Historical Markers #1178 and #1978 in Greenup County commemorate the Eastern Kentucky Railway, which played an important part in developing the area's coal, iron, and timber resources.
The Eastern Kentucky Railway was originally chartered in March 1865 by the Kentucky legislature under the name "Argillite Mining and Manufacturing Company." A new charter was issued in December amending the name to "Kentucky Improvement Company." In 1866 and 1867, the company purchased some 25,000 mineral rich acres and constructed a six-and-a-half mile track from the Ohio River to Argillite.
By special act of the Kentucky legislature, the Eastern Kentucky Railway Company was granted a charter to own and operate the property of the Kentucky Improvement Company on January 18, 1870. In February, the Kentucky Improvement Company deeded the Eastern Kentucky Railway 12.64 miles of track, two blast furnaces, and 25,000 acres for ore, coal, and wood. Much of the existence of the Eastern Kentucky Railway was plagued by disappointment. While the railway did expand in Kentucky, the owners' dreams for the railway to connect southern coal fields with the Great Lakes region remained unfulfilled.
The E. K. operated for many years on meager profits. Although passenger service and income from delivering mail helped offset the losses, the exhaustion of coal for charcoal and the leanness of native ores made profitable operation impossible. In 1889, the E. K. reached its furthest point when it completed 1.77 miles to Webbville, totaling approximately thirty-six miles of main track for the Eastern Kentucky Railway.
Coal played a huge role in the roller coaster of success and failure experienced by the Eastern Kentucky Railway. As one of the primary resources carried by the E. K. Railway, the opening of mines along the tracks boosted profits, but mine closings hit hard. The railroad company operated coal mines until new laws, implemented in 1907, forced them to divest itself of any non-rail activity. The demand for coal during World War I created an abnormal demand for coal, and actually brought in a profit.
In 1926, continuing deficits made the company submit an application to the Interstate Commerce Commission for abandonment of the entire line. It was determined that the track between Grayson and Willard would remain open, but an application could be resubmitted in a year. During that time, the Eastern Kentucky continued to offer services, but profits were rare. Another permit for abandonment was filed in 1928, at which point a new company purchased the railway. After making a determined effort to salvage the remaining operation, a decision to discontinue the line was made in December 1932. Service ended in January 1933, and dismantling began shortly thereafter.