C&LE - Cincinnati & Lake Erie Railroad

(College Hill Railroad, Ohio Electric Railway, Etc.)



Spring Grove - Detroit, MI


Narrow gauge, steam line constructed by the College Hill Railroad from Spring Grove to College Hill and Mt. Healthy, 1873

Reorganized as the Cincinnati Northwestern Railway, 1883

Converted to Standard Gauge, 1887

Purchased by the Southern Ohio Traction Company with connecting lines to Dayton and electrified, 1901

Reorganized as the Cincinnati, Dayton & Toledo Traction Co., merging the Cincinnati Northwestern out of existence, 1902

Merged into the Ohio Electric Railway, 1907

Removed from the Ohio Electric between Cincinnati and Dayton and reorganized as the Cincinnati & Dayton Traction Co., 1918

Reorganized as the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railway, 1926

Reorganized and expanded via the Ohio Electric's former main line as the Cincinnati & Lake Erie Railroad, 1930

Abandoned, 1939

The Ohio Electric Railway, the largest interurban in Ohio, was organized by Randal Morgan, W. Kesley Schoepf, Hugh J. McGowan, and their associates on May 16, 1907. The company had originated two years earlier, when the same men formed the Ohio Syndicate, and organized the Cincinnati Northern Traction Company to lease the Cincinnati Dayton and Toledo Traction Company, proprietor of the important road between Cincinnati and Dayton. The line had been built by two companies, both affiliated with the Pomeroy-Mandelbaum syndicate, the Cincinnati and Miami Valley Traction Company (Hamilton-Dayton, 36 miles, opened 1897), and the Cincinnati and Hamilton Electric Street Railway (College Hill-Hamilton, 14 miles, opened 1898). The Pomeroy-Mandelbaum interests consolidated the two companies into the Southern Ohio Traction Company in 1900. The new company was in turn consolidated with the Miamisburg and Germantown Traction Company (5 miles, completed 1901), and two street railway properties into the Cincinnati Dayton and Toledo Traction Company in 1902. The Pomeroy-Mandelbaum interests were financially distressed by the panic of 1903, and so lost control of the property to the Schoepf-McGowan syndicate.


The Ohio Electric assumed the lease of the CD&T, and leased the Indiana Columbus and Eastern Traction Company that the Schoepf-McGowan syndicate had organized out of the former Appleyard properties in 1906. It also leased the Lima and Toledo Traction Company (73 miles when completed), which, although unfinished, had itself leased the Fort Wayne Van Wert and Lima Traction Company in 1906. When the gap between Lima and Bellefontaine was closed and the line from Lima to Toledo was completed (both in 1908), and when the Defiance branch was electrified in 1909, the Ohio Electric consisted of about 617 miles of line. It operated city service in Lima, Dayton, Hamilton, Newark, and Zanesville.


Size did not mean strength, however, for the Ohio Electric never paid a dividend, and was never free of financial problems. It suffered from the two-cent-fare laws after 1906, and suffered about $1.5 million damage in the 1913 flood. Increasing costs, especially for paving and for street maintenance, relatively rigid fare structures, and rising highway competition all contributed to the company's disintegration. In 1918 it surrendered the Dayton-Cincinnati line to new owners, the Cincinnati and Dayton Traction Company, and in 1920 it turned the Dayton and Western back to its owners. In January 1921, the company went bankrupt, and was dissolved. The IC&E, the Columbus Newark and Zanesville, the Lima and Toledo, and the Fort Wayne Van Wert and Lima all went bankrupt at the same time, but resumed independent operation.


The CN&Z and the FWVW&L were reorganized independently in 1925 and 1926, respectively, and never again operated jointly with the IC&E and the L&T. The L&T was reorganized in 1924 as the Lima-Toledo Railroad. In 1929, both the Lima-Toledo and the IC&E were reunited with the Cincinnati-Dayton line as the Cincinnati and Lake Erie Railroad.


As the first event in the disintegration of the Ohio Electric Railway the line between Dayton and Cincinnati was transferred to an independent company, the Cincinnati and Dayton Traction Company, organized on April 26, 1918. This company itself failed and was reorganized into the Cincinnati Hamilton and Dayton Railway Company in 1926. The new company, which had no connection with the railroad of the same name, was headed by a former professor of finance, Dr. Thomas Conway, Jr., who had already been successful in reviving the Chicago Aurora and Elgin Railroad. He ordered new equipment that the property badly needed, and increased the maintenance of its roadbed. He did well at building up freight service in interurban equipment, and by virtue of his wide contacts in the railroad industry was more than ordinarily successful in establishing through rates for LCL with the railroads. Conway believed that there was still a place for the interurban in the medium distance range of passenger traffic, and thus conceived of regrouping the main lines of the former Ohio Electric.


