Van Sweringen Brothers, Nickel Plate and Other Ohio Railroads


Oris P. and Mantis J. Van Sweringen
Nickel Plate and Other Ohio Railroads



Old Postcard of Rail Pier in Cleveland



Earlier in the 20th century, two brothers from rural Ohio built a railroad empire when railroads were more critical to American transportation.

Their achievements were first real estate, secondly in skyscraper construction, and finally in railroad consolidations. Oris P. and Mantis J. Van Sweringen were bachelors who had no hobby but work.

In 1916, the New York Central sold them the New York, Chicago & St. Louis (commonly known as the Nickel Plate). This road did not do well with passenger traffic but had a rich freight business. They hired John J. Bernet as the president to run it. By 1922 they had absorbed the Lake Erie & Western and the Toledo, St. Louis & Western (Clover Leaf Route).

Next, they gained control of the Chesapeake & Ohio and Hocking Valley (the Hocking Valley gave C&O a long haul route from the Ohio Valley to the Great Lakes). These fed coal tonnage to Nickel Plate which served industrial centers such as Lackawanna, Cleveland, Lorain, Toledo, Gary and Chicago. By 1927, the Van Sweringens had 26% of the Erie, 33% of Pere Marquette and 17% of Wheeling & Lake Erie.

In 1926 the Interstate Commerce Commission did not allow the brothers to merge their holdings. They then shifted their consolidation scheme to C&O to satisfy minority shareowners. This didn’t work either.

The coming of the Great Depression in 1929 nullified whatever unification plans the “Vans” had. They died in 1936 and 1937 after their empire collapsed.

Between 1926 and 1930, the system saw development of new high-horsepower locomotives. The most famous of these was the 2-8-4 Berkshire. These were used by Erie and Nickel Plate. Later, T-1 2-10-4’s were developed on the C&O based on the 2-8-4’s.


The Nickel Plate Road and it was built parallel to the New York Central for the most part from Buffalo to Cleveland. While it was built to lower standards than the NYC, its’ mere presence was enough to scare the Vanderbilt family into buying it and running it as the poor stepchild for about the first 30 years of it’s existence. Look at many of the early engine photos and they are mostly NYC hand-me-downs or NYC designs. It was only because the ICC required the Vanderbilts’ to divest themselves of the property and some other financial shenanigans that the Van Sweringen brothers of Cleveland were able to buy it and turn it into what it eventually became, a high speed bridge route.





The New York Central was big in Ohio too. Here’s an old Baldwin switcher.



Click here or on map to see some great maps from Rails and Trails

Some Great Nickel Plate Railroad Resources

Cleveland Union Terminal
Cloverleaf District 1954
Nickel Plate Crane Diagrams
Nickel Plate District 1954
Along the Line by Nick Plate
Nickel Plate interchanges in 1934
Nickel Plate W&LE District in 1954
A Tribute to the New York, Chicago, & St. Louis Railroad Company

List of Ohio Railroads
Nickel Plate Railroad
Cleveland, Ohio
Van Sweringen brothers (from The Wiki)
Cleveland Union Terminal Dedication
Ohio Railroad Pictures
Findlay, Ohio Railroad History
1900 era Ohio Maps
Cleveland Railway Company
circa 1930’s Guide to Cleveland Street Car
and Motor Coach Routes
New York Central Cleveland Employee Timetable
Ohio Museum of Transportation
Cleveland Heights
Northeastern Ohio Railway Historical Society
Abandoned Right-of-Way Tour
June 29, 2002
The Ohio Railroad Page
Welcome to Ohio, the Land of Trains




A combination of Nickel Plate, Delaware, Lackawanna & Western and Delaware & Hudson could match the New York Central “Water-Level Route”.



Railroad Station in Marion Ohio

I saw some train action in Marion, Ohio

“AC” Cabin has been closed by Conrail. The “tower on stilts” still stands as it has for many years, but it is in need of some paint. Hopefully the Marion Union Station Association will get the funds needed to move the tower to their property so they can properly maintain the Erie structure. In the space of a couple of hours I saw three Norfolk Southern trains, two CSX and three Conrail.

All three railroads looked like they could give some “tender loving care” to their infrastructure. Conrail had a couple really big dips around the diamonds which were kind of unnerving to watch trains go by. Norfolk Southern looked good but not as smooth as in the past. CSX was its normal so-so self except for the CR/CSX diamond which looked to be somewhat new and in great shape. The N&W signals were still doing their job guarding the NS/CR diamonds.

