Motorists traveling along West Main Street during the last few months may have noticed the skeletonized remains of an old railroad car sitting at the end of the tracks in the yard of the train depot.
The car was pulled out, partially dismantled, and shored up with interior bracing beams in the spring in preparation of it being moved to the Historic Railpark Train Museum and L&N Depot in Bowling Green where it will be put on display once it has been completely renovated.
The railroad car was originally scheduled to be relocated in mid-May, but an equipment issue delayed the move, according to Sharon Tabor with the railpark.
The Louisville & Nashville Railroad No. 109 passenger and freight car has a long and unique history. Known as a “Jim Crow” car, it first began service in Glasgow more than 100 years ago.
According to Robert Lessenberry, president of the Glasgow Railway Company Inc., the coach along with an engine was purchased in the spring of 1909.
“In the minutes of the corporation, a committee was asked to see if they could locate a coach and they reported at the next meeting that they had found two of these coaches. ... I’m surmising that the need for one coach was sufficient, so they were authorized to buy the one coach,” he said.
The rail car carried segregated passengers on each end of the coach and had a compartment in the center that separated the two areas.
“It had one end for blacks and one end for whites and the center section was for freight,” Robert Lessenberry explained. “They brought the mail in on the train in the early days.”
The train traveled the 10 miles from Glasgow to Park City (originally known as Glasgow Junction until the 1940s) and back again twice a day, six days a week, through a contract with L&N Railroad.
Passenger service on the line ended in 1955 because of financial concerns. It had been mandated by the Interstate Commerce Commission that as long as the railroad was licensed to have passenger service it had to run the train according to a set schedule including the two runs on Saturday. After World War II, the only traffic that was handled on Saturdays was a carload of cattle from the stockyard. Eventually, even the cattle began to be trucked instead of being shipped by rail and as a result, there was no freight or passengers going out on Saturday.
“But we were still required to have the train twice a day on Saturday and that was almost the demise of the train operation in those days because of no revenue,” Robert Lessenberry said. “Fortunately in 1955, passenger service was terminated, schedules were changed and we had no trains on Saturday, which was a benefit.”
To commemorate the last day of passenger service, the company gave rides to anyone who wanted to make the trip for the last time.
“We invited everybody in town who wanted to ride the train to Park City and back to do so as our guests free of charge. That was probably about 100 people,” Robert Lessenberry said.
After that last run in 1955, a representative of a local civic club asked the company’s board if they could have the coach to be used as the recreation office in Gorin Park and the members said yes, but it was discovered that it would have cost too much money to have the car moved across town and the idea was abandoned.
“We agreed to that and then another three months or so at another meeting there was discussion about what had happened to the effort to move the coach and it was reported that they had gotten only one bid to move the coach and it was $10,000 and the civic club just threw up their hands and said that's entirely too much and they gave up,” Robert Lessenberry said.
And so the car remained at the depot yard and began its slow decline through the years into ruin.
“The coach was parked and, as the years evolved after that, the hobos of the community and surrounds literally demolished the coach. They were spending the winters in there tearing out boards, building fires in the two little stoves that were at each end of the coach,” Robert Lessenberry said.
Originally the passenger car was quite something to see, according to Lessenberry and two of his sons, Leigh and Robert Howard Lessenberry.
The coach had brass fittings throughout the car and burgundy and gold velvet upholstery on the tufted seats with brass emblems in the seat frames. There were brass door plates and brass door knobs engraved with the L&N logo. Brass lights and brass spittoons were found throughout the coach as well. Two pot-bellied stoves were located at the ends of the car to keep passengers warm.
“It was an elaborate relic for its time,” Robert Lessenberry said.
But most of those furnishings and fittings were stolen and lost over time and eventually the coach ended up in its current condition. Even so, the ruined rail car was very significant.
In 2008, the Lessenberrys were approached by the Historic Railway Park in Bowling Green and the Friends of L&N about acquiring the dilapidated rail car to refurbish it to its original glory and add it to the cars already on display at the museum.
“We received a letter from the L&N people about Coach No. 109. They determined the car was constructed in 1882, making it one of the oldest rail cars in existence and the only surviving L&N ‘Jim Crow’ car of its kind,” said Leigh Lessenberry.
“Being the only rail coach of its kind still in existence anywhere in the South and/or Midwest, its true value is unknown and the actual worth of this car is currently under review,” he read from the letter.
It will take approximately two years and several hundred thousand dollars to refurbish the one-of-a-kind coach.
“These guys are so meticulous they’ve been researching the type of wainscoting that it had on the interior and the kind of fabric, everything down to the nth detail. They were thrilled that we got some of the seats out and a pot-bellied stove out of one end and several of the seat frames so they can take those and make ones to match,” Leigh Lessenberry said.
The Lessenberrys are uncertain exactly when the coach will be moved now.
“We think they are going to remove the actual carriage from the trolleys and move it in pieces. They’ll have to do that and that will take a while. It will take two lowboys and a crane,” said Leigh Lessenberry.
The family said they are happy that the old coach will be rescued by the museum and kept from disappearing into oblivion.
“It had just about gotten to the point of no return,” Robert Lessenberry said.