All Aboard! The Jenkins, Kentucky Railroad Pulls Into History

One of the first private railroads in Eastern Kentucky was the Sandy Valley & Elkhorn Railroad.

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Written by Joanna Adams Sergent 

As the United States began to expand there had been several failed attempts to connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Ohio River. George Washington had mapped and surveyed the area for potential routes for water canals. In 1785, Washington was an early investor in the venture.

The James River and Kanawha Canal projects were the uncompleted and final projects for the canal ventures. With innovative technology of the time, in 1830, it was becoming increasingly clear that railroads were going to be the transportation that would accomplish the need for cross-country transit. 

From Water Canals to Railway Transportation

Before the rail system came into the mountains, most of the coal with other goods and service shipments out of the area were carried on wagons then barged on the rivers. There was also a need for a reliable system of transportation for passengers to take them from the Ohio Valley into the Chesapeake Bay. The planned route would take them through the Allegheny Front (eastern side) of the Appalachian Plateau.  

 Problems with Rail Planning  

There were only eighty-five known coal mines in operation in 1870. They were in West Virginia and used the Tug River to ship their coal to the industries that needed it. There were other communities in the area that had plenty of coal. However, they were deemed unreachable because of the distance to the closest barge.

After the Civil War, this changed for the Appalachian Coal Mining industry. Three railroad companies would come to dominate the rails and, in some cases, would build their own railroad systems. These companies were the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O), Norfolk & Western (N&W), and the Virginian. These companies also allowed passenger trains from other companies to use their rails. One such Company was the Louisville and Nashville (L&N). 

The first railroads that came into the mountains snaked its way along the mountain valley floor next to the rivers. While this did open some of the areas in West Virginia, this had not opened the area in Kentucky and some areas of Virginia just yet. There were smaller rivers and high mountains to climb to get into some of the isolated areas that this was not possible just yet. 

Privately Owned Rails

An issue that will come about in later years in several of the counties of Eastern Kentucky would be that most of the rail systems were privately owned by companies. One Company may have to lay thousands of miles of tracks in a completely new direction to get to the same destination. Even if a track were privately owned, the companies would receive partial state-funding to help improve the infrastructure of an area. 


One of the first private railroads in Eastern Kentucky was the Sandy Valley & Elkhorn Railroad. Even though the company is a corporation of the State of Kentucky, it had its head office in Baltimore, Maryland. Langhorne and Langhorne of Richmond, Virginia announced on March 24, 1911, was awarded a contract to construct a rail line for the Consolidated Coal Company line.

Construction Details

This Kentucky rail line would connect from the mouth of Shelby Creek and run for twenty-eight miles to the headwaters of Elkhorn Creek. When the construction was completed, the rail would run from Shelbi Junction to Consolidation Coal Mine No 208, near Jenkins, Kentucky. This would cover 30.415 miles and include a car turntable, 14.72 miles of yard tracks and sidings for a total of 45.207 miles of track that was used.

Shelby Valley & Elkhorn railroad would also have usage of 1.09 miles of track between Shelby Junction and Shelby Valley that was owned by the Chesapeake & Ohio rail company. The company was also granted terminal rights and use of the facilities at Shelby that was also owned by the Chesapeake & Ohio rail company. As part of this usage agreement, Shelby Valley & Elkhorn (SV&E) paid a rental fee of $2,590.38 for the year ending December 31, 1917. 

Rolling through rough terrain, the rails run along the valley floor close to the river and creek banks. Agents were dispatched long before the first shovel of dirt was moved to buy right-a-ways for the construction of the rails.

Construction Begins

The construction would include twenty-eight bridges and two tunnels. The bridges, made of single span steel girders, would vary in length between 14 to 100 feet. The two tunnels were drilled through sand rock. Each tunnel was eighteen by twenty-one feet in dimensions, but one tunnel would be 700 feet long and the other 230 feet long. 

While this article flips back and forward between Sandy Valley & Elkhorn Railroad to the Shelby Valley & Elkhorn Railroad because of the articles that the information came from. The stock was sold under the name of Sandy Valley & Elkhorn Railway Company. 

The Building Costs and Buying Agreements

On July 7, 1911, that the cost of the Sandy Valley & Elkhorn Railroad (SV&E) was estimated to cost $60,000 per mile. This railroad would be part of Consolidation Coal Company and they paid for the cost, survey, design, and construction. Upon completion of the project, the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) railroad would purchase the line from Consolidation Coal company at cost plus interest. This corporation’s property, since the date of its completion on October 1, 1912, to the date of its own organization on January 1, 1918, was taken over by the United States Railroad Administration. 

Gentleman’s Agreement

Consolidation Coal company had an informal agreement with Baltimore and Ohio concerning equipment belonging to the B&O. This equipment included 2 units of work equipment, 5 steam locomotives, 5 freight-train cars, and 4 passenger-train cars.   Per day each piece of equipment had the following rental price. The steam locomotives were $40.98 per day. The freight-train cars were $1 per day. The passenger-train cars were thirty-two cents to sixty cents per day. A wrecking crane was rented for $2.74 per day and a tool car for fifty cents per day. 