As of early 1999, in Marion, Ohio, AC Cabin is still on stilts next to the CR/NS diamond. A spot has been marked next to the Marion Union Station where the building will be placed, but no other work has been done. Work on replacing the parking lot at the station has also started.

Conrail has installed a new defect detector at Slicks, Ohio (~ MP 97) just east of Marion. This detector apparently replaces the detector that used to be at Caledonia further east. This new detector comes in very strong in Marion (the one at Caledonia didn’t) and gives ample warning for approaching WB trains. And you can’t beat a name like Slicks!

Finally, grading has been done for the new connection track between the CSX Columbus Subdivison and the CR Indianapolis line in the NW quadrant. All of the ballast has been laid and new switches are on site. Laying ties, rail, more ballast, and then connecting the track with the existing track are what needs to be done, along with signal work.


Most of our major interstate highways have rail mainlines in close parallel.

Or, in the case of the Pennsylvania Turnpike/I-76, are built on old railroad grades. One of the principal exceptions to this, however, is Interstate Route 80 east of Youngstown, Ohio(Keystone Shortway).

Interestingly, a little research of early histories or bound volumes of Railway Age from long ago will turn up several ideas for these routes which nearly came to pass before the industry stagnated in the wake of the Great Depression.

Probably the most interesting is found in an article which appears to have been launched by backers of the Van Sweringen brothers’ “Greater Nickel Plate” campaign of around 1925. This line would have used Jersey Central and Reading’s Catawissa and Haucks branches from the New York/New Jersey region to Milton, Penna, then placed a new line via White Deer Valley (with, undoubtedly, a couple of substantial tunnels) before linking with NYC’s Beech Creek line somewhere near Orviston. The remainder of the plan would have used existant trackage almost entirely.

Other plans revolved around the former PRR Low Grade Branch/Secondary Track, which left the Pennsy’s Buffalo Line at Driftwood, Penna, and continued west to the Allegheny River at Brady’s Bend. This line, which is still in existence for unit coal moves, has the lowest summit and easiest grades of any crossing of the Alleghenies, and plans to bypass Pittsburgh and link it directly to the Great Lakes region were formulated at one time.

With all the major lines fixated on grades and fuel economy as never before, it might be time to give these two forgotten ideas a second look.




What’s left of CUT?

The drawbridge leading to DK is still there ( in the UP position) but is cutoff from the tracks at both ends. The north tracks, that went by the Erie station, were removed several years ago for relocation of the road and installation of the Waterfront rapid tracks. The Erie station was torn down just a few years ago. The old B&O station is still there, but vandalized and empty. RD tower, at the south end of the B&O yard is gone too. The B&O roundhouse is still there, in part.

DK is still there in part, used by the Flats Industrial RR to switch Cereal Foods. About two miles of the CUT was removed, and the interchange track relocated, so that NS could double track after they split up Conrail.

The Silver Plate Branch was operated by both the NYC and PRR. I believe it was also co-owned by them. The western end of the branch came off of the PRR Alliance to Cleveland mainline on the near east side of Cleveland at Cleveland Shop Yard. The NYC connection was off of the Lakefront mainline just west of E55th St. Yard. A 1946 map of Cleveland railroads shows the western 3/4ths of the branch as NYC/PRR co-owned and/or co-operated and the eastern 1/4th of the branch as PRR only owned and/or operated. That map also shows the section of the branch between the PRR and NYC connections as double track and shows three more connections to the NYC off of PRR’s eastern end of the branch. The branch was 2.3 miles long through a heavily industrialized urban area. A PRR C.T. 1000 C from May 1945 lists an incredible (by today’s standards) 63 businesses along sidings off of the branch.


Cleveland Union Terminal Electric locomotives in Cleveland.
There were 22 of them with a 2-C+C-2 wheel arrangement, like the GG-1’s. They were the P-2 class locomotives. They were road locomotives, not road switchers. How did the nYC and NKP reach Cleveland Union Terminal? It’s shown well in the satellite image of Cleveland in Google maps. The NKP connection on the west side is shown just west of W. 25th St. On the east side it was near Kinsman road When did the NYC end their electric operations there? 1953. There were no electric operations after the last steam passenger train.
I believe they were called class P-1 electrics. The P-2 moniker (P-2a and P-2b) were applied to those P-1’s converted to 3rd rail and sent to the Hudson Division for GCT service.


