CSX, the railroad giant that has been a key part of Corbin's economy for more than a century, announced Tuesday it had laid off more than half the employees at its work sites in town.
The company said in a news release that it would close mechanical shops that maintain locomotives and rail cars, cutting 180 jobs. That will leave about 100 employees to handle train traffic, rail-car inspections and other duties at the yard in the heart of town, the company said.
Local officials learned of the layoffs Tuesday morning, said Bruce Carpenter, economic development director for the city of about 7,300.
"This has just caught all of us off guard," Carpenter said. "It's pretty devastating, obviously."
The jobs at CSX are some of the best-paying in the area, he said, and their loss will ripple through the region.
The mechanical shops at Corbin are another casualty of the sharp downturn in coal production in Eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia, CSX said in a news release. The facilities were used mostly to service locomotives and rail cars for trains moving coal from Central Appalachia to power plants in the Eastern United States.
Several factors, including competition from cheap natural gas and tougher federal environmental standards, have driven down demand for coal from the region.
As a result, CSX's revenue from moving coal has gone down more than $1 billion over the past four years, the company said.
Many of the locomotives that would have been serviced at Corbin will be stored instead, with others serviced at shops elsewhere in the system, said Melanie Cost, a CSX spokeswoman.
CSX operates tracks in 23 states and Canada.
Cost said most of the union workers affected by closing the Corbin shops are technically being furloughed, which means they won't be working but can be called back if needed.
However, CSX does not expect to reopen the Corbin shops, Cost said.
The employees will get at least 60 days of pay and benefits, the company said.
Many of the employees also will be eligible for jobs at other places in the CSX network, the company said.
Cost said most of the furloughs were effective Tuesday, though some workers remained to close the shops.
In addition to the job losses, there is a psychological blow in the announcement because the railroad is an integral part of Corbin's history and identity.
The place that ultimately grew into Corbin was a collection of small farms before Louisville & Nashville Railroad extended its main line to the area in the early 1880s, opening access to the region's rich coal deposits, according to The Kentucky Encyclopedia.
Corbin grew into a major freight and passenger terminal as the L&N pushed tracks further into southeastern Kentucky and coal production boomed.
With the railroad providing hundreds of jobs and driving employment at other businesses, the population of Corbin grew from a few hundred in 1890 to 8,000 by 1920, according to one history of the city.
The L&N merged in the early 1980s into what is now CSX.
In addition to continued operations in Corbin, the company has several other facilities in Kentucky.