• ITVI.USA
    15,442.580
    19.940
    0.1%
  • OTLT.USA
    2.891
    0.002
    0.1%
  • OTRI.USA
    20.850
    -0.110
    -0.5%
  • OTVI.USA
    15,411.420
    23.220
    0.2%
  • TSTOPVRPM.ATLPHL
    2.920
    -0.040
    -1.4%
  • TSTOPVRPM.CHIATL
    3.680
    -0.030
    -0.8%
  • TSTOPVRPM.DALLAX
    1.290
    -0.060
    -4.4%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXDAL
    3.620
    -0.020
    -0.5%
  • TSTOPVRPM.PHLCHI
    2.420
    0.100
    4.3%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXSEA
    4.170
    0.000
    0%
  • WAIT.USA
    128.000
    2.000
    1.6%
  • ITVI.USA
    15,442.580
    19.940
    0.1%
  • OTLT.USA
    2.891
    0.002
    0.1%
  • OTRI.USA
    20.850
    -0.110
    -0.5%
  • OTVI.USA
    15,411.420
    23.220
    0.2%
  • TSTOPVRPM.ATLPHL
    2.920
    -0.040
    -1.4%
  • TSTOPVRPM.CHIATL
    3.680
    -0.030
    -0.8%
  • TSTOPVRPM.DALLAX
    1.290
    -0.060
    -4.4%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXDAL
    3.620
    -0.020
    -0.5%
  • TSTOPVRPM.PHLCHI
    2.420
    0.100
    4.3%
  • TSTOPVRPM.LAXSEA
    4.170
    0.000
    0%
  • WAIT.USA
    128.000
    2.000
    1.6%
BusinessFreightWaves ClassicsInsightsNewsRailSupply Chains

FreightWaves Classics/Fallen Flags: The Nickel Plate Line was a major player in the Midwest (Part 1)

There are many people interested in former transportation companies, whether they were trucking companies, railroads, airlines or ocean lines. They are called “fallen flags,” and the term describes those companies whose corporate names have been dissolved through merger, bankruptcy or liquidation.

The New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad’s (NYC&StL) 2,200-mile rail network linked Buffalo with Chicago and St. Louis. It competed with a number of other railroads for business in the Midwest. 

Two Nickel Plate Line steam locomotives lead a freight train through Fostoria, Ohio during the summer of 1958. (American-Rails.com)
Two Nickel Plate Line steam locomotives lead a freight train through Fostoria, Ohio during the summer of 1958. (American-Rails.com)

While the railroad was quite successful, very few people referred to it using its name or its mark (NYC&StL). Instead, it was widely known as the Nickel Plate Line. Author/historian Mike Schafer explained in his book, “More Classic American Railroads,” that the railroad’s famous nickname was given to it by a Norwalk, Ohio newspaper columnist. He complimented its high construction standards, referring to the railroad as a “double-track nickel-plated railroad.”  

He was right. The Nickel Plate was built to very high standards; its rail lines allowed high-speed service that was particularly valued following World War II. In fact, its lines were so good that three key railroads – the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), the New York Central (NYC) and the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) occasionally shifted their trains onto the Nickel Plate Line’s tracks.  

Other things that set the Nickel Plate Line apart from other railroads were that it had few branch lines and very little passenger traffic. However, the Nickel Plate earned significant profits at a time when many other railroads were struggling financially.  

In fact, according to “The Nickel Plate Story” by John Rehor, the railroad’s gross revenue in the 20 years between 1945 and 1964 was $2.8 billion. The company’s profit during that period was $250 million.  

Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 #817 (ex-Wheeling & Lake Erie #6417) takes on fuel and water at Dillonvale, Ohio on June 16, 1955. Bob Collins photo.
A Nickel Plate Road locomotive takes on fuel and water at Dillonvale, Ohio on June 16, 1955. (Photo: Bob Collins/American-Rails.com)

Founding and early years

The Nickel Plate was founded in 1881 by the Seney Syndicate, which was headed by George Seney, and included 10 other associates. Their backgrounds ranged from “attorneys to Wall Street speculators.” Together, they had the financial resources to begin a railroad. 

In fact, by 1880 the syndicate had the controlling interest in several railroads, including the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia; the Peoria, Decatur & Evansville; and the Ohio Central. Together, these railroads had approximately 2,500 miles of track. The syndicate also controlled the 353-mile Lake Erie & Western Railway (LE&W), which connected Fremont, Ohio with Bloomington, Illinois. Later, the LE&W became part of the Nickel Plate Line.

The syndicate decided to build a new railroad that essentially paralleled (and would directly compete with) William Vanderbilt’s Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad (LS&MS) between Buffalo and Chicago. This railroad had been started by Cornelius Vanderbilt, William’s father. 

On February 3, 1881 the syndicate organized the NYC&StL to connect Cleveland and Chicago. Within minutes the new railroad was capitalized at an astonishing $14.666 million. In addition to the railroad’s main line, a branch was planned to St. Louis. 

Building the Nickel Plate Road

The Nickel Plate Road was unique in a number of ways. First, its original Buffalo to Chicago main line was conceived, surveyed and built entirely with private capital. This was a very audacious endeavor; the major Eastern railroads (B&O, PRR and NYC) already had rail lines that ran to Chicago. Additionally, the three lines controlled much of the railroad traffic (passengers and freight) across the Midwest.   