Downtown Cleveland Union Terminal

Cleveland unfortunately has many of the same problems as Detroit and Buffalo but Cleveland Union Terminal was more fortunate because it built downtown. It took a huge expense to build a new rail line to serve it. This included transit and interurban lines. It was built by the Van Sweringen brothers, real estate developers who became railroaders when they took Nickel Plate off New York Central’s hands (due to government antitrust concerns). They built Shaker Heights Rapid Transit to serve their suburban developments, leased the Cleveland transit system and were building a rapid transit line that was completed years after their deaths. The CUT was built as a union station for railroads and interurban lines, not all of which survived to use it. CUT was located downtown at the central Public Square to support a major office development which the station was just a part of. The development was not as large or successful as the Van Sweringens intended but it remains an active property. The Vans’ urban and suburban property projects and their steam and electric railroad systems were all dismantled or fell into other hands after the brothers died in the 1930s.

New York Central was the majority owner of CUT (over 90 percent) but not of the Terminal project itself, which was controlled by the Van Sweringens. The Vans conceived the project. Without them, NYC might have replaced its old Cleveland station with something less ambitious. Whether it would have resembled Detroit or Buffalo stations is anybody’s guess.

From Don Thomas



Cleveland Transit Today

Cleveland has three rail lines; one heavy rail line and two light rail lines. The most interesting thing about these lines is they all run on the same track for a stretch, despite the fact their boarding levels are different. At the shared stations there are lengthy platforms that have areas for both Red Line and Green/Blue Line boardings, with ramps getting riders to the proper “level” depending on which train they are using.

Red Line is a high-level line built in the 1950s and ’60s by the Cleveland Transit System after WWII and the Blue and Green Line are low-floor streetcar/light-rail lines built in the 30s to help develop Shaker Heights neighborhood and were two separate companies (CTS and Shaker Heights Rapid Transit) until the 1970s or so when the current RTA was formed. These lines do operate over the same track between East 55th Street station and Tower City with each station having both high and low platforms. The three shared stations are: Tower City, East 33rd/Campus and East 55th.

The Tower City station is in the bottom of Terminal Tower, the old Union Station in downtown Cleveland that was redone into a mall with a transit station below – easiest access to a mall I’ve ever seen (that includes the old Filene’s entrance at Downtown Crossing in Boston). The Red Line leaving Tower City to the West uses the old viaduct over the Cuyahoga River the trains to Chicago used to use leaving terminal tower and continues on to the Airport. Incidentally, the Red Line was the first rapid transit line in North America to directly serve an airport since the Terminal in is the station. The only Airport Station I’ve used that is as easy to use as Cleveland’s is Atlanta’s.

RTA is also redoing the Red Line stations (slowly I might add), and are closing some stations, such as East 120th/Euclid. That station is always interesting since it is only manned during rush hours and is basicaly a wooden platform that consists of what seems like untreated rail ties laid together to form a platform with a plastic shelter on top which does absolutely nothing to keep the wind off Lake Erie from blowing right through you. When the station is unmanned, you pay your fare by boarding at the front of the train and placing your money in a farebox just like on a bus. Also the Red Line is completely powered by overhead catenary, unusually for a heavy rail line in the U.S. (which the Red Line is classified as by the Federal Transit Administration).

The Blue and Green Line share tracks from the North Shore Station, which is part of the Waterfront extension that opened in 1996 or so allowing the Blue and Green Line to serve the areas west of Tower City on the east bank of the Cuyahoga such as the Flats, the Browns Stadium, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Shaker Square where the lines split. After Shaker Square, each line runs in a grass median with level crossing mainly through residential neighborhoods.

Vehicles are Breda light rail vehicles for the Blue and Green Line built in the ’80s and Japanese built cars for the Red Line also built in the ’80s. One final thing about Cleveland is the there was a streetcar subway that ran run Detroit Avenue at West 29th Street (with a branch to West 25th Street) on the lower deck of the Detroit-Superior Bridge (now Vetrans Memorial) to a power at West 6th Street with stations at either end of the bridge. This little subway saw service from 1917 to 1954.


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