Welcome to Ohio, the Land of Trains

CSX train Q137-18 (Baltimore Penn Mary-Chicago 63rd St) is accelerating westward on track #1 past the EAS Warwick on the CSXT New Castle Subdivision in Clinton, Ohio at 6:35pm on August 18, 2000. CSX train S297-17 (Baltimore Curtice Bay-Toledo Walbridge) has taken the siding to let Q137 go around him. The siding is in the forground; Track #2 is in the background heading off to the right. This was once part of the Baltimore & Ohio's mainline from Pittsburgh to Chicago, which wasn't completed until late in the 19th Century. It remains a vital link between Chicago and the Mid-Atlantic states.

Photograph copyright 2000-2002 Jeff Knorek

Take a look at any map of the United States and you will see that the state of Ohio is between all of the major port cities on the East Coast north of Tidewater Virginia and the cities of Chicago, St. Louis, and Detroit, as well as most of the port cities on the West Coast. Only traffic to/from from Canada and Chicago through the state of Michigan, and traffic to/from Los Angeles and the East Coast by way of Memphis can avoid passing through the Buckeye State.

Map courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency


Long ago, in the 1820's, 30's, and 40's, the big port cites along the East Coast all had designs on being the predominant port once the fertile land west of the Appalachian Mountains was developed and farmed. The rich agriculture that this land would ultimately sustain should be transloaded at eastern ports for export to Europe, the plan went, so toward this end many of the port cities chartered the early railroads themselves or politically supported those chartered by other private interests (the same method similarly funded canal building).

Remember, at this period in American history there were only primitive roads to the western states and territories (Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Illinois). The Federal Highway System would not be developed until the Great Depression during the NINETEEN Thirties. Transporting goods from farm or manufacturer to market by wagon was slow and expensive. Canals were used in concert with navigable rivers and the Great Lakes as a cheaper and easier alternative to roads for long distance bulk transport on boats to and from the West (as well as within the territories and new states), but it was still slow.

The business and industry of railroading was itself a new technology to the United States, imported from England. It held the promise of being both cheaper than road transport and faster than canal transport. The Eastern States were farming cereal grains, but the land was not rich for farming, and domestic consumption did not leave much grain left over for export to Europe. The West was growing more grain than its own population could use, and the Eastern port cities wanted in on the action.

Unfortunately for them, a mountain range, the Appalachians, lay between this abundant grain and the merchants who wanted to sell it overseas. The importance of canals in the development of Ohio and other states cannot be overstated. However, the prevailing transportation modes of the day were not suited to the task of hauling a large volume of heavy goods up and over the mountains. This was the impetus behind the first railroad construction in the United States, the B&O, which was chartered in 1825 (by comparison, the Erie and Ohio Canal connecting the Ohio villages of Cleveland on Lake Erie and Portsmouth on the Ohio River by 1832, was also chartered in 1825).

The Pennsylvania Railroad and the New York Central System (or their proxies and/or acquisitions) would be major players in this Nineteenth Century push from the East Coast to the Ohio River, Lake Erie, and beyond. The Baltimore & Ohio, Chesapeake & Ohio, Norfolk & Western, Erie, and other railroad companies and their proxies or acquisitions would follow (each with a rich, interesting, and sometimes dramatic history).

Over the course of some fifty years the state of Ohio would be both a goal and then a thoroughfare as the major eastern railroads reached Chicago and St. Louis. During this time many regional railroads within the state were chartered as well. These companies hauled the raw materials used in iron production from the mines to the mills, as well as finished products and agricultural goods from the mills and farm bureaus to market. They proved to be every bit as vital to the industries and communities that they served as their larger brethren.

Railroad map of Ohio published by the State. 1890. Prepared by J. A. Norton, commissioner of railroads & telegraphs. Copyright by H. B. Stranahan. Provided by the Library of Congress.

By 1890 Ohio was a maze of railroads moving north and south, east and west.

Along the way west, immigrant and domestic migration from the east exploded, providing a vast and hungry labor pool. With the benefits of this new overland transportation technology married with those of water shipping to carry raw materials (as well as recently emmigrated workers) to Ohio cities, many industrial manufacturing facilities soon sprang up all along Lake Erie and in the region between Toledo Ohio and Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, as well as the area around Cincinnati. By 1920, the factories that manufactured Iron and Steel, Glass, Rubber, Automobiles, Locomotives, Tractors, Trucks, Ships, Chemicals, Machine Tools, Foodstuffs, Household Products and Appliances all combined to create one of the largest and most concentrated industrial zones on earth.

Ohio Works of the Carnegie Steel Co., Youngstown, O. c1910. Copyright Haines Photo Co. September 19, 1910. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Digital ID# pan 6a15367

The coal needed to make iron and steel, as well as to generate the steam and electricity for production, was (and still is) conveniently located just south and east of the Ohio River in West Virginia and Kentucky, and to a lesser extent, in Ohio. The iron ore smelted with this coal to make iron was mined in the Michigan's Upper Peninsula (and now in Minnesota's Missabe Range), was (and still is) shipped by Lake Boat to Ohio ports on Lake Erie and thence by railroad to the various mills in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Limestone needed to smelt the ore was quarried all over Ohio and Michigan. Everything needed to forge a modern economy from material mined from the earth was no more than 600 miles away by ship or 300 miles away by rail, and in many instances was much closer than that.

A pair of the Pennsylvania Railroad's Hulett Unloaders at the Cleveland docks shovel iron ore out of a Great Lakes Freighter. The ore is then dumped into waiting hopper cars and then delivered to an Ohio, Pennsylvania, or West Virginia steel mill. Photograph by Jack Delano, May 1943. Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, reproduction number LC-USW361-677 DLC

Ohio's location west of the Appalachians, sandwiched between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River, lends itself to a large and vibrant industrial base. The realities of the Global Economy have reduced the number of operating mills and factories in the region. However, those that remain still need almost all of their raw materials brought to them by train, not to mention many of their finished products delivered to market by train.

When you add this home grown traffic with the traffic flowing from those now mature east coast ports to the still vital cities of St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, and to points beyond, you'll understand why there are so many high density mainlines that bisect Ohio, and why it is such a great place to watch trains.

With a limitless budget, a lot of time, and a good vehicle you can explore the railroads of Ohio from end to end, and from Lake Erie to the Ohio River. Most of us can't do this, at least not all at once. Therefore we have to be somewhat more selective about where to go in order to see a lot of trains, or to frame that once-in-a-lifetime photograph.

Contained herein is a guide that can help steer you to that location. While we are at it, we are providing an overview of contemporary railroad operations in Ohio, as well as a general history of their development and evolution.

None of this happens in a vacuum under laboratory conditions, so we'll also be talking about the role that Ohio railroads have played in the development (or the shared demise) of other industries. In addition, we'll take a look at certain social issues that these other industries have created (as in Appalachian coal mining areas and grundgy Steel towns).

In some cases there will be no point in either reinventing the wheel or plagiarizing someone else's work, so we'll just steer you to a good link. Pages within this website which are authored by someone other than myself can be easily identified by the white background, with credit given at the bottom of the page.

We like watching trains in Ohio. And we hope you do, too.

Table of Contents

If you'd like to contribute any photos or text, feel free to email me using
the link at the bottom of the page.

Text and html - Jeff Knorek jknorek@msen.com


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