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Across the Tracks — The History of Paducah’s Littleville Neighborhood

Across the Tracks — The History of Paducah’s Littleville Neighborhood

Union Station in Littleville Photo courtesy of the McCracken County Public Library

-J.T. Crawford

For most Paducah residents, Littleville is an out-of-the-way part of town—if they can even identify where it is. Located just south of the city’s center, the neighborhood is loosely bordered by Old Mayfield Rd., the Beltline (where its name changes to Irvin Cobb Dr. and intersects with Brown St.), and a rail line over Pool Rd. More specifically, however, Littleville is defined by an oval shape of railroad tracks—the very tracks that led to its existence.

From its earliest days, Paducah was a hub of opportunity. John W. Little from Dresden, Tennessee saw it. There were plenty of natural resources, an ample labor force, and access to transportation. Little saw sufficient space to enter into a burgeoning market: the production of wagon wheel spokes. Wagons were not only a staple of everyday life, they were central to the continued western expansion of the United States. Little moved to Paducah and set up shop next to the intersection of the NC&StL and Illinois Central rail lines. 

Utilizing hickory from McCracken County farmers, the Little Spoke Factory barely kept up with demand. And, long before laws were in place to ensure safe work environments, a spoke factory was a dangerous place to be employed. In the early 1900s, it was regularly reported when a worker suffered a grave injury, mostly that of losing multiple fingers. On January 13, 1903, for example, J.A. Castleman of Jackson Street lost the middle three fingers on his left hand to a spoke cutter. A doctor tended to him at the scene, and he went home. It was a fairly common story.

Work continued, however, and by 1914, the factory ran a day and a night shift. By then, J.W. Little had branched out with an additional product. We make the spokes he probably thought. Why not make the whole wheel? And, if you’re going to make wagon wheels, why not make the whole wagon? In 1915, Little introduced the country to a new line of wagons, all stamped with the name PADUCAH. The factory turned out ten a day, and a Paducah Wagon regularly sat at the downtown Market House as an advertising display to farmers. 

Little didn’t believe in waste. He used extra pieces of wood to make pickets for fences. He sold unusable cuts for wood stove use. He sold sawdust. “You don’t know how good meat and tobacco are until you try smoking them with hickory sawdust” his newspaper ad read. There were plenty of periods, however, when Little was so busy he couldn’t acquire wood fast enough. Children who grew up in the area later recalled picking up rejected spokes from a pile behind the factory and using them to toss into trees, knocking down pecans and walnuts that grew on trees nearby.

By 1922, the growing automobile industry posed a significant threat to wagon manufacturers. But Little simply went back to his roots. Cars still used wooden spokes, so the factory tweaked a little to support the new industry. He also produced brush handles and baseball bats. A common tale is that Little was approached by the Ford Motor Company to produce some of their spokes. The pay? Stock in the Ford company. Little rejected the offer. 

Little enjoyed many decades of success. The initial boon led to a growth in home construction near the factory. By the early 1900s, the area was considered a Paducah suburb, and in 1903, it was officially dubbed as Littleville, occasionally written as Littlesville. The name even appeared as a destination on some Paducah streetcars, and the city annexed the area. Times were good in Littleville as long as the spoke factory operated at full speed. By the late 20s, however, business had nearly dropped to nothing. Additionally, J.W. Little who had no successors died at the age of 64 in 1933. The old building quickly declined, even partially collapsing, injuring a homeless man who sought shelter during a storm. Shortly after, it was torn down.

Today, the memory of the spoke factory is nearly erased, and all that remains of J.W. Little is his contribution to the name of the neighborhood.

Littleville’s Big Problem

Rail lines defined Littleville. They also fenced the neighborhood in on all sides. From the beginning, the tracks added a layer of frustration to living in the area as it was not uncommon to be completely blocked in by trains. For many years, there was only one way in and out of the area.

Additionally, the city, which had annexed Littleville early in its existence, found great difficulty in running services such as sewer and water lines to the neighborhood.

In the early 1920s, the county built a small schoolhouse on a portion of county-owned land on the edge of Littleville. Parents had long been concerned about their children crossing multiple railroad tracks day in and day out to get to school. They would often walk between moving cars, crawl through boxcars or under them, or go over hitches to get to school on time. Most of the students (33 of them) lived within city limits. After disputes over contracts regarding payments from the city, the school was closed after just a couple of years. The situation highlighted an ongoing and sometimes contentious relationship between the city and the neighborhood.

Residents pleaded, for decades, for an access street that avoided train traffic. Stories of children injured crossing the multiple tracks bolstered their argument. Delays were nearly intolerable. It wasn’t unheard of for trains to stop across the access street, remaining in place for upwards of 90 minutes. Not only was it a great inconvenience, but it also resulted in loss.

Over the years, there were multiple stories about ambulances or firetrucks stopped at the tracks for significant amounts of time. One resident gave birth in her car as she waited. Speaking at a 1968 City Commission meeting, 78-year-old Horace Garrett told how his wife died in his arms 22 years earlier after suffering a stroke. For an hour, a train blocked his only means of getting her to the hospital.

Despite all the pleading and tragedy, nothing changed. The relationship between residents and the city was strained. For a while, it appeared hopeful that the new Beltline Highway could be rerouted through Littleville, giving respite. Ultimately, it did not. A bridge was built over multiple tracks, but none of those bordered Littleville. 

