old woodcut image of the Kentucky River

A Teacher’s Guide to

Kentucky’s Story

A nine-part Kentucky history series for grades 4 and 5, produced by KET.

See our online ITV catalog  for upcoming broadcasts and additional information for teachers.

Riverboats and Railroads

Program Goal

Students will understand that Kentucky's geography has affected its trade and economic development and will name some ways in which changing transportation modes have altered life styles and the economy.

Program Summary

The economy and lifestyles of many Kentuckians underwent major changes as railroads opened up the state, and as the river trade subsequently faded. In this program, a former river captain learns something from his railroading grandson as the two contrast the economy and lifestyles which the two technologies embody.

Historical Background

Economic Development (1865-1900)

Although writers often make reference to Eastern, Western, Northern and Southern Kentucky (plus hyphenated combinations of each), Kentucky can also be divided into six natural regions: the Purchase, the Pennroyal, the Western Coal Field, the Knobs, the Blue-grass and the Mountains or Eastern Coal Field. The geographical features-rivers, gaps, hills or rolling terrain-of those areas played an important role in the early settlement of the state and then, during the 19th century, dictated economic development, transportation patterns, and the flow of commerce from and within the state.

On the Ohio, Big Sandy, Kentucky, Licking, Green, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers as well as on a score of lesser streams, early 19th century Kentuckians used birch canoes, poplar dugouts, and flatboats for travel and transportation. In time their riverside sons replaced these early modes with the pushboat. Loaded with furs, herbs, corn, tobacco, passengers, and livestock, the pushboats floated easily downstream but had to be poled or dragged upstream by sheer muscle power. In the 1820's steamboat fever struck Kentucky, and by-the 1850's sidewheelers and sternwheelers plied the state's waterways, transporting goods valued at more than $10,000,000 annually.

As the steamboat became the state's most profitable mode of transportation, inland towns found themselves becoming economically isolated. Determined to be a part of all that was going on, they quickly took advantage of the potential of the railroad (introduced from Europe), and numerous short lines were constructed as auxiliaries to the traffic troughs of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The pioneer Lexington and Ohio Railroad (1830) started its sinuous course from Lexington to Louisville to intercept and benefit from the river traffic centered on that town, and the main stem of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad was built (1853-59) from the Falls City south for similar reasons. Likewise, the Mobile and Ohio planned to extend northward from Mobile, Alabama to a point near Columbus, Kentucky to secure the trade of the border states. By 1860, Kentucky had some 596 miles of railway, which stood ready, as the Civil War approached, to challenge the steamboat for economic supremacy.

From 1861-1865 Kentucky's transportation duel stood still, poised (as soon as the war ended and normalcy returned) for the challenge to be renewed. However, changing national economic patterns now placed increased dependence upon overland transportation at the expense of inland waterways. Although Mark Twain, a former river pilot himself, predicted the immediate demise of the riverboat in the 1870's, Kentucky's steamboat era languished to the eve of World War I. There was nostalgia for a vanishing tradition-a clear call of the packet's whistle, the melodious notes of the calliope, and the chorus of voices of the river-although it was also apparent that no one was going to continue long in an unprofitable business. Even today, however, barges ply some of Kentucky's waterways, and the steamboat, The Belle of Louisville, is a popular Ohio River tourist attraction.

The 1870's initiated a new era in Kentucky's transportation history. Closer markets, cheaper goods, and expanded shopping facilities combined to produce the "Age of Railroading." Between 1870 and 1900 railway mileage tripled. The Louisville & Nashville, Mobile & Ohio, Illinois Central, Cincinnati-Southern, Chesapeake & Ohio and Norfolk & Western plus a host of intrastate lines vied with each other in various regions of the state and added a new dimension to state-house politics. Railways sprung up everywhere, connecting even the smallest towns. Yet, interestingly, there was no competition between the railroads and the state's turnpikes, the foe of the 20th century. No state highway system existed in Kentucky, and the counties had the responsibility for highway construction and maintenance. These roads, many of which were toll pikes, were so poor that residents traveled them only as a last resort; the era of better highways in Kentucky awaited the coming of the automobile.

The railroad greatly altered the lifestyles of all but the most isolated Kentuckians by stimulating the industrial development of the state. One of the greatest contributions came in the expansion of extractive mineral enterprises. Thanks to improved rail transportation, total coal production rose to a million tons in 1879, and by the end of the century the output equaled more than 5,000,000 tons. Although the eastern field continued to lag behind the west, it, too, welcomed the railroad as an alternative to the uncertainties of slackwater navigation. Ironically, however, due to geography, the mountain railroads had to follow the course of the waterways with tracks often clinging to riverbanks. Oil and natural gas production also increased as did the mining of limestone, zinc, lead and flurspar. Overall the mining industry did not represent great wealth at the end of the 19th century, but it held great promise for the decades ahead and investment possibilities for outside interests.

Kentucky also began to make notable gains in manufacturing. Between 1870 and 1900 the value of the state's manufactured goods trebled to the amazing figure of $150,000,000, and the number of wage earners doubled to some 65,000. Increased manufacturing activities centered in the Bluegrass, although the production of hard-ware, dry goods, and textbooks, the milling of flour, the distilling of whiskey and the processing of plug and smoking tobacco gave Louisville commercial domination in the state. Yet the Falls City's success was deceptive. Kentucky trailed behind much of the rest of the nation. The state's per capita wealth ($577 in 1877), while high in comparison to most Southern states, fell below the national average of $870. In 1900, Kentucky's overall industrial ranking stood at eighteenth in the nation, behind even the tiny state of Rhode Island. The great hope of industrial minded Kentuckians would depend upon their subsequent success in changing the state's economic orientation from agriculture to industry.

