October 1944. In the southern part of Japan, B29s are dropping bombs every day. After the resounding Allied success on D-Day, Paris has been liberated. The war is far from over, but the sense of optimism on the home front is so strong, the inevitability of an Allied victory is palpable.
On the Home Front, American’s railroads are performing at unprecedented levels. A mere microcosm of this valiant effort is seen on the Louisville & Nashville Railroad’s Cincinnati-Atlanta main at Crooked Hill, an aptly named serpentine stretch on the heavily used double track a few miles north of London, Kentucky. Hammering upgrade is First 33, the Pullman section of L&N’s Midwest-Florida Southland. Fourteen year old L-1 Mountain 421 flies green flags for the following mail, express and coach section.
Easing downgrade toward the dual bores of Tunnel 9 is Extra 1964 North, another in the endless string of coal drags destined for the big yard at DeCoursey. The M-1 class 2-8-4 up front has hardly broken in her roller bearings since leaving Baldwin just weeks before. Now 20 members strong, the modern all-purpose engines are better known to KY engine crews by their nickname: “Big Emma.”
How can this railroad’s superlative wartime performance be measured? At year’s end, over 12.4 million passengers will ride the L&N’s trains—almost four times the number handled just five years before! Coal traffic will burgeon as well, to 34.3 million tons this year, an increase of more than 11 million tons over 1939’s total.
This is a great transportation enterprise in full stride. This is just one American railroad, doing its share for the noblest of causes. But on a colorful October day in 1944, at an isolated location in Eastern Kentucky, the efforts of the L&N railroad—its employees, its equipment, and its physical plant—leave little doubt as to the ultimate outcome of the war. This is the “Old Reliable” in its finest hour.
Painting and Text by Ron Flanary