“the beginning of a new era” — Kentucky State Quarter Coin

Today, the Kentucky State Quarter Coin remembers when the new railroad laid its first rail stone with a large ceremony and celebration on October 22, 1831.

From Kentucky, A History of the State, by William Henry Perrin, J. H. Battle, and G. C. Kniffin, published in 1887:


The first railroad built in Kentucky, and the first completed west of the Alleghanies, was the old “Lexington & Ohio Railroad,” afterward known as the “Lexington & Frankfort,” then as the “Louisville, Frankfort & Lexington,” and at present, the “Shortline” division of the Louisville & Nashville system.

It was originally chartered as the Lexington & Ohio Railroad, and was to extend from Lexington to Portland, on the Ohio River, a village now included in the corporate limits of Louisville.

The act of incorporation passed the legislature January 27, 1830, and takes up twelve printed pages in the official proceedings of that body.

Among the incorporators were John W. Hunt, John Brand, Richard Higgins, Benjamin Gratz, Luther Stevens, Robert Wickliffe, Leslie Combs, Elisha Warfield, Robert Frazer, James Weir, Michael Fishell, Thomas E. Boswell, George Boswell, Benjamin Taylor, Elisha I. Winter, Joseph Boswell, David Megowan, John Norton, M. C. Johnson and Henry C. Payne.

Elisha I. Winter was elected president of the company, but was shortly afterward succeeded by Benjamin Gratz, of Lexington, who, consequently was the second president of the company.

Among others who have served as president of the road, are William R. McKee, Thomas Smith, James O. Harrison, W. A. Dudley, James B. Wilder, and Jacob Kreiger, Sr.

A preliminary survey followed the incorporation of the company, and was made in April, in order “to ascertain the level, and whether inclined planes and stationary engines would be required, and to furnish the company with an accurate description of the face of the country, to enable them to estimate the cost,” etc.

The engineer’s report of the survey between Lexington and Frankfort, showed the following result:

First. — There will be but one inclined plane, about 2,200 feet long, descending one foot in fourteen. All the residue of the road can be graded to thirty feet or less in a mile, which is a fraction over one-fifteenth of an inch rise in one foot.

Second. — On that grade there will be no cut deeper than nineteen feet, and but one of that depth.

Third. — There will be no embankment over m twenty feet high, nor any bridge over thirty feet high.

Fourth. — The distance to Frankfort will not be increased two miles in length over the present traveled road.

Fifth. — There will be as much rock excavation in the grading as will be required to construct the road.

Sixth. — On the thirty feet grade which has been adopted, a single horse is capable of traveling with seven tons’ weight, with as much ease as five horses can draw two tons on our present roads in their best condition.

A strong prejudice existed in early times against railroads, and many fair-minded men opposed their construction as being impracticable, and costly beyond their possible value when built.

But the friends and advocates of railroads argued that in almost all places where canals could be built, railroads could be built also, and at less cost, and that railroads could be built in thousands of places where canals could not be, for the want of water; that they afforded as cheap and safe if not a cheaper and safer mode of communication than canals, and could be traveled in one-third of the time; that they did not interpose any obstacle to the cross-communication of the country, or to the free passage from one part to another of the same farms as canals do; that they may be as easily crossed as a common turnpike, or other road; that they may be used all the year, while canals are made dry by drouth, or closed by frost; that they are not only constructed at less cost than canals, but are easier kept in repair, and that no improved communication ever invented required so little for repairs as railroads.

This system of argument carried the day in favor of the railroad, and left the croakers to croak on to small audiences, while preparations were made for beginning the then important work of building a railroad.

The cost of constructing the Lexington & Ohio Railroad was estimated at $1,000,000, a sum that shows railroad engineers were not as extravagant in their estimates for building roads as they are now.

The amount was soon subscribed, and the contracts for grading the road between Lexington and Frankfort let, the distance being divided into several divisions to better expedite the work.

Railroads were built very different then, and the Lexington & Ohio, it was determined, should be without “flaw or blemish” in its construction.

Instead of wooden cross-ties “stone sills” were laid lengthwise, to which the rails were spiked and then soldered.

