Pennsylvania Railroad/Cincinnati, Lebanon & Northern - Indiana & Ohio, Blue Ash and Mason Subdivisions
Former Cincinnati, Lebanon & Xenia/Miami Valley Narrow Gauge Railway/Toledo, Delphos, and Burlington/Cincinnati Northern/Cincinnati, Lebanon & Northern/Pennsylvania Railroad to Lebanon and Dayton
Narrow gauge (3'-0") line opened in 1881, converted to standard gauge in 1894
Downtown terminal: Court Street Station (E. Court & Reedy Streets)
Mostly abandoned except limited local use from Norwood to Fields Ertel, and Mason to Lebanon
(The following write-up is adapted from the now defunct website Ohio Valley Railroads)
For many years Lebanon had desired a railroad. The town, located on the Warren County highland between the Great and Little Miami Rivers, had stagnated while railroads were built in the surrounding towns. The Warren County Canal built to Lebanon in 1840 from a connection with the Miami & Erie Canal at Middletown was so little used that it was never repaired after an 1848 flood and then sold off and dismantled in 1854. Proper rail service was the only desirable option, and Lebanon feared it was being left behind. They had not made a strong enough case for the Little Miami Railroad's main line to run through town, and they tried unsuccessfully thereafter to get a connecting spur built. Then the town tried to support the futile Cincinnati, Lebanon, & Xenia Railroad, which was to reach downtown Cincinnati via the Dayton & Cincinnati Short Line Railroad and its Deer Creek Tunnel that was never finished. After years of courting and pleading for a connection to a major line, Lebanon merchants and citizens finally decided to take matters into their own hands. The decision was made to construct a 3'-0" narrow gauge railroad from Cincinnati, through Lebanon, to Xenia. The Miami Valley Narrow Gauge Railway Company was incorporated on November 7, 1874 for this purpose, and the groundbreaking was on September 1, 1876. The mid 1870s were the heyday of narrow gauge railroad building in the United States as investment brokers were pouring money into any and all ventures they could. Narrow gauge railroads were cheaper to construct and operate because of their smaller size, so it was felt they could profitably operate routes overlooked by larger standard gauge railroads.
It wasn't long before financial problems began for the new railroad however, a pattern that would be often repeated for the line. Most of the right-of-way from Cincinnati to Waynesville was purchased and the grading was underway, but raising capital to finish construction became a problem. The company went into receivership and in 1880 it was sold to the Toledo, Delphos, & Burlington Railroad (TD&B). The TD&B had big plans to expand and develop a large midwest narrow gauge system. Already the TD&B had a mainline into Dayton, and they wished to finish the line into Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Northern was incorporated in 1880 as a subsidiary of the TD&B in order to build a narrow gauge line from Cincinnati to Dodds, a small village 5 miles north of Lebanon. The railroad finally came to Lebanon on February 17, 1881 while construction of the Cincinnati terminal facilities at Court Street along with two short high-level tunnels in Walnut Hills and a high trestle down the Deer Creek Valley next to Eden Park were completed shortly thereafter.
Line drawing of the CL&N trestle above Accommodation Street from the 1898 Commercial Tribune. This illustrates how much lower the valley was compared to where it is now. It would be another couple years until filling it in would be finished. From "Narrow Gauge in Ohio" by John W. Hauck.
Constructed in 1881, the tunnels in Walnut Hills were very nearly at the top of the grade, to the extent that they used cut-and-cover construction methods rather than boring through the hill. They essentially dug deep trenches and built the tunnels in the hollow, then covered them over afterwards. This was still no easy feat, since harder limestone is present at the higher elevation of these tunnels than the softer shale found at the Deer Creek Tunnel below. Since this was the last link in the railroad's route, there was significant pressure to complete construction. Extensive blasting was performed to expedite the work, but it led to numerous deaths and injuries, including innocent bystanders and children in the neighborhood who were hit by falling rocks. The primary Oak Street Tunnel is 1,000 feet long, with a 26 food diameter circular cross section at the north end, while the southern end has straight side walls of stone and a circular arch. The McMillan Street underpass, which is approximately 150 feet long, is essentially the same as the south end of the Oak Street Tunnel. There does not appear to be a reason why the short stretch of open cut between the two tunnels wasn't covered over, but perhaps it was a cost-saving measure since the open cut didn't interfere with any of the surrounding streets.
While these tunnels were required to reduce the gradient on the climb to Walnut Hills, there was still a disturbingly heavy grade of 3.5% between the terminal area at Court Street and Walnut Hills. This is more than double the maximum desired grade for a mainline railroad, thus relegating the CL&N to a light-duty local system. Helper engines were needed to push short trains up the steep hill, and runaways were constant problems, even during construction. Below Eden Park Drive, a long wooden trestle was built to stay above the deeply cut Deer Creek ravine, whose bottom was a solid 50 feet below today's elevation. Curves on this trestle led to some of the runaway trains falling over the edge until it was gradually filled in to the approximate level we know today.
