By Thomas Dyrek
Some of the most interesting features of Kentucky’s history were the railroads and their stations that dotted the state. From the first railroad in Kentucky to present day, train stations, as in the rest of the United States, were the centerpiece of almost every community.
These days, the newer generations who didn’t get to experience the glory days of passenger rail travel have almost no clue what it was like to board a luxurious train at an elegant station and travel across the country. Thankfully, several towns in Kentucky have preserved some of these stations and offer a glimpse into the past for all to enjoy. Such an establishment is located at the historic Louisville & Nashville station in Bowling Green.
Constructed in 1925, the handsome Bowling Green station became the third and final L&N depot to stand in the city. The first was built in 1858, before the L&N was able to even begin construction of the actual railroad through the area. Itwas destroyed in a February 1862 Confederate raid along with several trains.
A replacement depot opened shortly after, and remained standing well into the 20th Century. By the 1920s, the building was in desperate need of repairs, but L&N President Milton Smith refused to build a new station in Bowling Green as he was angered by the city officials allowing a second railroad to be built in town. Smith died in 1921, and almost immediately, plans were made to erect a new station building.
On October 2, 1925, the new Bowling Green depot opened its doors with a civic celebration. The building was constructed of Kentucky limestone and completed with classy wooden trim. For the next 54 years, it would serve as many as 35 trains a day, the peak being in WWII.
The Bowling Green depot’s final train left the platform in 1979. For the next two decades, the depot was left to rot and by the late 1990s it was in danger of demolition. A group of local history buffs and preservationists were able to acquire it and eventually transferred ownership to the City of Bowling Green. During this time, the group spent many hours restoring the station and their work was completed in 2007.
The group who originally saved the depot became the Friends of the L&N Depot and opened one of Kentucky’s finest railroad museums inside. Today, the museum has several displays telling the story of the L&N’s presence in Bowling Green.
The museum also owns several full scale pieces of rolling stock. Visitors are welcomed to the grounds by a former Chicago & Northwestern E8A disguised as L&N 796. This unit was built in June of 1953 as C&NW 5028A. It was later renumbered to 513 and became RTA/Metra 513 in 1980. RTA sold the locomotive to Northern Railcar of Horicon, WI circa 1990.
Northern Railcar leased the unit to the Kalamazoo, Lake Shore & Chicago Railroad, a tourist operation in Paw Paw, MI. The KLS&C renumbered it to 95 and used it on their dinner train for a short time before a fire destroyed most of the unit’s internals. It was moved back to Horicon where it became a parts source for other locomotives. The remains of 95 were sold to another leasing company and at some point it ended up at the Arkansas Railroad Museum.
In 2007, the 95’s engine compartment was gutted and the shell was painted as Louisville & Nashville 796 (the real 796 was scrapped in the 1970s after a brief career with Amtrak).
The 796 is at the head end of a replicated L&N passenger train. Behind the engine is RPO car #1107, which was acquired from the Bluegrass Railroad Museum in 2007. The 1107 is one of only two surviving L&N RPOs.
The display consist ends with L&N observation car 353, built in 1911 at the L&N’s South Louisville Shops. The car was rebuilt in 1942, and is said to be the oldest surviving original L&N passenger car. The 353 has transported many celebrities including FDR and Frank Sinatra.
The museum is also in the process of restoring three other pieces of equipment that aren’t part of the display train. Nearby is L&N caboose #6497, a rare Jim Crow combine car, and a United States Army hospital car.
L&N 6497 was built in 1978 for the Baltimore & Ohio.
These cars featured a whites-only section and a blacks-only section, separated in the middle by the baggage area. Like some of the other cars at the museum, the 109 was found in derelict condition in the woods, converted for use as a hunting cabin. The museum has done a fantastic job of restoring them.
One of the museum’s current projects is restoring former the U. S. Army hospital car (number unknown).
The car was built in 1942 by AC&F and is currently being restored both inside and out. The museum is gladly accepting donations to aid the restoration efforts and they hope to have the job done in the next couple of years.
Visitors to the museum can view the interior of the display train during a guided tour led by knowledgeable volunteers. The L&N Depot Museum is a nonprofit organization and is always welcoming new volunteers. The museum is open year round on Tuesdays-Saturdays from 10 AM to 4 PM and on Sundays from 1 to 4. For more information, go to https://www.historicrailpark.com.
Back in 1925, the residents of Bowling Green had no idea that their new depot would still be standing proudly almost a century later, delighting both residents of Bowling Green and visitors to the city alike.