The first stone sill was laid October 22, 1831, at the Lexington end of the road, in the presence of a large assemblage of people, and amid the strains of martial music and the roar of artillery.

A description of this event, which occured over half a century ago, will doubtless be of interest to the general reader, and from a chronicle of the time, the following is taken:

The three military companies were formed for escort duty, and marched to the college grounds, where they met the various societies and individuals. A procession was then formed in the following order: Col. Leslie Combs as marshal and J. R. Coleman as aid, on horseback; Maj.-Gen. Pendleton and staff on horseback; field officers and staff on horseback; officers of the line on foot; Capt. Hunt’s artillery in platoons; Gov. Metcalfe supported by Prof. Caldwell, orator of the day, and Rev. W. H. Hall, officiating clergyman; Judges Underwood and Buckner, of the court of appeals; Judge Hickey of the Fayette circuit court; the Hon. R. M. Johnson, R. P. Letcher and T. A. Marshall, members of congress, with several members of the Kentucky legislature; Capt. T. A. Russell, assistant marshal; president and directors of the Lexington & Ohio Railroad Company; Samuel H. Kneas, chief engineer, and the treasurer of the company; contractors and pioneers, with their implements of labor; Capt. Neet’s Rifle Guards, in platoons; military band of music; trustees of the town of Lexington and clerk; justices of the Fayette county court and clerk; trustees and professors of Transylvania University; principal of preparatory department and pupils; principal and pupils of Wentworth’s Academy; principal and tutors of Shelby Female Academy and pupils; principal and professors of the Eclectic Institute and pupils; strangers; stockholders of the Lexington & Ohio Railroad; Capt. Postlethwaite’s light infantry company in platoons; Lieut.-Col. Stephens, assistant marshal; citizens on foot, etc., etc.

A Federal salute was fired at sunrise on the eventful morning, and seven guns when the first stone sill was laid, indicating the seven sections or divisions of the road then under contract. As the procession moved, the various church bells rang out a merry peal, which continued until it reached the place where the ceremony was performed. Arriving upon the ground the military formed a hollow square, within which the civic procession was enclosed. A large number of ladies were present for whom ample accommodations had been made. Prayer was offered by Rev. Mr. Hall, when Elisha I. Winter, Esq., president of the company, handed a hammer to the governor of the State, who drove the nail attaching the first iron rail to the beginning stone sill. The music struck up “Hail Columbia,” and afterward “Yankee Doodle,” which continued until the artillery ceased firing. Prof. Charles Caldwell then delivered an address, the text of which was internal improvements, after which the crowd dispersed, and the ceremonies were brought to an end.

The work, from this auspicious beginning, progressed steadily but rather slowly. The great pains taken to make a ” solid ” road bed, and the labor of laying the stone sills, rendered the work tedious.

The contract for preparing and laying the stone sills was given to Holburn & Benson, who received “great praise for executing their work so faithfully, and in a style of beauty and elegance which excited the admiration of all who examined it.”

By the 1st of August, 1832, one and a half miles of the road were completed, and a “splendid car” put on, and on the 14th the road was formally opened; the car “leaving its moorings at 12 o’clock, with about forty people aboard, among whom were Gov. Metcalfe and other distinguished persons.”

Six and a quarter miles were completed by the 1st of January, 1833, and “the car” made two regular trips daily for the accommodation of the people.

The Lexington Intelligencer, of January 27, 1835, closed a lengthy article on the rail road as follows:

“We cannot refrain from congratulating our fellow-citizens of the town and country adjacent upon the new and brilliant prospects which the railroad and the introduction of steam power have opened upon us. It is the beginning of a new era to Kentucky, and to this part of the Union, an era in which the population of the interior country may and will enjoy the commercial facilities which have hitherto been the exclusive property of the seaboard and river population. Interior cities need only to exert their strength and enterprise in constructing works of internal improvement, in order to compete, with certain success, with the most favored of river and seaport towns.”


The Kentucky State Quarter Coin shows with a birds-eye map of Lexington, circa 1871.

Kentucky State Quarter Coin