Return to Crooked Hill

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Wednesday, September 26, 2018

A CSX freight train negotiates Kentucky's Crooked Hill in the late 1980s, when CSX, Seaboard System, and Chessie liveries were often seen together. Ron Flanary
Driving along I-75 through eastern Kentucky, you might never know that off to one side of the freeway or the other, out of sight, is one of the great old railroads of Appalachia, the former Louisville & Nashville main line from Cincinnati to Atlanta. 

While not as rugged as the coal country to the east, this section of the “CC” Subdivision was a deceptively difficult place to build a railroad when L&N surveyors first punched through these ridges in 1882. The railroad was forced to build deep down into the folds and creases of the landscape, places lush and green but also terribly isolated. Even dark. A world Patty Loveless defines when she sings “the sun comes up about ten in the mornin’, and the sun goes down about three in the day.”

I rediscovered two such places last week when I briefly stopped at Livingston and East Bernstadt, a couple of tiny Kentucky hamlets where the houses and the businesses cling to U.S. 25 and Kentucky 490, respectively, as they follow the railroad’s stately curves through town. 

Livingston and East Bernstadt would be indistinguishable from hundreds of other Appalachian places except for their status as marking the north and south ends of Crooked Hill, a deceptively nasty 8-mile stretch of railroad cursed with snaking curves and four tunnels. It’s the curves that make the 1.28 percent southbound grade worse than it sounds. Crooked Hill isn’t widely known outside the L&N community, but generations of railroaders on the Old Reliable respected it and acted accordingly. 

Six-motor GE units await their next Crooked Hill helper assignment at Livingston, Ky., in 1987. Ron Flanary
Last week the two towns didn’t look much different than when I first chanced upon them in 1987, when L&N successor CSX kept a pair of GEs handy at Livingston in a scene like the one in the accompanying photo by L&N historian Ron Flanary. I recall a pleasant afternoon watching northbound trains clatter across the deck bridge over the Rockcastle River after descending in a small cloud of brakeshoe smoke. 

In its steam heyday, the hill was a stomping ground for the best machines on the railroad, the famed M-1 class “Big Emma” 2-8-4s. Later, after dieselization, L&N was obliged to string together as many six-motor units as it could summon, almost always with helpers. Today, CSX still maintains helpers at East Bernstadt, usually a pair of six-axle GEs.

As the main funnel for the railroad’s northbound coal traffic, the hill was always of great strategic importance to the L&N. The line also hosted some classy passenger trains: the Flamingoand the Southland, both of which included Louisville sections that joined the main line at Sinks, just 3 miles north of Livingston, plus mainline locals in both directions. Alas, the last varnish ran through here in 1968. 

Louisville & Nashville boosted capacity on its rugged route over Crooked Hill in 1908 by building a second track roughly parallel to the original. Louisville & Nashville
It wasn’t long after the original construction of the line that L&N decided Crooked Hill could be dealt with a bit more easily, so a second survey of the line yielded a new route, constructed roughly parallel to the original and completed in 1908. The new double-track stretch lasted until 1964, when L&N switched completely over to the newer alignment in a conversion from ABS directional running to CTC. They also opened up clearances for tri-level auto racks and other higher rolling stock.  

There’s no easy access to any part of the hill, at least via public property, but intrepid hikers over the years have been able to see parts of the old line, including the original tunnels lined elegantly in cut stone. The tunnels of 1908 are much more sterile affairs: the portals are simply lined with a curve of sheet steel.

One in particular — the original Tunnel 8, at Kufa — vexed earlier L&N engine crews. At 980 feet in length, it included a sharp reverse curve within the tunnel, creating a short section in the middle no sunlight ever reached. When the new tunnel was constructed, the distance was cut in half to 411 feet. Clearly, the original surveyors missed the best route along this section. 

CSX's short-lived XpressRailer train snakes its way down Crooked Hill behind its usual power, a pair of F units. Ron Flanary
In 1988, I had an encounter with Crooked Hill from the catbird’s seat, but I have to confess it came without the hill’s usual drama. I was riding southbound from Cincinnati on CSX’s short-lived Detroit–Atlanta XpressRailer train, on F7 116, paired with an F7B 117. Our light load of RoadRailer vans was hardly bothered by all the curves and tunnels, and we skimmed through like a passenger train. 

Still, I can remember that our engineer, 40-year L&N veteran Larry Bobbitt, bore down as we began the climb at Livingston. His deep concentration was reflexive, honed by countless trips in the cabs of M-1s. “You have to respect Crooked Hill,” I recall him telling me.

I’ll leave it to Ron Flanary to have the last word on Crooked Hill. 

“The name alone just screamed railroading,” Ron told me. “I was mesmerized in 1958 when my grandfather, an L&N conductor, took me to the Dutch door of our coach on northbound train 32, the Southland. I soaked up the experience like a sponge. Our two blue-and-cream E units were consumed by a tunnel, with our train following obediently, and then: BAM! We were in darkness in a massive crescendo of sound. And as soon as we were out, yet another tunnel loomed ahead.

“Sixty years later, the smell of brake shoes, the cry of flanges resisting 8-degree reverse curves with tangent transitions no longer than 3 or 4 feet and the lurch of the cars right, and then left, are still etched in my mind. I can’t and won’t ever forget my introduction to this sacred stretch of Appalachian railroad.”

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