Changes in transportation and the growth of industry brought the beginnings of organized labor to Kentucky. But unions found few sympathizers among state leaders. On July 24, 1877, Louisville's railroad workers, suffering from repeated wage cuts, staged an unsuccessful one-day strike. In a fiery editorial, Henry Watterson of The Courier Journal branded the L & N employees as "thieves, deadbeats and bummers" and urged other workers to have nothing to do with them. The next day, police and state militia ended the affair, and public concern quickly vanished. Yet by 1880, Louisville had thirty-six local chapters of the Knights of Labor, the nation's strongest labor union, and over the years Kentucky's organized workers found a voice in such Louisville newspapers as the Labor Record, New Era, and Irish-American. Between 1880 and 1900 Louisville experienced more than 140 strikes, and the Brakeman's Union went out every year from 1886 to 1893. None of these strikes caused much of a stir, however, for capitalistic-minded Louisville had little regard for the cause of labor.

Outside of Louisville there was little union activity. During the 1870's and 1880's, sporadic attempts to organize the western coal field met with no success, and similar actions in the eastern field made only limited progress. Then in May, 1894, strikes occurred in two Lawrence County mines in reaction' to the firing of employees. The 1894 Annual Report of the Kentucky Department of Mines and Minerals stated that the local union, "possibly an affiliate of the American Knights of Labor," demanded the reinstatement of the workers while the company wanted disbandment of the union. After about thirty days of partial work stoppage, the union surrendered its charter and the workers returned to the mines. The Annual Report of 1896 recorded "no serious, prolonged strikes" in the state, and the 1900 edition stated, "The northeast district escaped entirely from organized labor's campaigns and is to be much congratulated on its good for-tune." Overall, whether in Louisville or elsewhere, strikes had little success and labor made no significant gains in Kentucky during the19th century.

Paying only lip service to industry and thumbs down to labor unions, in the years after the Civil War Kentucky's economy continued to rest firmly on a diversified agricultural base. In national statistics for 1870, the state ranked first in tobacco, first in hemp, third in mules, fifth in swine, fifth in rye, sixth in corn, and eighth in wheat and flax. Declining average acreage per farm, increased tenant farming, escalating taxes, and decreasing prosperity, however, characterized the period and brought a heightening of interest in farm organizations. The Grange and similar groups spread throughout Kentucky, and farmers joined together in largely unsuccessful efforts to improve their lot.

No matter how they made their living, most 19th century Kentuckians applauded the state's transportation and industrial changes, which added a new dimension to their lives. Labor saving devices, both domestic and industrial, allowed more time to be spent in cultural and social pursuits. There were dances and hops, the theatre, indoor and outdoor musical entertainment, visits to spas, and boating and bicycling excursions. So avid were the two-wheeler enthusiasts that from a Bowling Green pulpit came the warning, "The road of the cyclists leads to where there is no mud on the streets." Carnivals, circuses, and fairs drew large crowds. Holidays were important (Confederate Memorial Day and the Fourth of July elicited stirring speeches from political hopefuls), and court day always brought a crowd to the population centers.

Suggested Activities

  1. Have students research, write, and illustrate a report on steamboat transportation.
  2. Write an essay or short story about taking a trip on the Louisville & Nashville Railroad during the 19th century. The teacher may fix the beginning and termination points and add obstacles and catastrophes.
  3. Find out if your community has an old railroad depot and then gather as much information as you can about it. From the information, draw conclusions about the importance of railroad passenger and freight services before the time of super highways. If there was no railway in your town discuss how differently your community might have developed if there had been.
  4. During times of transportation revolutions, rapid changes in communications take place as well. List advances in communication methods with their dates. You could include other inventions such as gas lights and electricity. Make an illustrated chart or time line using this information. In a discussion period talk about the impact these changes had on people's lives.
  5. Make a transportation timeline for Kentucky. As you study the state's history, add important state and national events. Each time something is added, ask if the transportation available at the time may have influenced the event in some way.
  6. Create a wall mural showing the progress of transportation in Kentucky. Include the canoe, keelboat, flatboat, steamboat, horse-drawn vehicles, trolley, bicycle, train, automobile, and airplane.
  7. Have students outline the six natural regions of Kentucky on a map. Draw in scenes of symbols to illustrate the physical differences between each of the geographical regions.

Web Picks

Free and Inexpensive Materials:

  • "The L & N Railroad" mobile Exhibit. Kentucky Historical Society, 100 W. Broadway, Frankfort, KY 40602.


Clark, Thomas D.
The Kentucky
Lexington, 1969
The Lexington and Ohio Railroad-A Pioneer Venture
Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, 31 (Jan. 1933), pp. 9-28.

*Crocker, Helen Bartter
The Green River of Kentucky
Lexington, 1976
Green River Photographer
Courier Journal Magazine, July 24, 1977, pp. 21-25.

*Crowe-Carraco, Carol
Big Sandy
Lexington, 1979

Firestone, Clark B.
Sycamore Shores
New York, 1936

Harralson, Agnes
Steamboats on the Green: And the Colorful Men who Operated Them
Berea, 1981

Herr, Kincaid
The Louisville and Nashville Railroad, 1850-1959

Thompson, Ed Porter
Kentucky's First Railroad which was the First One West of the Allegheny Mountains
Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, 1 (Jan. 1903), pp. 18-25.

*Denotes books from The Kentucky Bicentennial Bookshelf series.