Tunnel Trouble: Building and Rebuilding the Cincinnati Southern, 1869–1999
- Ohio Valley History
- The Filson Historical Society and Cincinnati Museum Center
- Volume 12, Number 3, Fall 2012
- pp. 68-77
- View Citation
- Additional Information
68 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY Collections Essay Tunnel Trouble Building and Rebuilding the Cincinnati Southern, 1869-1999 Curtis Tate F ew people remember the historic day of May 4, 1869. Six days before the much-celebrated golden-spike ceremony in Promontory, Utah, completed the transcontinental railroad, the Ohio legislature authorized the city of Cincinnati to finance and construct a rail link to the South, in a bid to remain competitive with Louisville, the Queen City’s downriver neighbor. But the meeting of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific overshadowed the birth of the Cincinnati Southern. The builders of the Cincinnati Southern carved a 338-mile line out of the rugged limestone hills of Kentucky and Tennessee with 105 bridges and twenty-seven tunnels, more tunnels than on the entire transcontinental railroad . But they had little to brag about. These constrictive, hand-dug, and mostly unlined passages would saddle the railroad with operational nightmares for nearly a century to come. Trains traveled a combined five miles underground, frequently on curves and grades, under suffocating and slippery conditions, inspiring a nickname among train crews that endures to this day: the Rathole. Construction, Operational Challenges, and Relocations through 1950 Construction began in earnest on the Cincinnati Southern in 1873 and was completed in stages until the entire route opened for service in 1880. The line cost twenty million dollars to build—pretty inexpensive, at roughly four hundred million in today’s dollars. The Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific Railway leased the Cincinnati Southern not long after its completion, but by 1895 the company faced bankruptcy. Southern Railway came to the rescue and brought the CNO&TP into its fold as a subsidiary. However, in an 1896 referendum the citizens of Cincinnati rejected by a few hundred votes a proposal to sell the railroad outright. The city’s ownership survives into the present century, and Cincinnati has recovered its initial investment—and then some—through lease payments. Southern Railway spent decades confronting the Cincinnati Southern’s myriad operational challenges with a variety of solutions, such as equipping steam locomotives with smoke deflectors and bypassing or daylighting tunnels. By 1920, traffic volume increased to a level that warranted double-tracking many CURTIS TATE FALL 2012 69 Map of the line of the Cincinnati Southern Railway, Charles Gilbert Hall, ed., The Cincinnati Southern Railway, a History (Cincinnati: The McDonald Press, 1902). CINCINNATI MUSEUM CENTER TUNNEL TROUBLE: BUILDING AND REBUILDING THE CINCINNATI SOUTHERN, 1869-1999 70 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY Grand Banquet, Given by the Citizens of Cincinnati to the Visiting Merchants from the South, at Music Hall, March 18, 1880, in Commemoration of the Completion of the Cincinnati Southern Railway (Cincinnati: Levyeau and Co., 1880). CINCINNATI MUSEUM CENTER Relocating the tracks at tunnel twenty seven, December 31, 1900, Cincinnati Southern Railway Collection. CINCINNATI MUSEUM CENTER CURTIS TATE FALL 2012 71 sections of the Cincinnati-Chattanooga route. This project began the first serious effort to modernize the line by eliminating tunnels and easing curves and grades. All twenty-seven original tunnels lay in the middle one hundred sixty-mile portion of the line between Wilmore, Kentucky, and Emory Gap, Tennessee, and this segment saw the most intensive revisions. The completion of seventeen and one half miles of double track in Tennessee in 1920 bypassed six tunnels, in addition to four eliminated in the prior two decades through daylighting. One of the bypassed tunnels—number sixteen, near Sunbright, Tennessee—remained in service for southbound traffic only until 1955. Another major relocation involved the extreme makeover of Kentucky High Bridge, a famous engineering landmark. When completed in 1877, High Bridge, located just south of Wilmore, Kentucky, was considered the highest bridge in the world. The 1,138-foot-long span towered 275 feet over the Kentucky River gorge. In 1911, a stronger and heavier steel bridge replaced the original structure, one of the last major North American bridges constructed of wrought iron. The older bridge carried one track, while its replacement carried two. Double tracking of the new bridge also prompted line relocations between Burgin and Wilmore to ease grades on both sides of the Kentucky River crossing. Most notably, the four-mile relocation between Wilmore and High Bridge bypassed tunnel one, the first...