Railroads from the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
RAILROADS. While water traffic on both Lake Erie and the OHIO AND ERIE CANAL did much to develop Cleveland, it took the appearance of the railroad to make the community’s industrial takeoff a reality. From the 1860s to the 1960s, railroads served as the principal transporter of goods and people to and from the Forest City. Not long after the steam locomotive made its 1829 American debut, Clevelanders realized the potential for this novel transportation form.
The economic dislocations triggered by the Panic of 1837 initially prevented backers of the proposed Cleveland, Columbus & Cincinnati railroad, chartered in 1836, from turning their plans into reality. Eventually, though, a stronger economy led to line surveys, acquisition of rights-of-way, and actual construction of a railroad in the late 1840s. Cleveland’s railroad era officially began on 3 Nov. 1849 when the CC&C’s lone engine was coupled onto a string of flatcars near River St. The CLEVELAND HERALD commented, “The whistle of the locomotive will be as familiar to the ears of the Clevelander as the sound of church bells.” The CC&C opened its first segment, 36 mi. to Wellington, in July 1850 and completed the remaining line into Columbus the following February. Its first Cleveland depot stood on the lakefront near W. 9th St. That same month, the Cleveland & Pittsburgh, which traced its corporate origins back to the 1836 charter of the Cleveland, Warren & Pittsburgh, dispatched trains over its new 26-mi. line between Cleveland and Hudson. By 1853 that carrier had entered Pittsburgh. Also, a 62-mi. branch, initially organized in 1851 as the Cleveland, Mt. Vernon & Delaware Railroad, opened in 1852 between Hudson and Millersburg via Akron.
Railroad building in the Cleveland area continued at a brisk pace, but most of the early lines were under-capitalized and subject to the economic panics which occurred regularly during the 19th century. Falling into receivership, the lines often were consolidated, reorganized, and expanded after receiving new capital. This process eventually created the major rail lines that operated in the Cleveland area during the 20th century. In the early 1850s the developing network of independent roads from New York to Chicago touched Cleveland in the early 1850s. Using the 1848 charter of the Cleveland, Painesville & Ashtabula, Cleveland promoters laid tracks between the Forest City and the Ohio-Pennsylvania state line, reaching their destination in 1852. The next year the Cleveland & Toledo, an amalgamation of several “paper” companies that dated back to the mid-1840s, received permission to link these two Ohio communities, and soon the firm reached the west bank of the Cuyahoga River. In 1869 these separate companies, together with the Michigan Southern & Northern Indiana and the Buffalo & Erie, became the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway Co. Dominated by New York interests, the LS&MS provided single management control of passenger and freight operations between Buffalo and Chicago. The Cleveland & Mahoning Valley Railroad also was included in Cleveland’s first wave of steam railroad construction. Although chartered in 1848, sufficient backing was not forthcoming until Western Reserve promoters, led by Jacob Perkins, pledged their own fortunes to the scheme, and this future component of the Erie railroad took shape. By 1857 rails linked Cleveland with Warren and Youngstown. The C&MV not only gave Cleveland another railroad, it also opened up the rich Mahoning Valley coal fields to local industries and to the Great Lakes export trade.
The devastating impact of the Panic of 1857, coupled with the outbreak of the Civil War 4 years later, virtually halted railroad building in northeast Ohio. Even with peace in 1865 and a relatively healthy economy, railroad construction in the Cleveland area languished except for the 101-mi. Lake Shore & Tuscarawas Valley Railway. This predominantly coal-hauling line opened on 18 Aug. 1873, between Lorain and Uhrichsville. The LS&TV faced subsequent reorganizations and expansions until after the turn of the century, when it became the Cleveland, Lorain & Wheeling Railway and later, part of the Baltimore & Ohio system. The end of the Civil War also saw the opening of a new UNION DEPOT on the city’s lakefront near W. 9th St. Although the Panic of 1873 produced exceedingly difficult times for railroad expansion, an upturn in the economy after 1878 sparked a second wave of railroad building in both northeastern Ohio and the nation. Included in this second wave was the Valley Railroad begun on the eve of the Panic of 1873 by several Cleveland businessmen, including JEPTHA H. WADE† and NATHAN P. PAYNE†. This company had to wait out the depression but finally completed its Cleveland-to-Canton main line, via Akron; service commenced in 1880. Although the Valley Railroad transported quantities of coal as the result of its extension south of Canton, hard times brought on by the Panic of 1893 plunged it into receivership. Reorganization in late 1895 as the Cleveland Terminal & Valley Railroad brought new vitality. Like the Cleveland, Lorain and & Wheeling, the CT&V entered the orbit of the B&O.
