The vacation, part 1: Kentucky's Mammoth Cave and its railroad

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Friday, August 25, 2017

My wife and I took a vacation recently. To be completely honest, it wasn’t a true vacation. We spent a lot of time with friends and family we’d not seen in a while, did some family business, and participated in some non-profit work. I sneaked in a tiny bit of work. But we did relax for a few days, and that was a good thing. Along the way there were some railroad sites and experiences, and I’d like to share a few of them with you … a “How I spent my summer vacation” type essay right out of grade school.


I have to start this first part of this story with an apology to readers of my feature story in Trains’ February 2001 edition about railroads and the National Parks. The reason is that I missed a significant connection between railroads and National Parks at Mammoth Cave, Ky. Oh, in that story now some 16 years ago I included the usual Santa Fe and Grand Canyon and Great Northern and Glacier National Park references. I tossed in some new observations about CSX in the New River Gorge and at Harpers Ferry. Didn’t dare miss Steamtown. But I did not include the Mammoth Cave Railroad, a 9-mile-long line that ran 45 years from 1886 to 1931. My bad.


Turns out the Mammoth Cave Railroad was a significant means of transporting early visitors to the cave from a connection with the Louisville & Nashville at Park City, Ky., on the main line between the two namesake cities. The line ran with four Baldwin-built 0-4-2T Dummy engines and an equal number of passenger cars, two coaches and two combination cars. On a typical day, two trainsets shuttled visitors between Park City, the cave, and smaller caves and hotels along the route.


Today, one of the locomotives, No. 4, and combine No. 2 are well preserved under a canopy not far from the cave entrance and prominently displayed for those arriving by private automobile or tour bus. They’re delightful to study and to contemplate how people once traveled to this popular attraction that became a National Park in 1926, only five years before automobiles would supplant trains as the primary means of transport. I’m told the good folks at Kentucky Railway Museum are responsible for the fine cosmetic appearance of Nos. 4 and 2, and for that they should be commended. I’d also recommend the historic tour for the caverns … it’s well worth the $14 ticket and the two hours and two miles of walking underground. I’m not a cave person, but I found the tour fascinating.


Between the cave entrance and Park City, a portion of the Mammoth Cave Railroad’s route has been converted into a bicycle trail, although signs and just looking at the trail’s meanderings say that it has been relocated significantly over the years as highway construction and development have taken their toll.


As a footnote, in an effort to beg forgiveness from those who read my incomplete piece in 2001, I’ll suggest that if you make this trip, here’s a tip: There’s a bed and breakfast in Park City, Ky., the Grand Victorian Inn, an 1885 hotel which overlooks what was the loading site for the Mammoth Cave Railroad and still overlooks the CSX main line. We had an enjoyable evening sitting on the front porch, watching massive freights roar down the line, and enjoying the summer breeze. It was clean, convenient, and priced well. Give it a try.

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