UK Students Create Elkhorn City Railroad Museum's Mobile Exhibit for Schools, Tourists

By Gail Hairston

Kentucky is privileged with a bounty of railroad museums and attractions, but the Elkhorn City Railroad Museum has a charm and history all its own.

With its unique collection of railroading tools, equipment, uniforms and instruments; enhanced by books and photos; and personalized by retired railroad employees eager to share their tales of life on the rails, the Elkhorn City Railroad Museum preserves and protects Eastern Kentucky’s pride and culture as well as its hope for the future.

This past spring semester, University of Kentucky sociology students in Associate Professor Shaunna L. Scott’s “Sociology of Appalachia” class were quick to recognize the potential of the small museum supported by the Pike County community. With the help of the citizens of Elkhorn City, they created an exhibit that reflects the importance of the railroad to the region’s history, commerce and way of life. Although the exhibit’s home is the Elkhorn City Railroad Museum during the spring, summer and fall tourist seasons, the university students’ educational exhibit will be housed in the Elkhorn City Public Library during the winter. The exhibit is portable, capable of transport to schools and libraries throughout the region during the winter months.

For a brief history of the Elkhorn City Railroad Museum, visit

“My students did research on the region’s history and the role of the railroad in and around Elkhorn City to build the exhibit,” said Scott, who is also director of the Appalachian Studies Program at UK. “There were plenty of pictures and artifacts that had been donated to the museum, as well as books and pictures that the students located from other sources.”

The state historical marker in front of the museum reads, “Two major railroads, C&O from north and Clinchfield from south, connected at Elkhorn City, Feb. 8, 1915, opening up trade from (the) Ohio Valley to (the) South Atlantic Region. Elkhorn City became (an) important railroad town. Trains went through several times a day transporting goods from north and south, and coal and timber from (the) surrounding area.”

The exhibit in part recounts the construction of the last few miles of the Clinchfield Railroad, a feat considered an engineering marvel at the time of its completion in 1915. Snaking 266 miles from Spartenburg, South Carolina, through Western North Carolina, Eastern Tennessee and Western Virginia, the Clinchfield line terminated and joined the C&O line in Elkhorn City. The last few miles of the Clinchfield line crossed Pike County’s steep mountains and Breaks Gorge, known as the “Grand Canyon of the South.” The construction required 56 tunnels and six bridges. For nearly a century, the Clinchfield Railroad hauled untold millions of tons of coal and lumber out of the hills of Eastern Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee to the textile mills of South Carolina, and on to other population and industrial centers in America.

Locals in this southeastern corner of Kentucky can trace their area’s rich history as far back as 1767, when Daniel Boone made his first hunting excursion west of the Cumberland Mountain range. Barely a crossroads in the early 20th century, Elkhorn City credits the railroad with the town's population growth and its role in moving coal, freight and passengers across the country.

Nestled in the stunning Appalachian foothills, within a few miles of the picturesque Breaks Interstate Park and surrounded by some of the region’s best whitewater rafting and wilderness hiking/biking trails, citizens of Elkhorn City are determined to preserve their region’s cultural heritage through the modern post-coal, post-railroad transition. Hence, the region is transitioning to an alternate source of commerce, one that can preserve its heritage, its beauty, its uniqueness — the tourist industry.

“We hope that the exhibit that my students created will help educate local children about the history and culture of their community and will also serve as an attraction to people visiting the area for outdoor recreation. The Elkhorn City Railroad Museum and the Actors Collaborative Theater are two of the town’s cultural centerpieces,” Scott said.

Now in her third year of a partnership with the small town of Elkhorn City, the sociology professor with a soft spot in her heart for Appalachia will lead future UK student volunteers as they assist the area in diversifying its economy to better cope with the post-coal transition.

“With a history older than our nation, we don’t want to just see the people of Appalachia survive, we want to see them and their culture thrive,” Scott said.

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