The Seney Syndicate wanted a rail line built to very high engineering standards that could compete directly with the major eastern-based railroads, as well as the LS&MS. The new railroad’s surveyors determined that its Cleveland to Chicago leg (a distance of 340 miles) would be 15 miles shorter than its counterparts. When time and distance meant money, this was very good news indeed.

A few months after the founding of the NYC&StL, its owners had created an eastern extension of the rail line to Buffalo (the 185-mile corridor would also closely parallel the LS&MS). The new railroad’s capitalization increased to $35 million.  

The railroad's logo. (Image: Adam Burns/American-Rails.com)
The railroad’s logo. (Image: Adam Burns/American-Rails.com)

The syndicate had significant funding and much of the survey work had already been completed. As the project to build the Nickel Plate Line began, it became a mix of new construction and acquisitions.  

While many other railroads of that time had taken decades to grow (laying rail, buying out rivals, acquiring other railroads that complemented the existing lines, etc.), the Nickel Plate was finished in just one year!

During the summer of 1881, 10,000 men were at work along the new railroad’s entire 523-mile corridor. In addition, there were acquisitions between Frankfort, Indiana and Tiffin, Ohio (via Fort Wayne) that greatly aided construction efforts:

  • In September 1880 the small Frankfort & Kokomo was purchased; it connected its namesake towns (25 miles).
  • The abandoned Wabash & Erie Canal’s tow-path between Largo and the Ohio state line offered a ready-made right-of-way between those points.
  • The long-defunct Tiffin & Fort Wayne Rail Road provided more than 100 miles of unused grade nearly ready for rails.  

Construction on the NYC&StL began due west from Arcadia, Ohio along a connection with the LE&W. The line crews were soon finishing up to one mile of track per day. Less than five months later, the first train reached Fort Wayne, Indiana on November 3rd.  

Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 #743 (S-2) is near Cleveland, Ohio with a mixed freight during the 1950s. Edwin E. Olsen photo.
A Nickel Plate Road locomotive near Cleveland, Ohio, with a mixed freight during the 1950s.
(Photo: Edwin E. Olsen/American-Rails.com)

Concurrently, work to the west was underway, while other crews were pushing east from six miles west of Hobart, Indiana (which is located about 40 miles west of downtown Chicago). The two construction gangs met at Sidney, Indiana on April 5, 1882.

In the fall of 1881 work began east of Fostoria. Rails had reached Bellevue (future location of yard and terminal facilities) by the end of the year. Much of the railroad west of Cleveland was completed; crews had also graded more than 100 miles to the east of Cleveland.  

By the end of 1881, nearly 270 miles of track had been laid and more than half of the main line was finished. To the east, crews finished laying track as far as Brocton, New York in March 1882. The remaining 50 miles of track to Buffalo was constructed with the Buffalo, Pittsburgh & Western, a Pennsylvania Railroad subsidiary. The NYC&StL constructed a second track along this 50-mile stretch and the two railroads shared the right-of-way throughout the Nickel Plate’s history. 

By the spring of 1882 the railroad was approaching Chicago’s downtown area. The Grand Crossing was reached in August; connections were established at this point with the Illinois Central, LS&MS and Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago Railroad.

After finishing ballasting and erecting telegraph lines along its tracks, the NYC&StL began running trains on October 23, 1882. In a somewhat astonishing 16 months an entirely new Midwestern railroad had been established and constructed.  

A system map of the Nickel Plate Road from 1950. (Image: Adam Burns/American-Rails.com)
A system map of the Nickel Plate Road from 1950. (Image: Adam Burns/American-Rails.com)

Acquired by a competitor

William Vanderbilt had criticized the NYC&StL during its construction, but bought the railroad just three days after it began running trains along its routes (on October 26, 1882). The Seney Syndicate sold the railroad due to the members’ strained financial situations. The Nickel Plate was sold to the LS&MS Railroad for $7.205 million. 

Under Vanderbilt the Nickel Plate had mixed results. The NYC&StL had potential, but because it was a competitor to the New York Central “it could not be allowed too much success.” However, the railroad had cost so much money to purchase that it had to recoup its cost. To do so, Vanderbilt sold the Nickel Plate to the New York Central.

Some modernization of the line occurred in the early years of the 20th century. Bridges were improved, automatic block signals were installed, the rails were upgraded and new terminal facilities (roundhouses and auxiliary buildings) were built. 

However, the Nickel Plate was not necessary to the New York Central; its lines ran in areas where the New York Central already provided service.  

A Nickel Plate Road diesel locomotive in Albany, Oregon on August 27, 1994. (Photo: Warren Calloway/American-Rails.com).
A Nickel Plate Road diesel locomotive in Albany, Oregon on August 27, 1994. (Photo: Warren Calloway/American-Rails.com)

Be sure to look for Part 2 of this article tomorrow at 2:00 p.m. EDT.

Author’s note: This article would not have been possible without the resources made available by Adam Burns of American-Rails.com. Those interested in learning more about the railroads operating in North America – and those that are now “fallen flags” – should explore the American-Rails site.

Scott Mall, Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.

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