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

Star Beacon

— 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.

Rail to trail

A series of mergers ensued in the following decade, eventually leading to the formation of The Pittsburgh, Youngstown and Ashtabula Railroad Company in 1887. In 1906, that line merged with the New Castle and Beaver Valley Railroad Company to create a company with 138 miles of railroad line in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The Pittsburgh, Youngstown and Ashtabula would eventually become part of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and then the Penn Central.  In 1976 Penn Central closed the right-of-way, known as the USRA 714 rail line, and the tracks were removed. The Ashtabula County portion of the roadbed eventually became the Western Reserve Greenway Trail.

A few remnants of this line’s railroading history remain along the trail, including the stunning trestle over the Rock Creek stream, south of the village.

The line was significant for the impact it had on both Ashtabula Harbor and the small communities it passed through as it traveled southeast into Pennsylvania. The stops included Munson Hill Station, Austinburg, Eagleville, Rock Creek, Rome Station and East Orwell. It would spur development of the port of Ashtabula as a major coal and ore handling facility in the decades that followed the line’s completion.

The Lake Shore

Construction of an east-west line across the northern tier of Ashtabula County was a much speedier process. The Cleveland, Painesville and Ashtabula railroad company was chartered in 1848 and three years later, a line was running through the county. Ashtabula Harbor, which had built a substantial passenger trade on the lakes, took the hit.

“The building of the Lake Shore railroad in 1851 ... put an end to this business,” notes the “Williams Brothers History.”

The railroad soon became the Cleveland and Erie, which was taken over by the Lake Shore Railroad Co. An 1869 merger with the Michigan Southern Line created the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad Co. (LS&MS), also known as the Lake Shore. Around 1877, Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York Central and Hudson River Railroad gained majority stock in the LS&MS. The Lake Shore operated under its former name until 1914, when the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad merged with the LS&MS to form the expanded New York Central Railroad.

The LS&MS needed its own line from Ashtabula Harbor to the fields of southwestern Pennsylvania and mills of Youngstown and Pittsburgh. In 1871, it began service along the “High Grade Line,” the LS&MS’s “Franklin Division,”  which ran east of the Ashtabula and New Lisbon line. The line passed through the communities of Plymouth Center, Carson Station, Jefferson, Dorset Junction, Leon Station, Andover and Simons Station.

The “High Grade” moniker refers to the relatively steep grade, .5 percent, that the trains encountered between Plymouth, Jefferson and Andover. “The Franklin Division” was a reference to the line’s connection with the Jamestown and Franklin Railroad at Andover.

A second, “Low Grade Line,” was completed on the LS&MS in 1903. Originating at Ashtabula Harbor, it paralleled the Low Grade Line to Carson Yard, where it took a more easterly route until reaching Dorset Junction, from where the High Grade heads more southeasterly and the Low Grade heads in a southerly direction toward Mann and Wick.

Why these two nearly identical lines? The Low Grade line, used by freight traffic, was a more direct route, cutting off about 10 miles from the trip to Youngstown on the High Grade Line. Further, with the slower ore traffic rerouted onto the Low Grade line, the High Grade route could be dedicated to the more time-sensitive passenger traffic.


Long before every household had two or three vehicles in the garage, an Ashtabula resident could travel the High Grade to Andover, Youngstown and Pittsburgh and leave the “driving” to an engineer and fireman. Further, if the destination was to the east or west, the New York Central provided first-class Pullman accommodations on the 20th Century Limited. The tracks upon which this legendary train traveled still accommodate the Lake Shore Limited Amtrak trains.

Competition from the automobile and air travel eroded the profitability of passenger railroading, and starting in 1957, the New York Central started chipping away at service on the High Grade line. Eventually, the service was discontinued and the section of track between Dorset and Jefferson removed.

The northern section of this line operated as the “Jefferson Spur” or “Jefferson Industrial Track” under the NYC’s successors, Penn Central and Conrail. When Conrail decided the line was no longer profitable, it was sold to the Ashtabula, Carson and Jefferson Railroad, which continues to operate both freight and passenger excursions (AC&J Scenic Line) on this section of the former Franklin Division.

Meanwhile, the Low Grade, now part of the Norfolk Southern Railroad, continues to connect Ashtabula Harbor to the steel mills of the Ohio Valley and coal fields of Appalachia.

There were other railroads, as well, that would shape the history of the county. The Nickel Plate Road, also an east-west line, was completed in 1882 and linked New York to St. Louis. It ran parallel to and south of the LS&MS line. It was eventually purchased by the Norfolk and Western (now Norfolk Southern) Railroad.

The Bessemer and Lake Erie Railroad, a coal/ore carrier only, was completed in 1893. A class II railroad, it links Conneaut Harbor with Pittsburgh.

These railroads wielded great influence upon Ashtabula County’s history as they linked the lakefront to not only the Ohio River, but also the Mesabi Iron Range and Appalachian coal fields. But it was not just their freight service that put Ashtabula County on the map; on Dec. 29, 1876, an incident on the LS&MS Railroad put Ashtabula in the history books as the site of the worst railroad disaster in the nation’s history. But that is an Odd Tale for another week.