In 1929 Conway brought together (effective January 1, 1930) under the ownership of his company, the Indiana Columbus and Eastern and the Lima-Toledo Railroad. The CH&D changed its name simultaneously to the Cincinnati and Lake Erie Railroad. The new company consisted of the old Ohio Electric main line from College Hill (Cincinnati) to Toledo (216 miles) and a single branch from Springfield to Columbus (44.5 miles). Since both were relatively strong lines, by the standards of the industry, they were considered good prospects for survival. Between 1931 and 1936, the C&LE operated the Dayton and Western, also a relatively important line. Conway ordered 20 new cars capable of high speeds and offering considerable comfort, and inaugurated limited service between Cincinnati, Columbus, Toledo, and Detroit. It was too late, however, for such efforts to be successful. In 1932, the company was put in receivership under Conway, and a retrenchment of its operations began. Abandonment of the Eastern Michigan Toledo Railroad in 1932 ended through service to Detroit. The C&LE's Springfield-Toledo line was abandoned on November 19, 1937, and the rest of the interurban lines were discontinued by May 31, 1939. the company's bus subsidiary took over passenger service along the same routes. Rail service from Dayton to Southern Hills (3 miles), mainly on Dayton city streets, was not replaced by buses until September 28, 1941.


Conway's endeavor to make a success of the C&LE was the most concentrated effort at survival of any of the Ohio interurban lines, and in most respects paralleled the experience of the Insull interests with the Indiana Railroad. (From: Hilton, George W. and John F. Due, The Electric Interurban Railways in America. Stanford University Press, 1960)

Cincinnati & Lake Erie Railroad Tracks in Mt. Healthy

C&LE tracks in Mt. Healthy, back in the early days of the Cincinnati & Hamilton Electric Street Railway and later the Ohio Electric Railway.

The C&LE was Cincinnati's longest-lived and one of the busiest interurbans. Like the parallel Cincinnati & Hamilton Traction Company, it served the densely populated valleys between Cincinnati, Hamilton, and Dayton. These two lines together carried more passengers than the rest of Cincinnati's interurbans combined, with each carrying 4.3 to 4.4 million passengers in 1912. This railroad was in some ways the lifeblood of hilltop areas of Cincinnati that had no other rail transportation, and it actually made it to major cities like Dayton, Toledo and Detroit. A lot of interurbans ended in piddly country towns which greatly limited their potential ridership. North College Hill, Mt. Healthy and points north had no other form of rail transportation, while many interurbans usually had competition from steam railroads, streetcars, or even other interurbans. While the Cincinnati & Hamilton and other steam railroads also served these industrial cities to the north, they all took much different routes, and thus were able to draw on differing tributary areas. The C&LE was also quite fast in its later years, and it even won a race with a single-engine airplane in the 1930s. Of course, that was a publicity stunt orchestrated by the railroad.


The history of the CL&E in Cincinnati is rather sorted due to all the mergers and complicated dealings of the multitude of parent and sibling railroads. Locally, it started with the College Hill Railroad Company, which was incorporated on May 22, 1873 to build a three foot narrow gauge railroad from Spring Grove Avenue at present-day Crawford Avenue north through College Hill and Mt. Healthy to Ross (at the time known as Venice) on the Great Miami River. Construction started in 1875 and operations began on the first three miles of track on March 11, 1876 to the intersection of Hamilton and Llanfair Avenues in College Hill. Only four trains ran per day, pulled by underpowered dummy cars. Construction was very lax, with little earth moving, so many wooden trestles and bridges were needed on the long climb up the hill. Extension further north was started in the spring of 1877 and completed to Compton Road in Mt. Healthy on October 13 of that year. The western route which bypassed the center of town was chosen by Grant Burrows who was hoping to develop his hundred acre land holdings to the west of Mt. Healthy. This sort of routing and the inferior construction illustrates how projects like this and the similar Cincinnati & Westwood were intended more to improve land value for real estate speculators than to be any sort of lasting transportation.


After a number of years limping along, the College Hill Railroad went into receivership in 1883 after defaulting on its mortgage bond payments. The company was reorganized as the Cincinnati Northwestern Railway on December 18, 1883 with plans for extension to Indiana and conversion to standard gauge track. A third rail was laid in 1886, though narrow gauge equipment still ran until 1887. No extensions were ever made north of Compton Road, nor were any plans to connect with the CL&N's Spring Grove, Avondale & Cincinnati branch which ended at the Cincinnati Zoo realized either. Other plans to use the towpath of the Miami & Erie Canal as a route to downtown were squashed by nearby railroads and the street railway's owners who had the political connections to stop such an endeavor. Construction of the College Hill streetcar line on Hamilton Avenue in 1895 killed the passenger business as they could not compete with the 5 cent city fare, even though the trip was faster on the railroad. Passenger operations were suspended in 1899 while limited freight service continued.


