The Railroad Expansion Controversy in Postbellum Bourbon County: Conflicting Economic Interests and Ideological Perspectives among Urban and Rural Elites
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The Railroad Expansion Controversy in Postbellum Bourbon County:
Conflicting Economic Interests and Ideological Perspectives among Urban and Rural Elites

In the decades following the Civil War, a controversy over railroad expansion erupted in Bourbon County, located just north of Lexington. The controversy centered on the issue of whether an east-west route ought to complement the north-south route from Cincinnati, which had been constructed prior to the Civil War. The issue was contested at the local level because public financing of railroad construction was largely implemented in Kentucky through municipal and county subscriptions to railroad securities. The Kentucky Constitution of 1850 eliminated state funding, and federal funding was not a viable option for intrastate lines. Private financing provided only limited capital because of the prohibitive cost of railroad construction.1

Railroad companies were chartered by a special act of the state legislature. Once incorporated, promoters, usually major stockholders [End Page 51] in the company and their attornies, would submit a proposal to the local county court for financing the project. In Bourbon County, if the county court did not approve the railroad proposal, it would be submitted to the voters in the county or city in a referendum.2 The constitutionally mandated local referendum over all proposed municipal indebtedness to fund railroad construction institutionalized political conflict over the issue.3 This study focuses on electoral referenda on railroad subscriptions in Bourbon County between 1871 and 1887. These contests were ended permanently when the state constitution of 1891 removed the power of local governments to finance railroad construction.4

Most referenda on railroad financing in Bourbon County after the Civil War consistently revealed a deep cleavage between the county and the county seat of Paris. A similar city-county division over the financing of local railroads developed in referenda in other Kentucky counties as well. As Robert Ireland notes, “Usually urban areas favored, while rural areas opposed, public financing of railroad construction.”5 In the case of Bourbon County, the different economic interests of large landowners and the commercial elite are a part of the explanation for this division but just as important was the disagreement over whether the community would be best served by an industrial future. Commercial elites cast their argument in favor of railroad expansion largely in terms of the benefits to the community of an industrial future; large landowners rejected that vision.

Business leaders in the county seat of Paris argued that industrialization offered a better road to future prosperity for all citizens than did the established agrarian economy. The prerequisite for industrialization [End Page 52] from their perspective was expanded railroad service. From 1871 to 1887, powerful landed gentry were the primary opponents of railroad expansion in Bourbon County. Many of these gentry argued that new railroads and the resultant industrial development would be potentially harmful to the welfare of the community. For instance, the transition to an industrial economy would transfer wealth and political power to outside corporations that often operated ruthlessly in the unregulated markets of the era. Only in the case of the 1887 referendum did the antirailroad gentry support funding for a new railroad because they had become disillusioned with the only railroad serving the county. They remained as mistrustful of railroad companies and skeptical about the promises of industrialization as before. In short, the ideological gap between city and county leaders on railroad issues persisted throughout this era.

The debate focused not only on the relative benefits and costs of public financing of new railroads but also on broader ideological issues related to the political and socioeconomic future of the community.6 These issues included the impact of industrialization on economic opportunity, the relative importance of majority rule versus property rights, the relative merits of oligarchic versus democratic rule, the preservation of local autonomy, the maintenance of the prevailing racial hierarchy, and the relative importance of social stability versus social change. At the heart of the controversy were two different conservative visions for the economic future of the county: one looking to preserve the traditional agrarian economy, based on large landholdings, and the other seeking to integrate the community more deeply into the emergent industrial economy...