1913, two round trip passenger lines between Lexington and Louisville via La Grange were extended to include Sundays. By the 1940s, freights had discontinued their use of the La Grange route, leaving only daily passenger trains running. A familiar site to many residents during this time were World War II soldiers traveling through La Grange on the trains.
Although train usage has declined over the years, trains continue to rumble through the town daily. Essential to the railroad and to the folks who traveled on it was the train depot, located at 412 E. Main St. The original depot still stands, evoking memories of a bygone era when travel by rail was common and very essential to this bustling town.
Like the train tracks, the 107-year-old depot has a long history as well. The operator would sell tickets through a window between the operator’s room and waiting area inside the building. Levers in the floor were used to change the train switching equipment outside the tract structure.
When no longer used as a train depot, the upstairs area served as the home of the Oldham Chamber & Economic Development for more than a decade. The Ohio Valley Historical Railroad Foundation Inc. (established in 2006) first occupied only the basement area of the depot for a train museum. It now uses the entire building, which the City of La Grange owns.
The depot is one reminder of the city’s rich railroad history. Additional links to the railroad that continue to preserve its heritage include a Train Observation Tower and Virtual Railfan street cam.
The tower is located at 209 E. Main St. in front of Main Street Bourbon and Ale House and provides an excellent view of the tracks for filming or photographing. Sitting only 900 feet from the museum, the tower has a 10x10-foot platform from which visitors can easily view trains as they come into view from either direction.
Whether you are passionate about trains or experiencing them for the first time, Virtual Railfan has set up two high definition cameras in La Grange in the Laser Technologies building so that train fans from all over the world can have access to the live action of watching trains roll into town 24/7.

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