Another second-wave road was the narrow gauge Cleveland, Canton & Southern, also a coal-hauler. An outgrowth of the Ohio & Toledo and the Youngstown & Connotton Valley railroad companies, this line reached Cleveland from Canton and Kent in Jan. 1882, under the flag of the Connotton Northern Railroad. Like the others, it was susceptible to economic downswings, and the recession of 1884-85 threw the Connotton Northern into a receivership that produced the Cleveland & Canton Railroad, a standard gauge carrier. The Panic of 1893 prompted further corporate reshaping when the Cleveland & Canton became the Cleveland, Canton & Southern. Ultimately, in 1899 the property, which gave Cleveland convenient access to east Ohio coal fields, found a financially healthy home within the Wheeling & Lake Erie system.
By far the most significant development of the second-wave period for Cleveland was the creation in 1881 of the New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railway, better known as the NICKEL PLATE ROAD. Spearheaded by the Nickel Plate’s promoters, a combination of easterners and Ohioans, built a nearly 600-mi. road in less than 600 days. By 1882 the company connected Buffalo, NY, with Chicago, via Cleveland; in fact, the road’s officials selected Cleveland as its headquarters. Entry into the city from both the east and west involved the purchase of 2 independent short lines, the CLEVELAND, PAINESVILLE & ASHTABULA (Cleveland to COLLAMER) and the Rocky River Railroad (Cleveland to ROCKY RIVER). Within a week after the Nickel Plate’s official opening, its owners sold out to the Vanderbilts, a business family that controlled numerous railroads, including the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern. The Vanderbilts protected their position in the LS&MS at the expense of the Nickel Plate, which languished until the NEW YORK CENTRAL RAILROAD, successor to the Vanderbilt empire, sold it on the eve of World War I. The sale of the Nickel Plate was the preeminent example of how control of many local roads rapidly gravitated toward New York or other eastern corporate centers during the 19th century.
Builders of the Nickel Plate Road had the good sense to recognize that by the 1880s the country’s railroad enterprise was headed in a new direction. Companies would be more than short lines such as the Lake Shore & Tuscarawas Valley or the Valley Railroad that wandered into the hinterlands; they would link large urban centers. This desire for regional “system building” led to the formation by 1900 of several powerful roads in Cleveland. The New York Central controlled 3 firms: the LS&MS, the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railway (the “Big 4,” including the former Cleveland, Columbus & Cincinnati), and the Nickel Plate Road; the B&O operated the Cleveland, Lorain & Wheeling and the Cleveland Terminal and Valley roads; the PENNSYLVANIA RAILROAD dominated the Cleveland & Pittsburgh; and the Erie acquired what originally had been the Cleveland & Mahoning. Only the WHEELING & LAKE ERIE RAILROAD lacked the status of being a major regional concern. As noted above, ultimate control of all these roads was held outside of Cleveland.
Cleveland’s railroads reflected other national trends in the industry. As in virtually every large American city after 1900, the rapid increase of freight traffic led to expanded facilities, including belt and industrial switching lines to relieve congestion at the lakefront facilities. For example, between 1906-12 the New York Central built the 20-mi. Cleveland Short Line Railway–a beltline which carried freight south around the center of the city. Private manufacturers also owned and operated their own switching lines. The U.S. STEEL CORP., for instance, controlled the NEWBURGH & SOUTH SHORE RAILWAY, chartered in 1899, which consisted of 7 mi. of main line between Cleveland and NEWBURGH and numerous spurs and sidings.
In the 1920s and 1930s, control of several of the railroads began to come home to Cleveland as ORIS P. AND MANTIS J. VAN SWERINGEN† built their empire. These Clevelanders, who originally were not involved in railroads, had prospered as suburban land developers. Yet to ensure the fullest returns on its SHAKER HEIGHTS properties, the Van Sweringens wanted direct transit service into downtown Cleveland. Since the city’s streetcar system failed to satisfy their needs, they launched an interurban, the Cleveland & Youngstown Railroad, in the summer of 1911, to build initially from Shaker Hts. to downtown Cleveland. They acquired real estate along KINGSBURY RUN as part of their right-of-way into the city’s central business district. In order to obtain the Nickel Plate’s right-of-way from E. 34th St. into downtown, the Van Sweringens purchased the Nickel Plate Road from the New York Central in early 1916. In this highly leveraged buyout, the brothers benefited from the federal government’s desire to force the New York Central to divest itself of this potential competitor. Not only did they win access for their traction line (later the Cleveland Interurban Railway and then the SHAKER HEIGHTS RAPID TRANSIT) into Cleveland’s heart, but they also found themselves in control of a “Class 1” steam railroad.