Then, in the 1970s, the state finally approved a project to build a bridge from Old Mayfield Road into Littleville. The stretch of road was called Chester Hack Drive, so named after the man who had, for decades, led the charge for the project. Hack owned a grocery store in Littleville and was known as the neighborhood’s unofficial mayor. His brother had died in an ambulance while waiting on a train. Additionally, Hack had previously been a railroad conductor and saw the problem first hand. Due to the way trains moved in and out of the area, he had blocked the street to his own neighborhood many times himself, something that caused him great anguish.

In most ways, though, Littleville remained out-of-sight, out-of-mind for Paducah. In the 90s, using Federal grant money, the city bought out some residents and relocated them due to the continued problem of providing adequate sewer service. An effort to draw industrial business to the area was semi-successful. Today, there are several employers in the neighborhood.

Paducah’s Union Station

It was once a staple of life. Paducah’s Union Station, constructed in 1900 by the NC&StL and Illinois Central rail lines, produced scenes akin to the modern airport terminal. It was where happy vacationers departed to points north and south, most often to visit relatives. Families said goodbye to adult children headed off to college. Emboldened by hope, those looking for new opportunities away from home and those discovering them in Paducah passed through there. And, on the station’s platform, moms, dads, girlfriends, and wives shed tears for hometown heroes headed off to war, praying that they would once again meet at Paducah’s station. 

Paducah’s Union Station

In the early 1900s, the joint effort between the two rail companies blossomed as passenger train traffic rose sharply. The stop gave Paducah residents more options for travel. And it exposed Paducah to more visitors. 

The station was located in Littleville adjacent to J.W. Little’s spoke factory. Outside of the industrial nature of Littleville, it brought a constant influx of life and movement as our nation discovered the convenience and speed of train travel. It was also a central figure in some of our community’s most important moments.

During World War I, Union Station was the final point of farewell for young men leaving home to join the military. When they left, it was like a scene from a movie—families lined the platform, waving at soon-to-be soldiers who leaned out the train windows. And during World War II, train service rose sharply as gasoline was rationed and more people took the rails. 

Union Station’s biggest moment came in 1956 after the death of Paducah native and U.S. Vice President Alben Barkley. A ten-car funeral train carried Barkley, his family, at least 21 senators, and other dignitaries to Paducah for his funeral. Bill Powell, in the Paducah Sun-Democrat, said “the black steam locomotive—the clang of its red-lined bell sounding almost like a funeral toll—crept into the station. Steam came fitfully out of the stack as the big wheels eased to a stop in the warm spring sun.” A crowd had gathered at the station, Paducahans who wanted to witness Barkley’s final return home.

Paducah’s Union Station Photo courtesy of McCracken County Public Library

Even though it was a grand sight, behind the scenes, Union Station was coming to the end of the line. Rail travel had been declining for decades. And just about 7 months after the arrival of Barkley’s funeral train, passenger service to Paducah came to an end. Union Station’s welcoming of Barkley was its final bow. In 1960, the building was torn down, and all that remains is a concrete pad where the building once stood.

The Wrong Side of the Tracks

While most travelers remember Union Station fondly, nearby businesses that cropped up to serve travelers quickly created a less-than-desirable atmosphere. Shortly after the debut of the depot, the Brook Hill saloon opened across the street. In 1901, a patron, angry that the saloon owner took too long to wait on him, went outside, pulled a plank off a fence, and returned, striking the owner in the back of the head. The act set a tone for the area that remained for decades. Brook Hill later became the Brass Rail. The saloon featured sleeping rooms upstairs and a restaurant next door called the Kozy Kitchen. In 1949, 42 arrests were made during August and September alone, most for being drunk in public and/or disorderly conduct and fighting. Assaults often involved business owners, both giving and receiving The city revoked the Kozy Kitchen’s beer license to quell crime. In the early 1950s, police arrested eight people connected to a prostitution ring at the Virginia Rooms, the boarding area of the Brass Rail. It wasn’t the first time.

By the 1930s, Paducahans were accustomed to hearing about the “hobo jungle,” a wooded area near the station where transient rail-riders stopped to rest and wait for another cargo train to hop. Initially known as Hoover Hotel, it was a popular spot with an unorganized group called “knights of the road.” Cooking equipment, improvised from tin cans and other salvage, was cached on the spot at all times, ready for use by any guest. In a 1938 article about keeping the area clean, the Paducah Sun-Democrat illustrated the scene by describing fictitious “Weary Willie” who “could swing off a train late in the evening, mooch a few potatoes, and retire to the jungle where a fire and utensils were always at hand. Then after a hard-earned meal, there was always plenty of soft ground for a nap between train times.” The Sun interviewed a 21-year-old girl who traveled by rail and described the hobos as mostly “nice men and nice looking men. But they were all bums. They were going everywhere—or just anywhere.”

In the early 1960s, the lawlessness of the area surrounding the depot came to a head. Howard Yates, who once owned the Kozy Kitchen and had done time in a federal penitentiary for illegal transportation of whisky, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 21 years for the killing of a man in “hobo jungle,” which, by the then, was called the “drinker’s jungle,” a place where men would get drunk and then sleep it off. Yates had been a regular fixture in the local newspaper’s crime report, mostly for either doling out or receiving a good whoopin’ at the Kozy Kitchen. In May of ’62, Yates headed to the jungle to find a man who owed him money where he ultimately killed the man. He claimed innocence, saying he did not know the victim and had been with his brother, enjoying a day devoted to drinking coffee.

The bars of the area continued to operate until the late 1960s. Then, most were torn down to build a Ramada Inn. With the absence of Union Station and the continued exodus of businesses, the little spot near the intersection of Irvin Cobb Drive (the beltline) and Brown Street returned to calm. 

The Brass Rail just before it was torn down
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