Exploring old railroad tunnels during the cold winter months is a favorite pastime of mine. One particularly intriguing destination for exploration is the abandoned Cincinnati Southern Railway tunnels in Kentucky.
The Cincinnati Southern Railway is a historic railroad that connects Cincinnati, Ohio, to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Currently owned by the City of Cincinnati, it has a rich history. In 1881, the Cincinnati Southern Railway was leased to the Cincinnati, New Orleans & Texas Pacific Railway (CNO&TP). Subsequently, in 1893, it came under the control of the Southern Railway and later became part of the Norfolk Southern Railway (NS).
Construction of this railway commenced in 1873 with the excavation of a tunnel at King’s Mountain, Kentucky. The first train journey on the completed section of the Cincinnati Southern, stretching from Ludlow, Kentucky, to Somerset, took place in July 1877. The last rail for the Cincinnati Southern was laid near Tunnel No. 15, close to Robbins, Tennessee, in December 1879. It marked a significant milestone, with the inaugural freight train traveling from Cincinnati to Chattanooga on February 21, 1880.
A noteworthy segment of the Cincinnati Southern, located between Danville, Kentucky, and Oakdale, Tennessee, earned the moniker “The Rathole” due to its challenging terrain, characterized by steep grades, tight curves, and a total of 27 tunnels. Today, most of these tunnels are abandoned, thanks to ongoing reconstruction efforts that necessitated their bypass. The completion of the New River bridge near Robbins, Tennessee in 1963 marked the culmination of these improvements.
On a chilly winter day, I joined an old friend to explore Tunnel Nos. 3 and 4 near Somerset and Nos. 7 and 8 further south. While I had previously visited the first two tunnels in 2014, it was a welcome return for updated photographs. Remarkably, not much had changed, and the impromptu trail had seen improvements since my initial visit.
Accessing the latter two tunnels required driving back on a logging road and some bushwhacking to reach the old railroad bed, which was surprisingly well-maintained and used by ATVs and off-road vehicles. Among the two, Tunnel No. 7’s portal and lining remained in excellent condition, while No. 8 had suffered more from water intrusion, leading to repairs with concrete over the years.
Exploring the abandoned Cincinnati Southern Railway tunnels is a compelling adventure that unveils a piece of railroad history. From the early construction days to the bypassing of tunnels and ongoing reconstruction efforts, these tunnels hold narratives waiting to be discovered.