The Van Sweringens upgraded the rather shabby Nickel Plate Road and soon turned a handsome profit from it. In the early 1920s, they won ICC approval to expand their railroad holdings, acquiring 2 midwestern roads, the Toledo, St. Louis & Western (“Clover Leaf”) and the Lake Erie & Western. Through holding companies, most notably the ALLEGHANY CORP., which was headquartered in Cleveland, they controlled 9 major roads, the Chesapeake & Ohio, Chicago & Eastern Illinois, Denver & Rio Grande Western, Erie, Missouri Pacific, Nickel Plate, Pere Marquette, Texas & Pacific, and Wheeling & Lake Erie. The 1929 stock market crash and the Depression led to the bankruptcy and breakup of their empire. The lasting legacy of the Van Sweringens to the city, however, was CLEVELAND UNION TERMINAL, begun in Sept. 1923 and opened in June 1930. (The Pennsylvania never joined and continued to operate out of the old Union Depot and eventually out of its station at E. 55th and Euclid, and the Erie did not enter the Terminal until after World War II.)
Cleveland Union Terminal helped to meet the extraordinary demands placed on the area’s railroads during World War II. Thousands of travelers poured through the structure, for more than 60 passenger trains paid daily calls, as did the cars of the Shaker Hts. Rapid line. In the postwar era, the popularity of intercity train travel waned as the automobile became the dominant form of ground transportation, speeding over a federally subsidized network of interstate highways. Rail carriers at first cut back their local runs, but by the late 1950s even name trains such as the MERCURY became only memories. While the diesel-powered streamliners of the New York Central, in particular, attracted patrons, increased automobile and air travel over-whelmed them. By the early 1970s, most of the nation’s railroads gladly turned over their remaining passenger trains to the federal government. A vastly pared-down intercity rail passenger network, Amtrak, debuted on 1 May 1971; Clevelanders were left with only 1 daily passenger train each way between New York and Chicago, and an independent (ERIE LACKAWANNA, INC.) commuter run to Youngstown, which lasted until 1978. The Amtrak trains left Union Terminal in 1972, and they then called at a temporary building, popularly dubbed “Amshack,” on the lakeshore, and after 1977 in a modern, albeit modest, permanent station at the same location which, ironically, was located within a mile of the site of the city’s first station.
Not only have there been spectacular changes in the overall nature of rail passenger travel, but the corporate structure of the railroad industry itself has also changed dramatically. The industry believed that consolidation was the best avenue to savings and long-term propriety, and during the 1960s every major Cleveland railroad participated in a corporate merger. The Erie and the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western fused in 1960 to produce what became the ill-fated Erie-Lackawanna; the CHESAPEAKE & OHIO RAILROADacquired the BALTIMORE & OHIO RAILROAD in 1963 (B&O-C&O); the Nickel Plate Road entered the Norfolk & Western’s system in 1964; and in the nation’s most spectacular union, the New York Central and the Pennsylvania united in 1968 to create the PENN CENTRAL TRANSPORTATION CO., a firm that collapsed within 2 years. While railroad officials may have had some misgivings about mergers, especially after the Penn Central bankruptcy, they turned to creating huge interregional systems, and all of Cleveland’s major railroads were involved. The ailing Penn Central became the quasi-public Consolidated Rail Corp (CONRAIL) in 1976. The federal government forced this new carrier to include the hapless Erie-Lackawanna. Then in 1980, the ICC gave the green light for the C&O-B&O, the “Chessie System,” and the Seaboard Coast Line to form CSX, and in 1982 regulators granted the Norfolk & Western permission to merge with the Southern, creating the NORFOLK SOUTHERN CORP. Thus, each of 3 giant railroads that dominated freight traffic east of the Mississippi River–Conrail, CSX, and Norfolk Southern–operate into Cleveland. Local railroads have gone through all the stages of growth–from their inception as puny pikes to their maturity as enormous entities.
H. Roger Grant
Univ. of Akron