The Bullitt County History Museum

William W. Sweeney - A Remarkable Conductor

The following article by Charles Hartley was published on 8 Feb 2015. It is archived here for your reading enjoyment.

William W. Sweeney

In 1888 The Courier-Journal published a feature article on William W. Sweeney titled "A Remarkable Conductor." With the article was the sketch of him you see here.

The occasion of the article was his celebration of 31 years as a conductor for the Louisville and Nashville railroad. It stated, "In all that time he never had an accident of any character, never injured a passenger in the slightest, and but one of his train men was ever hurt, a brakeman, who by his own carelessness broke his leg."

The article went on to say, "He is now sixty-four years of age and is running night and day with the youngest conductors, none of whom seem to stand the work better than the veteran."

Sweeney was also a religious man, a Presbyterian. The article said of him, "Just before his train leaves for its destination, night or day, Sweeney seeks seclusion and in prayer begs for a safe journey. This he has kept up for years, and he is firm in his belief that his success and good fortune are attributable to God's providence over everything else."

He was actually L. & N.'s very first official "conductor." He was hired during the winter of 1856-7 by the railroad's superintendent, James F. Gamble, to assist him; and together they controlled those first trains that made the trip between Louisville and Lebanon Junction. Then in July 1857, Gamble turned the job of conducting the trains over to Sweeney, and for some time he was the only conductor for that railroad.

Making his almost daily runs, he witnessed the growth of Lebanon Junction from the place where trains turned around, to a bustling community. He was there when the road was completed to Lebanon, and he was on the first train south of Lebanon Junction to the point where it met the Bowling Green stagecoach.

An 1884 Courier-Journal article stated, "The meetings of the stage coach and the mixed train were events of great interest in the neighborhood and attracted the natives from far and near, the stage driver replying lustily with his stage horn to the toot of the locomotive whistle." It must have been quite a sight!

Sweeney ran the Lebanon branch until the main stem was completed to Elizabethtown, and was then transferred to it. The tunnel on Muldraugh's Hill was not finished for several months after the line was opened to Elizabethtown, and in the meantime a temporary track ran over the top of the hill on a 250-foot grade, and in making the ascent the engine could take up but one car at a time.

When the tracks were completed to Nashville, Sweeney ran the first train through from Louisville.

He had several encounters with Rebels during the Civil War, including the time when John Hunt Morgan's raiders stopped his train near Belmont and robbed its passengers before allowing the train to return back to Elizabethtown.

The Lexington Observer and Reporter reported, "The train was hailed eight miles beyond Elizabethtown, and the conductor informed that the Rebels were only a few miles ahead, and waiting to capture it.

"Conductor Sweeney, who was in charge, backed to the first station, and telegraphed to Louisville for orders, and received a reply to come on, that there was no danger in the way. John Morgan's operator, Ellsworth, sent the response to the inquiry for instructions. Sweeney proceeded as far as Crooked Creek, three miles beyond Shepherdsville, where hundreds of mounted Rebel cavalry stood by the side of the road, who told him to stop or they would shoot him and throw the train off the track. He halted, and the train had nearly ceased moving, when, believing the Rebels had no cannon, he rung the bell to run back, and the engineer reversed steam.

"The car commenced a retrograde motion, but a shell from a piece of artillery passed over them, warning the conductor that he must not try to escape. Reluctantly the order was given, and the train halted. There was a guard of about twenty men on board, who commenced firing at the approaching Rebels, who were yelling like savage demons; but after one or two ineffective volleys, the soldiers ran for dear life, pursued by the victorious Rebels, who soon captured them.

"The passengers, among whom were a number of ladies, laid flat down on the floor of the cars to avoid the balls that were passing above and through the train. The guerrilla thieves, after the soldiers were disposed of, turned their attention to the passengers, robbing every one who had money, clothing, or valuables. In some instances articles were returned to their rightful owners through the influence of some ones among the robbers who had a little honesty left.

"Through the intercession of some ladies, Rebel friends of Morgan, the train and all the passengers were sent back to Nashville, and started in that direction between eleven and twelve o'clock Monday night."

Following the war, he returned to the Lebanon branch where he remained for much of the rest of his career. His trains would travel from Louisville to Lebanon Junction where they would take on coal and water, as well as freight and passengers, before traveling down the Lebanon branch that gradually extended southeastward to Jellico, Tennessee. His return trips were much the same, putting him in Lebanon Junction almost on a daily basis where he made many friends.

William W. Sweeney was likely born in Springfield, Kentucky to Holmes and Jemima Sweeney. We know he married Mary Ann Weaver in 1848, and that they were in Louisville during the 1850 census, living next door to Holmes and Jemima.

Tragedy struck the family when Holmes was killed during the collapse of the church he was attending when a tornado ripped through Louisville in 1854.

Later, in his book, The Presbyterian Church in Louisville From Its Organization in 1816 to the Year 1896, Edward L. Warren would write, "Rev. Robert Morrison, the temporary supply, was preaching in the basement to a congregation of about eighty people, when suddenly the door was blown open and the room filled with dust. The roof was blown off, and a crash was heard as the western wall fell inward, crushing the girders which upheld the basement ceiling, and the fearful work of destruction was soon completed."

He went on to report that 15 died there that day, Holmes Sweeney among them. We don't know if anyone else in the family was there or not, but if so, they survived this terrible event.

William and Mary Ann would have three children, Charles, Henry, and Stella; and they would continue to live in Louisville for much of the rest of their lives. Mary Ann died in February 1888, just months before the newspaper published the feature article.

In April 1893, The Interior Journal of Stanford reported that the railroad had retired Sweeney from his daily runs to an easier berth in the Louisville office. It concluded, "The old man has more friends than anybody and all will be glad to know that his declining years will be spent in less arduous labor."

Two years after his retirement from the trains, William Sweeney died on 29 Dec 1895. The next week, The Courier-Journal ran an obituary that stated, "He was a conscientious Christian and carried his religion into everyday life by sowing seeds of kindness and saying a good word for his Master."

A good man, a kind man, a man to remember.

Copyright 2015 by Charles Hartley, Shepherdsville KY. All rights are reserved. No part of the content of this page may be included in any format in any place without the written permission of the copyright holder.

The Bullitt County History Museum, a service of the Bullitt County Genealogical Society, is located in the county courthouse at 300 South Buckman Street (Highway 61) in Shepherdsville, Kentucky. The museum, along with its research room, is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Saturday appointments are available by calling 502-921-0161 during our regular weekday hours. Admission is free. The museum, as part of the Bullitt County Genealogical Society, is a 501(c)3 tax exempt organization and is classified as a 509(a)2 public charity. Contributions and bequests are deductible under section 2055, 2106, or 2522 of the Internal Revenue Code. Page last modified: 13 Jan 2024 . Page URL: