A black and white image of three men in front of a large train from the 1930s.

Legacy and Memory of the L & N Railroad

The Louisville and Nashville Railroad (L & N), along with other railroad startups, began prior to the Civil War. Located in Kentucky, the L & N railroad entered Alabama by acquiring some smaller lines and building railways. 

Other railroads operated in Alabama, but the L & N Railroad proved to be important to our state, and especially to Birmingham. The railroad can be considered one of the reasons Birmingham is known as the Magic City. Alabama and Birmingham have copious amounts of land, coal, iron ore, and limestone. The L & N Railroad allowed local resources and materials to be expediently shipped to industrial centers and southern ports across the region, supporting economic growth in our area.  

The L & N, a financially sound railroad company, produced reliable earnings over the years. They weathered the storms of the Great Depression and previous downturns while accumulating railway from less fortunate railroad companies. As Birmingham industrialists began to overtake the cotton-based agricultural interests in state politics by the early 1900s, many iron, steel, and automotive companies built plants in Alabama not only due to local resources but also because of a transportation system like L & N. Agricultural products also continued to be produced in Alabama in large quantities during the early 1900s, and farmers benefitted from L & N. After World War II, passenger services would be added, as well as modernization of the railroad, furthering its benefit to the state. Railways played an important role in the industrial success of our country and Alabama alike. 

Edward Lee Billingsley, the author’s grandfather.

The L & N Railroad touched many lives in Alabama. For example, the company played an important role in my family history. The hub in Birmingham, often called the “Roundhouse,” connected the surrounding states’ railroads to many Alabama industries. After the Great Depression, my great grandfather, Edward Lee Billingsley, worked his way up from shoveling coal as an L & N fireman, to a long-haul engineer on the road, and finally as an engineer in the Roundhouse.  He was often called “Tojo” by his fellow railroad employees due to his small frame, but he was tough as nails and feisty. As a night shift worker, Billingsley would have time to also work as a television repairman. L & N employed thousands of men like my great grandfather, providing work skills and economic increase for many during this time. In return many of the workers invested in L & N, giving their time, loyalty, and the best years of their lives. 

The L & N Railroad and connecting lines were strategic in their timing and locations in Alabama. They provided the transportation and jobs needed to transition Alabama from an agriculturally based economy to a more diverse industrialized state. In addition, the L & N hubs of Birmingham, Mobile, Huntsville, and Montgomery have continued to grow into the largest cities in Alabama. At its peak by around 1970, L & N covered thirteen states and nearly 7,000 miles of track.  The workers of L & N were always part and parcel of their success.  Yet, by the early 1980s, corporate maneuvering would eventually lead to the end of an era and the name of L & N Railroad.  I personally am thankful for all the blood, sweat, and tears so many workers in Alabama poured into the L & N Railroad. My generation continues to benefit from the legacy of this once important Alabama railroad company. 

This piece was initially published by Alabama Heritage Magazine, written by Ronald O. Travis III, and supplemented with extra resources from the University of Alabama Press.

Additional Resources

Featured Image

Alabama train crew, ca. 1930s; courtesy of William Stanley Hoole Special Collections Library, the University of Alabama.

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