The history of many towns in west Kentucky has been shaped, in large part, by the coal companies and railroads that brought in jobs, money, and people. During the golden years of coal and rail in the early 20th century these towns boomed. And when the coal ran out and the trains stopped rolling, they crashed. The city of Earlington, Kentucky is one of those towns.
A little more than 10 yards from the Earlington city hall front door a steady stream of freight trains roll by, punctuating the quiet afternoon with blasts from their horns.
The trains are just a brief interruption for the small town now; they haven’t stopped here for decades. But 100 years ago they were, along with the coal they hauled from local mines, the economic driver for the town.
In 1910 Earlington had about 6,000 people living in and around the city. At the same point the Hopkins County Seat of Madisonville, just 3 miles north, had less than 5,000. Some days as many as 100 trains passed through the city in 24 hours, with a little more than half of them stopping at the train yard in town.
That’s because the city, and its brand new three story train depot, was the Evansville Division Headquarters for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. Local Historian Ann Gipson says that meant the town had just about everything its citizens needed. She reads from a list of some of the amenities in a 1903 issue of the city’s newspaper, The Earlington Bee.
“Earlington was blessed with one bank, no lawyers, one bakery, one dentist, three hotels, nine groceries, two restaurants, two shoe shops, six physicians… and at that time the coal company and the railroad, they brought their own physicians in. There was usually two.”
The town’s residents also had access to a relatively rare commodity for turn of the century rural towns: electricity. Lifelong Hopkins County resident and railroad enthusiast Wally Watts,
“My grandfather told this story that they moved to Earlington in about 1903. So they came on the train at night. Well their mother was an old Scotch immigrant, and she didn’t know what electric lights where. So as the train pulled into the depot, all the lights in town was on, you know. And she said ‘Children look! It’s as light as day here!’”
But even with all these amenities, it was hard to find enough miners and railroad workers to keep the town going. So the mines and the railroad went out looking for those workers. Gipson says recruiters would travel by rail into poor areas where unemployment was high and make those people an offer. They’d get a little bit of cash, a train ticket to Earlington, and most importantly, a job. Gipson says workers made their way to the city in droves…
“And there was no place for these people to stay. So one of the main, especially for women – there was no jobs for women. So these widow-women who had these huge houses opened their houses and rented rooms to railroaders.”
Those boarding houses provided meals and a home away from home for the railroad men, some of whom might have families in places much farther up or down the line. They also provided a unique job for local boys. Wally Watts says they were referred to as “Call Boys.”
“They were teenage boys who had bicycles and after school and on Saturdays their job was to go to the boarding houses and wake up the crew for their train. They’d knock on the door of their room and say ‘Mr. Smith you are called for train number so and so at 3 o’clock.’”
Workers and the jobs that supported them were not the only things the trains brought to Earlington. Gipson says occasionally some unique cargo would come in on what was called an Orphan Train. The trains brought children from orphanages in the east through west Kentucky towns with the hope that someone would adopt them. Gipson says the stigma that came with being an orphan meant it wasn’t something people talked about. She says eventually nobody but the orphans themselves could remember who had been born in the city and who had come in on a train.
Those weren’t the only memories that faded, though. The city’s boom days were also slowly being lost to the past.
Earlington’s economy had always been at the mercy of the coal that ran through the surrounding hills. Wally Watts says the city’s decline started when the coal started to run out and get too expensive to get out of the ground. When the coal production slowed, Watts says it became less important to keep the L&N railroad’s offices in the city…
“The division headquarters, as I understand it, was moved to Evansville probably in the late 20s early 30s. But the yard still stayed here and the steam handling facilities and whatnot. Then the yard itself was moved to Madisonville in about 1950.”
By that time Earlington’s population had fallen to a little over 3,000 people, Madisonville had nearly 7,000. Gipson says the city limped along for the next couple of decades. Some railroad operations remained in the city, which helped keep it afloat. But eventually, the trains left, too. She says the last train left Earlington in the early 1960s. With the trains gone the L&N Railroad Depot, once the pride of the town’s Main Street, was no longer needed. But L&N soon found they couldn’t even give it away…
“They offered it to the city for one dollar. And the city said they couldn’t afford, you know, the dollar. They might could afford the dollar but they couldn’t take the upkeep. So that was one of the last really historic depots in Kentucky, I mean it was just really unusual. And they went to no expense, you can see, it was just beautiful.”
But a town with no trains has no need for a train depot, so despite the beauty of the building, it was torn down on November 1st 1963. Gipson says that was just the first of the many historic buildings that were lost over the years. She says some were claimed by fires and floods, while others were torn down to make way for houses and businesses. Gipson says the only buildings left are a couple of boarding houses and a run down building that was once a high class hotel for coal company executives. In fact, just about the only reminders of the city’s history are a main drag named Railroad Street, and the mile-long freight trains that rumble past Earlington’s 1,413 residents on their way to the next stop.