The History of the Paducah Freight House

The Freight House ( Across the parking lot from the Museum.) was built in 1925 by the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railway. The portion of the NC & St L, which runs from Bruceton, Tennessee to Paducah, was originally the Paducah, Tennessee, and Alabama Railway In 1895, the PT & A was acquired by the Louisville & Nashville Railway, and in 1895 was leased by the L & N back to its subsidiary, the NC & St L.

In 1917 the NC & St L Railway and the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railway jointly constructed a rail line and a double track bridge between Paducah and Metropolis. The bridge (which is listed by the Encyclopedia Britannica as the world’s longest simple truss bridge) made a gateway connection between the NC & St L in the south and the CB & Q or Burlington Route for the north and west. Later; the Illinois Central (Now Canadian national) bought a third interest, in the bridge and is now the primary user.

While the freight house was built in 1925, plans were being made to extend this connection to include links with the Big Four, (part of the New York Central System) and other railroads. As a result, the Paducah freight house was constructed to handle a large volume of business and included a Division Superintendent’s Office on the second floor in addition to the local freight office and warehouse on the first floor.

For various reasons those other links were never consummated. However a large amount of freight business was transacted between the CB & Q and the NC & St L. For a Number of years the Gulf, Mobile & Northern also ran into Paducah over NC & St L rails(this ended in 1936). Until 1951, NC & St L passenger trains were operated between Paducah and Hollow Rock Junction (now Bruceton) Tennessee and Hickman, Kentucky.

From the 1930s through the early 1970s thousands of refrigerator car loads of fruits and vegetables from all over the nation were unloaded by brokers on the team track behind the freight house. This occurred because favorable freight rates to Paducah made it feasible for produce dealers in the states surrounding Kentucky to haul their merchandise out of Paducah on their own trucks.

In 1957 the NC & St L was absorbed into its parent, the Louisville & Nashville, and in 1972 the CB & Q became part of the transcontinental Burlington Northern. In 1956 the L & N, along with other roads, dropped its LCL (Less than Carload) business which had been handled through the Paducah freight house. By 1974 the L & N reduced its employee force in Paducah and moved the freight office to the yards at 6th and Norton.

In November 1975, the freight house and adjacent tracks were purchased by Bob and Jack Johnston and Bill Backus who had for many years operated produce and food brokerage businesses out of the building. The house siding was rebuilt and realigned to allow the placing of refrigerator cars at the unloading doors, and for several more years the building handled large amount of rail freight.

On August 10, 1972 the Illinois Central Railroad merged with the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad to form the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad. In the 1980s, the railroad spun off most of its east-west lines and many of its redundant north-south lines, including much of the former GM & O. Most of these lines were bought by other railroads, including entirely new railroads, such as the Chicago, Missouri and Western Railway and Chicago Central and Pacific Railroad. On February 29, 1988, the ICG dropped the "Gulf" from its name and again became known as the Illinois Central Railroad.

By the middle 1980 changes in railroad policies toward perishable freight business, as well as new directions in the food distribution business, caused most produce businesses to move to large refrigerated trucks, and the warehouse was used as a cross-dock loading and distribution point for trucking produce from growing areas to wholesale customers in a four state area.

The 1990s brought further changes. The L & N (now CSX) abandoned service to Paducah in 1983, and in 1986, the Illinois Central Gulf sold its entire Kentucky Division to an entity known as the Paducah & Louisville Railroad. The Burlington Northern began bringing Container and TOFC trains as well as mixed freight to Paducah for forwarding further east by Paducah & Louisville.

In 1992, because of lack of business, the P & L removed the lead tracks from the old L & N yards at 6th and Norton St. and the building became “land-locked”.In 1993, after the Johnstons and Backus retired, they sold the building to Charles and Carolyn Simpson who renovated the warehouse and opened a large antique mall. Because of their interest in railroad history, the Simpsons upgraded the heating and air conditioning in a section of rooms on the second floor of the freight house and gave free use of it to the newly formed Paducah Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society to use for a railroad museum. The museum opened in April 1996.

The freight house was sold and the Museum moved to a building one-half block away, at Washington and 2nd streets. The new facility is larger and allows for a more expansive display.

The Paducah Chapter, NRHS, hopes that the museum and its collections will continue to grow and bring pleasant memories to both the older and younger generations of the railroads’ rich heritage of both the Paducah area and nation.

Gateway Book

For more detailed information on railroad history in Paducah, please ask at the Museum, or refer to Paducah Gateway, a book on regional railroad history available at the Museum gift shop.