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Home Features Recalling the Rugby Road rail depot

Recalling the Rugby Road rail depot

The Rugby Road rail depot ­— at modern-day Elgin — was rebuilt in 1892, after the original depot (described by Rugby manager Robert Walton as “a little hut called a station”) was destroyed by fire. PHOTO COURTESY HISTORIC RUGBY INC. ARCHIVES

Editor’s Note — The following first appeared in Historic Rugby’s newsletter for May. It is written by George Zepp, a Rugby resident and historian.

Railroad travel, shipping and mail were vital to Rugby. All of it passed through this depot on two trains daily until it was gone. Did a certain rat play a part in that? More on the rodent in a moment.

The depot and development of the village of Sedgemoor as it was first called came because of Rugby. Backers of the 1880 Morgan County town owned land extending into Scott County at the new Cincinnati Southern rail line that began operation that same year. The Board of Aid to Land Ownership wanted to develop it, so lots were drawn off and sold, not just at the rail line but extending all along the seven-mile road the Board also constructed.

Before that road, travel to and from Rugby involved a longer and more difficult trip to Robbins to meet the train there. Sedgemoor seemed to flourish. “We now boast of three stores, and will soon have a blacksmith’s shop and a tinkers (repair shop),” a writer noted in The Rugbeian newspaper on Oct. 14, 1882. “Good boarding houses” and “Duncan’s saloon” were also features he cited. “Being on the rail, there is always something going on…”

The depot itself wasn’t much at first. In a scathing three-page letter in September 1884 to the head of the railroad, Rugby manager Robert Walton called it “that little hut called a station.” Walton urged him to add a waiting room so at least travelers would have some shade while waiting and a place to get a drink of water. He pointed to accounts of passengers who, seeing the depot, “actually got on cars again and went back or onward.”

At least Rugby had gotten a telephone connection to the station earlier that year. In May 1884 the first message received over the line was that the railroad was renaming Sedgemoor station “Rugby Road.” (The town became Elgin in February 1891 with the renaming of the post office.)

“Rugby Road is now one of the most important stations on the C.S.R.R. between Somerset and Chattanooga,” the Plateau Gazette boasted in May 1884. “The amount of freight received every week is immense (with) the great and growing wants of Rugby, Allardt, Jamestown and other places farther west…”

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Things didn’t appear to have improved at the depot, perhaps in part since the railroad head Walton had berated was himself replaced in 1885. Seven years later, in April 1892, a Johnson City newspaper reported “The depot at Rugby Road, Scott County, has been destroyed by fire. Loss, $750.”

After that, it appears that the larger station pictured above was built. Its own existence was only about a decade. The May 21, 1903 Fentress Courier reported “last Saturday night the depot at Rugby Road caught fire and burned to the ground. All the books and papers were lost and almost all the freight and express, which was considerable.” The cause?

“The fire is supposed to have caught by a rat gnawing at a box of matches.”

The Norris Motel in Elgin once provided lodging for some of the most famous visitors who traveled to nearby Rugby. It was owned and operated by S.J. Norris, one of southern Scott County’s most prominent businessmen in the first half of the 20th century.

The rise and fall of Rugby Road

Footnote by the Independent Herald: It is somewhat ironic that many more motorists pass through tiny Elgin, south of Robbins, than pass through Rugby. Because Elgin, a former lumber and railroad town, owes its entire existence to Rugby.

Before it was Elgin — and after it was Sedgemoor — it was known as Rugby Road. It got its name from the fact that the Boston-based Board of Aid to Land Ownership, which had purchased the land where the English colony of Rugby was be established, constructed a road along the route that is currently S.R. 52 for the purpose of accessing the new Cincinnati Southern Railroad. There was always talk of a separate railroad line accessing Rugby and going deeper into Fentress County, but it never came to fruition. Absent a railroad, the Rugby Road provided access for passengers and freight to travel from the depot to Rugby.

There were a few businesses in Sedgemoor — which became Rugby Road with the establishment of the railroad depot and later became Elgin after a post office was built. The community’s best-known business owner was S.J. Norris, who operated a sawmill, owned a general store and maintained a motel for many years from the 1920s into the 1960s. He and his wife were also stockholders of the old Robbins Bank & Trust Co.

Norris also started a box factory at Elgin. In its later years, the factory was managed by W.H. “Bill” Swain with Norman Acres as his general foreman.

Among the other businesses at Rugby Road was a dry goods store that was operated jointly by William Lee and his brother-in-law, John Goad. Lee came to Scott County from Livingston to teach school at Brimstone and later became Scott County’s superintendent of schools, a position he held until the death of his wife, Etta Goad Lee. John Goad would later serve as sheriff, circuit court clerk and trustee.

Today, there aren’t many mentions of the old Rugby Road, except for the Methodist church that sits on the hill overlooking the former depot. Rugby Road United Methodist Church is located near the intersection of Young Road and High Street.

This story is the July 2020 installment of Forgotten Times, presented by United Cumberland Bank on the fourth week of each month as part of the Independent Herald’s Back Page Features series. A print version of this article can be found on Page 11 of the July 23, 2020 edition of the Independent Herald.
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