Construction Deaths and Injuries 

This construction was not without a heavy human price. There were several workers who were severely injured or killed during the construction of the railway. In a blasting accident there were four immigrant rail workers who were instantly killed, and one died later of his injuries. 

In another reported incident, there were twelve immigrant rail workers asleep in their cabin that was blown up by a stick of dynamite. All were injured, two of the men died of their injuries later.

Train Accidents 

On October 3, 1912, at 4 p.m., disaster struck on the Shelby Creek Road crossing. At the location called Three Mile Holler, (which is three miles from Shelby Gap) a mixed train of freight and passenger cars became uncontrollable on its way through Shelby Gap, Kentucky. Ten freight cars went into the ditch. Will and Leonard Kinney, who were brakemen as well as Howard Burpo, road-master were in critical condition and transported to Jenkins Hospital. They recovered from their injuries. Men were brought by a train engine from Shelbiana to repair the tracks. 

Second Train Accident

October 12, 1912, at 8:30 p.m. Passenger Train No. 1 was stopped to take on water for the engine at the mouth of Long Fork of Shelby Creek, Kentucky. This train was hit from behind by a mixed freight and passenger train coming from Jenkins, Kentucky. Three people were seriously injured but recovered from their injuries. One train passenger coach was burned, and another car was deemed to damage to be of further service. Conductor Charles Levy oversaw the mixed train and claimed that neither train had headlights or rear markers in his testimony.

There were other reports of pedestrians being killed on the tracks by oncoming trains.  

Stories found about the Shelby Valley & Elkhorn Railroad in print. 

Consolidation Coal Publications Article

There is a story in one of the Consolidation Coal Company publications about the account of Mr. H.L. Burpo of Jenkins. Burpo had brought the construction train from the B&O railroad to Jenkins, Kentucky in January 1912. This train laid the ties and tracks for the trains to travel on. He was the first man to engineer a passenger train into Jenkins and the last man to do so on October 31, 1947, some 37 years later. Burpo was also the first train engineer to drive the train between Jenkins, Kentucky and Pound, Virginia through the newly constructed tunnel that passed through Pine Mountain. B&O railroad sold the SV&E line to the C&O railroad in 1925.

The Mountain Eagle Story

The Mountain Eagle did a story of the first rail tracks that were laid for the trains in 1912, This is a copy of the article.  

“At Last Railroad Track is Laid in Letcher and the Scream of the Monster Engine is Heard in the Land. Hooray!”  

“If reports are correct the track has been laid to the Alex Ison place on Elkhorn two miles below Jenkins and the work train reached that place on Friday. It is Scheduled to reach Jenkins in the next few days.

Ever since Adam and Eve played under the shade of the trees in the Garden of Eden Letcher County has been without a railroad We have longed and looked and looked and longed for one, so that we could go somewhere and be like somebody and now it looks like a few of our hopes are soon to be realized.

Some of these days the Eagle is going to come out and take the credit for having been one of the leading causes of railroads being built into our section. Now laugh if you want to it’ll do you but little good.” 

Excerpt of History of Corporal Fess Whitaker by Fess Whitaker

One of the most interesting telling of the first train engine that made its way into Letcher County is told by Fess Whitaker. This is a paraphrased excerpt from the book History of Corporal Fess Whitaker by Fess Whitaker. The book has been hailed by scholars as being a particularly important historical book for the people and culture of the Appalachian Mountains.

Whitaker’s Account

Basically, Mr. Whitaker said that when the first train engine made its way into Letcher County people did not know what to think about it. A lot of people in that time period had never seen a train before.

Mr Whitaker said that the L.& N. Railroad began construction in 1910 from Jackson to McRoberts, Kentucky. According to Whitaker, the right of way had been surveyed many times and sold for fifty cents per acre. The contract was good for one year when they built the first roads for construction purposes in the area.

Conductor Spot Combs was the first work train conductor in Letcher County according to Whitaker. In November of 1910 the rails were being laid and the tracks were being made ready for the first passenger train to come through.

When the work train made its way to the rail bridge south of Ulvah, there were three thousand people in attendance to see the train for the first time. At 10:50 am on that November day, the train rolled in at 5 mph and blew the horn. Many an elderly lady dropped her pipe and the young men did the same to run.

In Conclusion

We hope that you have enjoyed your ride through history as we remember the building of an important source of transportation in the Appalachian Mountains. Although many of the train whistles and click clack of the rails have now fell silent in the mountains, the men that made their living with the railways will never be forgotten.


The Video with the Website on the History of the Jenkins Railroad

The Slideshow with more pictures of the Railroad being built

For More Information Concerning the Shelby Valley & Elkhorn Railroad

Baltimore and Ohio Corporations

Sandy Valley & Elkhorn Railroad

Elkhorn City’s Railroads


The Mountain Eagle Newspaper publication
“At Last Railroad Track is Laid in Letcher and the Scream of the Monster Engine is Heard in the Land. Hooray!”
June 6, 1912

History of Corporal Fess Whitaker by Fess Whitaker
The Standard Printing Co., c1918.

Jenkins History – Class Creator

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