Freight Car Friday – Freight Cars of Cleveland

3 01 2014

Lionel is traveling along with the World’s Greatest Hobby Show again this year. Each year this tour travels to new cities across the United States with representatives from manufacturers, clubs and local hobby shops. It’s not your traditional train show but an event designed to provide a fun introduction to the hobby for newcomers of all ages. For more about the tour and this year’s locations, see the WGH website. As we travel to new cities, each week we’ll highlight some of the real railroading treasures of these towns here, beginning with this week’s show in Cleveland, OH.


A Norfolk Southern freight train bursts out of the Cuyahoga River Drawbridge on the former New York Central mainline along the Cleveland waterfront.

Cleveland has long been a major transportation hub and an important location on all of the major northeastern trunk lines. With its port on Lake Erie, Cleveland was and is an important point in the movement or ore from the upper midwest to the mills of eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. It is also strategically located along the mainline of the old New York Central and later the Nickel Plate and served as a major interchange point with the other major players who built rails into the region including the Pennsylvania and Baltimore and Ohio. Add in the strength of the local industrial scene and the importance of Cleveland becomes clear.

The New York Central

While Cleveland hosted many railroads, the big player in town was the New York Central. Cleveland was more than just a stop on the way from New York to Chicago. While we focus on freight cars on Friday, no look at the NYC in Cleveland would be complete without mention of the Cleveland Terminal and its electrified operations. Trains of the NYC and the Nickel Plate both shared the tracks into the massive terminal at the center of town. Eventually the B&O, Wheeling and Lake Erie and Erie would also use the facility. Construction began in 1922 with a prominent new tower building which covered 17 acres on its own. The rest of the terminal complex, including the local roads, were elevated above the station platforms and tracks.


The tower of Cleveland Union Terminal still stands tall against the downtown skyline.

The operation was electrified with overhead catenary until 1955. Twenty-two electric locomotives were used to reduce smoke in the city and the long subterranean runs through the terminal itself.

Cleveland was also an important junction for the NYC. Just to the west in Berea, mainlines to Chicago and St. Louis split (both were once separate railroads.) Working east, Berea was also the location of the split of two lines around Cleveland itself. Today these routes are owned by different railroads, Norfolk Southern and CSX, and from a public park you can watch the passage of more than 80 daily trains on average.

A few miles east of Cleveland at Ashtabula, the NYC’s branchline south to Youngstown and a connection with the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie created another busy artery into the mainline.

The Nickel Plate

Nickel Plate

Cleveland was a major source of online traffic for the Nickel Plate. Inbound loads of coal, coke and ore were common on all of the city’s routes.

The New York, Chicago and St. Louis was built in direct competition with the Central. In most places, the two mainlines along the shore of Lake Erie are within sight of one another. With its through service to New York City, the Nickel Plate never posed much of a threat to the Central’s passenger traffic, but it certainly gave the railroad a run for its money on the more lucrative fast freight trade.

The Nickel Plate became part of the Norfolk and Western in 1960. Today the mainline still hums with daily Norfolk Southern freight trains which can often be seen racing head to head with CSX freights on the old “Water Level Route” just a few yards away.

The Pennsylvania

PC ore car

Pennsylvania (and later Penn Central and Conrail) ore trains were a constant sight around town during the lake shipping season.

The Pennsy’s mainline to Chicago stretched west from Pittsburgh and stayed well south of Cleveland. They did reach the city via a North-South route from Cleveland to Mingo Junction, Ohio. This route was a major funnel for ore, coal, coke and limestone between the port, mines and mills at both ends of the line.

As Conrail rationalized routes in the 1980s, this route to Cleveland became the primary mainline from Pittsburgh to Chicago (connecting with the former NYC in Cleveland for the rest of the trip.) Cleveland was the epicenter of Conrail’s big “X” between Chicago and Philadelphia and St. Louis and New York. It is one of the few cities whose operations have seemed to get more interesting and complex with each of the major mergers in the late Twentieth Century.

The Baltimore and Ohio


Berea is one of the busiest and most convenient train watching spots around the city. As a westbound CSX freight rolls towards the former “Big Four” mainline, the lights of a Norfolk Southern freight can be seen approaching in the distance on the neighboring tracks to the left.

Not to be left out, the B&O too built a branch north from its main line through central Ohio to reach the Cleveland docks. The B&O served several customers in the “Flats” area along the lakefront and Cuyahoga River. Much of this area, including the river which infamously caught fire in 1969, have been cleaned up and renovated and today is a thriving area of restaurants and clubs.

The B&O’s successor, CSX, became a major player in town in 1998 with its acquisition of Conrail. The railroad map of Cleveland was redrawn again and while CSX inherited most of the former NYC lines, within the city and to the west, Norfolk Southern also operates over former Central tracks.

Local Industry

With all the big name railroads in the city, it is easy to overlook the many industries that made Cleveland more than just an important junction. The entire region was once home to many steel mills, factories and heavy industry.

Cargill Yard

This small yard in Cleveland supports the Cargill Salt operation here. The mine itself is underneath Lake Erie.

While a lot of these industries have been shuttered, much remains. You wouldn’t expect to find a salt mine in the heart of one of the countries big cities, but Cargil Salt has just that. The mine access is near the old NYC mainline and the operation stretches out for miles beneath Lake Erie.

Ringing the city are a few remaining steel operations and several important automotive assembly and parts plants. All of this traffic feeds the many freight yards around the city.

Should you choose to railfan around Cleveland today, there are lots of safe places both within the city and neighboring communities to watch trains from public property. And you’re sure to find something appealing to almost any railroad interest.



8 responses

3 01 2014
bruce treadway

Lee and I; bruce treadway had lunch recently after a swim meet and ate at what is a restaurant in Berea that for many years has been named the pufferbelly but not sure what it is called now and if you want to see trains up close to you sit at a window seat and they are three feet outside! It was crazy neat and four sets of tracks with trains coming every 8 minutes-sometimes two at a time!!! we had a ball!!!

3 01 2014

Great post, fantastic way to start the new year! Thank you Lionel!

3 01 2014
Ed Abeid

How about more info on the different railroads that traveled in the Eastern part of OHIO. My Grandfather retired from Pennsy Railroad in 1959 as a Track Foreman.

3 01 2014
3 01 2014
Conductor Andrew

Reblogged this on theredcaboose1 and commented:
Trains in Cleveland – great article on Lionel’s blog.

4 01 2014

Some good Information,I think Lionel may just hit on something good, Hope they keep this up. Its good to have this information, to help model our Layouts.

5 01 2014
walter kolopajlo

I really enjoy these historical updates!

16 01 2014
Roger Coinverse

What a Great article! Thanks Lionel!


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