In the 1890s a handful of electric interurbans were built south from Dayton in the Miami Valley towards Cincinnati. These include the Hamilton & Lindenwald, a mostly suburban service extended south from Hamilton's street railway, opened in 1890; the Dayton Traction from Dayton to Miamisburg, opened in 1896; the Cincinnati & Miami Valley Traction Company from Hamilton to Miamisburg, opened in 1897, establishing through cars between Hamilton and Dayton in 1898; and the Cincinnati & Hamilton Electric Street Railway from Hamilton to College Hill, opened in 1898 as an extension of the Hamilton & Lindenwald. The Cincinnati & Hamilton (not to be confused with the nearby Cincinnati & Hamilton Traction Company that ran on Springfield Pike and Dixie Highway) was blocked from extending its route south of North Bend Road by the street railway company that did not want an interurban interfering with their College Hill line. So for a few years people traveling north of College Hill would need to take the streetcar to North Bend Road and transfer to the interurban at a covered shelter at that location. In 1901 all those connecting interurbans from Dayton to College Hill were merged into the Southern Ohio Traction Company, which also purchased the Cincinnati Northwestern. They laid a standard gauge track in Hamilton Avenue between Llanfair and North Bend Road next to the streetcar line's single track route that ran a counterclockwise balloon loop from Belmont to North Bend to Oakwood and back to Belmont. The Southern Ohio also electrified the rest of the former narrow gauge railroad. With connections along Hamilton Avenue now established for through passenger service to Spring Grove Avenue, the original route of the College Hill Railroad west of Hamilton Avenue along Llanfair to Compton was relegated to a freight branch, though it remained in service until 1939 with the rest of the line in the Cincinnati area, illustrating its importance to this hilltop community.


In 1902 the Southern Ohio was reorganized as the Cincinnati, Dayton & Toledo Traction Company. Since so many different companies had built their own local lines, it was quickly realized that longer haul through service was hampered by poor route geometry and construction practices, including tight turns, poorly ballasted roadbeds, sloppy track laying, and excessive street running. To begin correcting these problems, some track and route improvements were executed between Dayton and Moraine to fix the poor construction and alignment of the former Dayton Traction line next to the Miami & Erie Canal near Carillion Park and Calvary Cemetery. Track improvements and consolidation of predecessor companies laid the foundations for the huge Ohio Electric system which was finally incorporated in 1907. The broader history of the Ohio Electric involves a tangle of interconnecting lines throughout all of western Ohio, only briefly touched on in the summary by Hilton & Due above. Suffice it to say, while the Ohio Electric was fraught with problems, it still breathed life into the former College Hill Railroad, which was on its last legs at the turn of the 20th century. Tracks were upgraded, trestles were replaced with fills, and overall it was put into good working order with electrification along its entire route, including the freight branch.


In consolidating and upgrading the physical plant of its various predecessors, the Ohio Electric implemented a couple more route realignments in southwest Ohio to improve running times. In 1908 the tracks were relocated off of Dixie Highway through Moraine west to a new private right-of-way, including a new crossing of the Big Four Railroad and the Miami & Erie Canal at what is today Dryden Road. This new alignment ran nearly to Cedar Street in West Carrollton, approximately where the old route crossed the canal from to reach Dixie Highway from Central Avenue. Street running through the heartof West Carrollton Remained, but new track was built on a purchased right-of-way west of town and closer to the river to get the tracks off the road. This minor realignment extended west from approximately the location of the sewage treatment plant to Richard Street in Miamisburg where original street running resumed. Another realignment established a new private right-of-way between Trenton and Middletown, bypassing the low-lying and often flooded community of Excello. A new bridge was constructed over the Great Miami River and the shortened route opened in 1912. The bridge was destroyed in the 1913 flood however, and a "temporary" wooden trestle over the river was used until abandonment in 1939. The original concrete bridge piers are still there, and there are even remains of the wood pylons for the replacement bridge just a few feet upstream. At about the same time as the Excello bypass was constructed, another simpler realignment took the tracks off of Hamilton Trenton Road coming into Trenton from the southwest and relocated the tracks next to the CH&D through all of town. Another planned rerouting through New Miami and Williamsdale was graded, and piers for a new bridge over Sevenmile Creek were built, but funds were diverted to repairing damage from the 1913 flood and this bypass was never completed. When the Ohio Electric system began to collapse, precipitated in no small part by the flood, the Cincinnati to Dayton leg was the first to be spun off into its own company, the Cincinnati & Dayton Traction Company, in 1918. This was a period when the industry as a whole was declining, but there was hope that connection to the planned Cincinnati subway would bring the Cincinnati & Dayton into a new life as a rapid transit feeder.


