The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio


September 25, 2011

The above-ground railroads

Steam locomotives eventually took the lake-to-river path of the Underground Railroad

Look at a map of Ohio and find Lake Erie and the Ohio River. Now, draw the shortest possible line between the two.

Just a couple of decades after Ashtabula County was organized, that same path was followed by fugitive slaves crossing the Ohio River and heading north to Ashtabula; Erie, Pa; and other ports that offered passage to Canada and freedom. Known as the Underground Railroad, the line had its stations and conductors, just as the “real railroad”  that would eventually follow a very similar route between lake and river, but for the purpose of commerce rather than freedom.

Entrepreneurs saw great opportunity in connecting Lake erie to the Ohio via a rail line. As with the Underground Railroad, when they drew the line between the lake shore and Ohio River, it passed right through Ashtabula County.

The coming of the railroads to Ashtabula County played a tremendous role in shaping the county’s history in the second half of the 19th century. A railroad line brought connections to the outside world, an economical, reliable means of transporting agricultural products and natural resources out of the county while importing finished goods. A stop on that line held transformational power for the sleepy hamlet that was fortunate enough to earn a depot. And for communities shunned by the line, the coming of the railroads was a portent of slow death and eventual ghost-town status. And when the passenger railroads eventually gave way to the Interstates, the little towns that were once a stop on the line passed from the scene. Few residents today recall the towns of Mann and Wick, but in the days of passenger railroading, they more than sleepy hamlets; they were on-ramps to a nation served by rails.

False starts

Discussions regarding a north-south line through the county began in the mid-1820s. The first effort to move forward on this dream came with an act of the Ohio Legislature to incorporate the “Erie and Ohio rail road company.” The act passed on Jan. 26, 1832. The railroad thus envisioned would “commence at some point on Lake Erie between the west line of the county of Geauga, now Lake, and the east line of Ashtabula, to extend through Trumbull county, and terminating at some point on the Ohio river, in Columbiana county.”

According to the “Williams Brothers 1878 History of Ashtabula County,” the capital stock for this corporation was set at $1 million, but it was never subscribed to, and the project failed.

The next effort came in February 1836, when the Ashtabula, Warren and East Liverpool Railroad was chartered with a capital of $1.5 million. Incorporators included Ashtabula County businessmen Matthew Hubbard, Horace Wilder, Roger W. Griswold, Joab Austin and G.W. St. John.

The “American Railroad Journal” spoke highly of the proposed route selected for this venture. “We believe this route possesses advantages not equaled, certainly not excelled, by any other between Lake Erie and the  Ohio. The whole length of the road is only about 96 miles, passing through a remarkably level country, abounding in materials necessary for the construction of the work.”

The journal went on to note that although the southern section presented the greatest challenges, an engineer’s report determined the terrain was “more flattering than its greatest friends had anticipated.”

Nevertheless, the railroad was never built, at least not by that group.

Nearly 20 years passed before another venture surfaced. On Feb. 23, 1853, The Ashtabula and New Lisbon Railroad was chartered with a capital of $1 million. Once again, there was significant investment from Ashtabula County businessmen, among them Henry Hubbard and Frederick Carlisle of Ashtabula and Joshua Giddings of Jefferson.

The project moved forward to the point of determining a route through the county. The stakes were high as both the third and fourth ranges of townships were in the running. There was earnest competition between the landowners and businesses of the townships; in the end, those in the fourth range prevailed.

Once the route was determined, subscriptions were sold to the landowners. In Ashtabula County, about $63,000 in real estate subscriptions were obtained. Lemuel Clark, a Morgan Township farmer, deeded his 1,249 acres to the company for $25,000 After a trade for other land, Clark ended up with a subscription worth $19,000, which he donated to the American Bible Society.

 The project stalled as the nation headed into civil war. In 1864, the section south of the Mahoning River, at Niles, was leased to the New Lisbon railway company, soon completed and put in operation. Foreclosure action was brought against the remaining section, with the Ashtabula, Youngstown and Pittsburgh Rail Road Company purchasing the northern section on Nov. 14, 1870.  By 1873 that company finally accomplished what had been started 40 years earlier — a railroad linking Ashtabula Harbor with the steel mills of the Ohio Valley and the coal fields of Pennsylvania.

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