Brief History

In thinking about history one day, a gob of clay came to mind. A gob of clay, shaped and fired, becomes a brick. A brick has minimal use. But a bunch of bricks, handled properly, can become many things.

It struck me that a railroad was like a bunch of bricks. No railroad that I know of was born complete. The New York Central was a structure built from many “bricks.” The New York and Harlem, the Hudson River, the Mohawk and Hudson, and many others joined to become part of the New York Central Lines. Other acquisitions morphed into the New York Central System. And I thought that I would like to reminisce about one of those other bricks.

One of the major acquisitions of the New York Central, in its ever-expanding quest for business, was the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway (CCC&St.L), otherwise known as the Big Four. One of its sub unit bricks was the Cincinnati Northern (reporting marks NOR). Itself a compilation of a number of even smaller bricks, it ran some 214 miles in a northerly direction from Cincinnati, Ohio to Jackson, Michigan. Except for the Detroit Toledo & Ironton, it was the only north-south road in western Ohio. Songs celebrate the legends of Casey Jones, Kate Shelley, John Henry, Old 97, the Wabash Cannon Ball, and others, but no songs have been written yet about the Cincinnati Northern.

While the CN serviced farmers and small towns and cities along its line, its major source of revenue was the coal mines in the south and the power-producing utilities in Michigan. It was the preferred route for coal drags.

Motive power on the Cincinnati Northern began with American-type 4-4-0s and progressed to Ten Wheeler’s (4-6-0s) and then Mikados (2-8-2s) in classes H-5, H-6, and H-7. The last steam run on the Northern was behind an H-6. The only time a 4-6-4 Hudson appeared was when J-3a 5412 pulled an excursion train from Toledo to Jackson. It came off the NYC main at Bryan, Ohio and traveled north. It reversed to return. A NYC 4-8-2 Mohawk made only one trip on the NOR, running from Cincinnati to Van Wert and returned, but it was found that the CN’s 90-pound rail was too light. The Nickel Plate occasionally detoured a 2-8-4 Berkshire over the northern part of the line. Since the NOR was a north-south line, it crossed many foreign roads, some more than once. Whenever an NICP move appeared likely, there was a scramble to be the pilot, since the Berkshires were considered to be very smooth-riding locomotives. Bob Foster, the train master, usually won. There is no record of a Niagara ever making an appearance on the Cincinnati Northern.

Passenger service was robust on the line until 1927. There were three passenger trains daily except Sunday, and a number of specials hauling passengers to the lakes and to meetings along the line were common. Van Wert was the headquarters and division point. As passenger traffic fell, the wooden passenger cars gave way to four doodlebugs. At first these pulled a passenger car, but later ran solo. The doodlebugs were numbered 100-103 in the late passenger period. Passenger service between Van Wert and Jackson was the earliest victim, being discontinued on May 10, 1936. Service south to Middleton lasted 22 months longer, being discontinued on February 1, 1938.

Freight operations were more robust. A local ran each way daily, up to Jackson on one day and back the next. Another ran south to Middleton as well. In the waning days, when diesels had replaced steam and business declined, the CN used whatever motive power was available from the Big Four, regardless of condition. Railroaders were, and still are, unusual people. Their loyalties always seem to favor their “own” railroad. When asked, they would announce that they worked for “the Big Four” or the “CN.” In fact, the cabs of Big Four steam locomotives sported the line “The Big Four” long after the NYC acquisition. Not so with the Cincinnati Northern, however. For some reason, employees of the Cincinnati Northern always referred to their road as the “CN,” despite the NOR reporting marks.

The Cincinnati Northern was a single track, manual block road. It was anything but flat. It was not unusual for a northbound freight to have to double a hill, unless one of the “old heads” had light tonnage or was able to get a good running start and coax the train over. It was unusual for any train to be double-headed.

As might be expected, the CN crossed a lot of east-west roads. It was not unusual to see a depot and interlocker tower located at the junction. For the most part, the interlockers and adjacent depots were manned by operators or agents from the foreign roads. NOR agents or operators manned those depots not associated with other roads. Penn Tower protected a diamond crossing with a two-lever signal control. It was the only tower manned by a NOR operator.

In the closing days of operation, some “brass” somewhere decided to abolish the manual block system on the CN. Soon thereafter a cornfield meet, near Lewisberg, resulted in a major pile-up. My dad, a car inspector, was sent to survey the mess. I do not know what changes, if any, came about thereafter.

The Pennsy crossed the CN at Van Wert. It was the Pittsburgh, Ft. Wayne, and Chicago line. Van Wert was the site of the main offices, a large freight house, a large roundhouse, and a back shop, as well as a ten-track yard and a large man-made lake to supply water for the locomotives .In the north, the CN used the Michigan Central facilities at Jackson, and in the south it joined the Big Four Main at Carlisle Junction for the run to Cincinnati.

Since the MC serviced the CN locomotives before their return south, Michigan Central dieselization ended the use of steam on the CN. In November 1954, the MC informed the CN that steam locomotives would not be serviced after January 1, 1955.

Steam’s demise dealt a death blow to the Cincinnati Northern, and it was not too long before the railroad was in its death throes. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the CN was dismembered. The section of railroad from Cement City to Bryan was the first to go, abandoned in 1975. Van Wert to North Paulding followed in 1977, except for the line from Germantown to Greenville, which lasted until 1982. Almost all the rest was gone by 1979.

A few small pieces remain in service today. At Van Wert, a short section serving some factories remains, as does a section connecting Ansonia to Greenville that hooks up with the old NYC “Bee Line.” Additionally, a section from Germantown to Franklin that connects to the Big Four main is owned by and services an industry in Germantown.

I worked as operator and clerk at the yards in Van Wert (H), at the interlocker at Carlisle Junction (FA), and at Penn Tower (PH). I also served as operator/ agent at most of the depots up and down the line, and I worked at various interlocking towers on the Big Four.

As you might expect, I wrote a book, A History of the Cincinnati Northern Railroad. The first edition sold out, and as more information came in, a second edition was produced a few years ago. This second edition, however, was published as a compact disc. It approached 400 pages. Since then I have acquired enough material, including new pictures and motive power rosters, to justify a third edition.

Author Jim Brown

Special thanks to Dr. Jim Brown for compiling so much history. Visit his website

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