Monday, April 22, 2002

Local train days revisited

Exhibit offers a ride down memory lane

By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati and the railroads go way back, but the city that bore Union Terminal and five inclines can't generate much interest in any new rails these days.

        In March, for the third straight year, a proposed light-rail commuter project along Interstate 71 was rejected for funding. The Federal Transit Administration gave the $800 million proposal a “not recommended” rating, based on a lack of local financial commitment to build the project.

        The route would have stretched 19 miles with 25 stations, starting downtown and ending in Blue Ash.

        The idea of a new rail line and stations bring to mind another era, when iron tracks were Cincinnati's future, and when a new line, the incline, solved a common problem: how to move up the Queen City's steep hills.

        John H. White Jr. grew up in Cincinnatiand now lives in Oxford after working as the Smithsonian Institution's railroad curator. He has studied local rail lines for years, and has written a new book, Cincinnati, City of Seven Hills and Five Inclines.

        Mr. White is participat ing in a railroad exhibit that runs through May 19 at the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County.

        “Cincinnati had two problems: it was too far south and it had too many hills,” he says. “Regionally, we were important; nationally, just another place on the road. The hills didn't help. Railroads like it to be flat and accessible.”

Box lunches and sleeper seats

        Rail traffic reached its peak in 1904, with 236 trains passing through the city each day.

  • About the exhibit: “Stop, Look and Listen: A History of Cincinnati Railroads” showcases local railroad memorabilia. The exhibit runs through May 19 at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, in the Rare Books and Special Collections Department.
  • What it covers: It concentrates on passenger travel but also touches on railroad yards, suppliers, bridges, tunnels, accidents and freight service in Cincinnati.
  • Contributors include: John H. White Jr., writer of 12 books and 130 transportation stories, and John Hauck, a Cincinnati lawyer who wrote a book on the Cincinnati, Lebanon & Northern Railway. Mr. White's most recent book, Cincinnati, City of Seven Hills and Five Inclines, is published by the Cincinnati Railroad Club. The 128-page book contains more than 150 illustrations and a fold-up plate shows the 1,000-foot long Mt. Adams incline plane track and trestle. The book is $34.95 and may be ordered from the Cincinnati Railroad Club, 3775 Ohio 222, Batavia, OH 45103-8921.
  • Railroad Museum: In May, the Railway Museum of Greater Cincinnati will reopen for the season at 315 W. Southern Ave., Covington. Guided tours will be available from 12:30-430 p.m. on Sundays through October. Admission is $4 for adults, $2 for children (one to 10).
  • Information: 859-491-7245.
        “A train was pulling out every few minutes,” Mr. White says. “During the height of the railroad era, the Mill Creek Valley was filled with tracks. It is still busy, to a degree.

        “Passenger service had its delights and travails back then. If you had a lot of money, you could travel in comfort,” he says. “If you went by coach, you took your chances. You were treated like a piece of parcel.

        “You couldn't afford to eat in the dining car, so you'd bring a box lunch or buy lunch from the train boy, who sold everything from magazines to nuts — usually at a pretty high price. You'd sleep on your seat, but it was cheap.”

        Cincinnati's early railroads included the Little Miami and the Cincinnati, Hamilton and Dayton.

        The Little Miami started on the Ohio River in 1841 and followed the Little Miami River north to Xenia. By 1850, passengers could travel from Cincinnati to Cleveland.

        The CH&D started in the West End, not far from the Miami and Erie Canal. In 1872, the first railroad bridge (the Newport and Cincinnati Bridge) was built in Cincinnati.

        As trains ran north from Cincinnati, the region's smaller towns became preoccupied with tracks.

        “Lebanon was the main instigator in starting the Cincinnati, Lebanon and Northern Railway because the city was desirous of obtaining a rail connection in the 1870s,” says John W. Hauck, a Cincinnati lawyer who wrote a book about the company.

        Nowadays, he says, a section of the CL&N's tracks is used by the Turtlecreek & Lebanon Railway, a tourist train that runs from Lebanon to the Mason area.

        In the 1800s, 50-60 railroads served Hamilton County, although they were controlled by only about seven companies. Some specialized in short runs, and in a few years they were absorbed by larger firms.

City's own railroad lines

        Today, only two major railroad firms operate locally, the Norfolk Southern Transportation Co. and the CSX Corp.

        A section of tracks used by Norfolk Southern — running 338 miles, from Cincinnati to Chattanooga — are still owned by Cincinnati.

        “The old Cincinnati Southern line was built and owned by the city of Cincinnati,” Mr. White says. “It is without question the smartest thing the city ever did.

        “If Cincinnati did everything as well, it would be the richest and most successful city in the world,” he says. “The line has paid for itself 100 times over. When it opened in 1880, the city decided, wisely, not to run it. It was leased to a private company.”

        The Erlanger Syndicate, owned by a German named Baron Frederick Erlanger, leased the line, which started in the West End, went across the Ohio to Kentucky and then south to Chattanooga.

        “After the lease, the people of Silver Lake, Ky., were so happy that they named the town in the baron's honor,” Mr. White says.

        Railroads — among the early industries to be heavily populated by union members and to pay out company benefits — peaked in employment in the 1920s. But, surprisingly, freight service didn't reach a peak then. It does better than ever today, Mr. White says.

        “Employment is down, but traffic has went through the roof,” he says. “The companies have a lot of business but not a lot of money. They have to keep rates low.”

        In Cincinnati and the nation, passenger service slowly declined in the first half of the 20th century, he says, and “when highway travel became popular in the '50s, it hit the railroads hard and fast. The passenger business collapsed in 1960... it's not cheap or fast. They have no niche.”

        Mr. White wasn't surprised to hear that light rail service has met with a less-than-enthusiastic response in this area.

        “Now, if gasoline went to $5 a gallon and stayed there, you'd see intercity travel a priority, in my opinion,” he says.

        While area towns were figuring ways to lay horizontal tracks, another problem was solved vertically — navigating the hills of Cincinnati.

        In 1872, the first of five incline plane railways opened to offer inexpensive transportation to the hilltop communities. In the process, the inclines brought middle-class residents to live there.

        “The inclines were giant hillside elevators that whisked commuters from top to bottom in a minute or so,” Mr. White says. “The view was beautiful, the journey was safe and the fare just 2 1/2 cents.”

        But by 1948, they had outlived their usefulness, and most had disappeared. Today, they are only vague memories.

        “One question I can't answer is why Cincinnati failed to preserve one of its inclines while other communities — Pittsburgh comes to mind — found it possible to do so,” Mr. White says.


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