The plan for the Cincinnati subway was originally intended to give interurbans like the C&LE a way to reach downtown on a standard gauge rails without the delay of operating over the congested city streets. Had the subway been completed, the C&LE is probably the only interurban that would have been able to make use of it, as most others had already folded by the mid 1920s. The Cincinnati Traction Company wanted to operate the subway, which raised a huge stink among the interurbans. They claimed the street railway would use their clout to keep the interurbans from using the tunnels, reserving them only for their own suburban service with broad gauge tracks, rather than standard or a dual gauge setup. Since the subway was never completed anyway, nobody knows how this fight would have been resolved.

Cincinnati & Lake Erie Railroad Red Devil Car

One of the C&LE's express "Red Devil" cars. Made by the Cincinnati Car Company from a combination of steel and aluminum, they were some of the fastest interurban cars ever made.

After hopes of the subway died in the mid 20s, the new company had to reorganize again in 1926 as the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railway, confusingly named like the much older CH&D steam railroad which it crossed and even connected with near Spring Grove Avenue. This reorganization under Dr. Thomas Conway, Jr. and the eventual formation of the Cincinnati & Lake Erie Railroad in 1930 looked like salvation for the company. The new equipment and maintenance to tracks and right-of-way showed the world what a first class interurban operation could be. Not only was passenger service significantly improved with the very fast lightweight aluminum "Red Devil" cars manufactured by the Cincinnati Car Company, but same-day freight service was inaugurated between Cincinnati and Toledo/Cleveland. The Red Devils operated a daily service between Cincinnati, Toledo, and Detroit (260 miles) and Cincinnati, Toledo, and Cleveland (315 miles) which were the longest straight through operations using the same equipment on any interurban in the United States. The modernization program and building up of freight business to the booming automobile manufacturing center of Detroit was similar to the investment in Chicago area interurbans by Samuel Insull. Unfortunately, at that point in history few were interested in the C&LE and such "old-fashioned" technology as railroads, and the timing was unfortunate as the Great Depression was in full swing once the modernization was complete. When the various connecting lines upstate began closing, it significantly hurt the viability of the main trunk between Cincinnati and Toledo. Ultimately the whole thing was shut down in 1939, ending interurban service in southwest Ohio.


The CL&E's terminal was at Crawford Avenue and Spring Grove Avenue in Cumminsville, now an uninspiring collection of industrial buildings. Due to the standard gauge tracks, the line could not operate over streetcar lines to reach downtown. There was a connection with the CH&D, but for most of the history of the interurban, the line terminated at Spring Grove Avenue, and passengers had to transfer to streetcars to reach downtown. The double track route followed what would later become Crawford Avenue along the western edge of Spring Grove Cemetery until the road bends, the C&LE then proceeded up to College Hill on a different alignment. While there are no major structures or telephone poles left, the grading is still evident as the rugged hillside up to College Hill hasn't been built on. There is a partially collapsed culvert in Laboiteaux Woods, but it is quite a hike to get there. At Hamilton and Llanfair Avenues, the electric-era main line turned north up Hamilton Avenue. Just beyond North Bend Road, it went to a single-track off the west side of the road but still on the public right-of-way. This is usually represented on old maps as street running, so it's difficult to distinguish. Road reconstruction by the city of Cincinnati in the early 1930s put new tracks in the middle of the widened road. The tracks stayed on or to the side of Hamilton Avenue all the way north into Butler County, except for one short detour at Burlington Road (Hamilton Avenue later bypassed this section). There's nothing much to see along this part of the line through Hamilton County. There was also an important transfer station on the northwest corner of Hamilton Avenue and North Bend Road, where interurban passengers could transfer to the College Hill streetcar line under a protected shelter.


The single track freight line, which was the old main line of the narrow gauge College Hill Railroad, ran on the north side of Llanfair until Belmont Avenue, where it followed its own right-of-way north to Simpson Avenue. There are plenty of telephone poles and grading along this stretch, especially noticeable where the railroad passed under Glenview Avenue. The line Crossed North Bend Road at Witherby Avenue, and some telephone poles can still be seen to the south. Between Witherby and Simpson there is a North and South Railroad Avenue which the C&LE ran between. This is an interesting diagonal slice across this gridded neighborhood. The freight line followed the side of Simpson Avenue north to Arlington Memorial Cemetery where it had its own right-of-way to the terminal and a small yard at Compton Road in Mt. Healthy. The old carbarn at the terminal is now used by Sunderhaus Auto Body, with the original high bay doors still evident on the north side of the building.


Main Line Photographs from Spring Grove to Middletown


Freight Branch Photographs from College Hill to Mt. Healthy


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