At the same the tunnels were being constructed, the TD&B also constructed a connecting line between Dodds and the Dayton & Southeastern Railroad line going into Dayton at a place which came to be called Lebanon Junction, and the grading done between Dodds and Waynesville was abandoned. The two lines combined to form the Cincinnati Division of the TD&B. This railroad, which became the Toledo, Cincinnati & St. Louis Railroad (TC&StL) in 1882, however, had its own problems. Over-expansion and cheap narrow gauge construction were becoming problems. Their mainline stretching from Toledo to St. Louis became a reality, but it was severely under capitalized. Maintenance on the line north of Dodds and elsewhere in the system became a nightmare, and the inherent difficulties of interchanging with standard gauge railroads would prove disastrous. The TC&StL eventually collapsed and went into receivership in 1883. While the TC&StL would drag the Cincinnati Northern into bankruptcy, it was actually the most well-constructed part of the narrow gauge system and made enough profit to remain competitive. Through the efforts of Albert Netter and a number of Cincinnati investors they were able to purchase the Cincinnati Division. It would reorganize as the Cincinnati, Lebanon & Northern (CL&N). The line running from Dodds to Dayton was purchased by separate owners and would reform as the Dayton, Lebanon & Cincinnati (DL&C).
The CL&N operated as a local narrow gauge suburban road for a few more years. Profits alternated between modest and non-existent. The railroad did prove its usefulness in the Ohio River flood of 1884, being the only Cincinnati railroad to remain in operation during the flood, though its narrow gauge track meant that they could only use their own equipment for relief efforts rather than allowing other companies to operate over their tracks. The CL&N would come to be known as the "highland route" for its uninterrupted service during floods. After a few false starts, the track was converted to standard gauge in 1894. In 1896 the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) purchased the CL&N in order to secure another entrance into Cincinnati in the event of another flood, as well as preventing competing railroads from purchasing the line and diverting business away from the PRR's Little Miami Division. In 1902 they also purchased the assets of the Cincinnati Railway Tunnel Company from the Big Four, who had obtained it from the defunct Cincinnati, Jackson & Mackinaw. The CJ&M had unsuccessfully attempted to gain control of the CL&N, and they wanted to finish the old deep level Deer Creek Tunnel to secure their own entrance into Cincinnati.
After purchase by the PRR, the CL&N remained independent as a separate division. The Middletown and Cincinnati (M&C), an independent railroad running from Middletown to the Little Miami Railroad near South Lebanon and Kings Mills was also purchased by the PRR in 1905, which crossed the CL&N at Hageman Junction, about halfway between Mason and Lebanon on US-42. The DL&C, which by this time had built its own route into downtown Dayton via Oakwood and paralleling the Great Miami River, was purchased by the PRR in 1915. These two railroad were merged into the CL&N system, creating one standard gauge railroad connecting Dayton, Lebanon, Cincinnati, and Middletown in southwestern Ohio. Thus, the fate of the CL&N would be tied to that of the Pennsy.
After conversion to standard gauge there were issues with clearances in the Walnut Hills tunnels. While the overall tunnel width was roughly adequate to accommodate two standard gauge tracks, a curve near the south end of the Oak Street Tunnel and a change in cross section at that same location prevented two trains from safely passing one another. A primitive electric signal system was installed to limit movement to just one train each way in 1896. This worked satisfactorily until 1916 when a northbound CL&N commuter train and a southbound N&W passenger train crossed the signals at the same time. Due to the curve in the tunnel the engineers didn't have enough time to react and the two trains sideswiped each other, damaging the locomotive cabs and tenders, and breaking windows on some of the coaches. Fortunately there were no significant injuries, and both trains were able to back out and finish their journeys. At some point thereafter a gauntlet track was installed with a more foolproof signaling system.
Interior view of the CL&N Oak Street Tunnel, looking north from the south portal. Note the stone walls and additional buttressing around the curve in the distance. That is likely the location of the collision in 1916 by two passenger trains traveling in opposite directions. While the tunnel is nominally wide enough for two standard-gauge tracks, more clearance is required at curves, and the buttressed lower walls pinch down the available space further.
The CL&N's independent operation ended in 1925 when the PRR consolidated its holdings by forming the Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Detroit Railroad. However, this railroad existed mainly on paper as part of the broader Pennsylvania system. By this later date competition with the automobile severely hurt passenger traffic. The death knell for passenger service on the CL&N was the requirement for all trains to use Cincinnati's new Union Terminal, a much less convenient location for suburban commuters. The last passenger train left Lebanon on February 1st, 1934, almost 53 years to the day since the line was constructed. In the coming decades many of the stations would be torn down to reduce tax burdens, save for the Hopkins Avenue station in Norwood which was built and owned by nearby residents. Nonetheless, extensive industrial development in Avondale and Norwood brought a huge increase in freight business in the early and mid 20th century, with no less than 52 customer sidings in a five mile corridor. The Norwood General Motors plant was a major customer whose property was bisected by the CL&N. Still, local switching traffic is not nearly as profitable as long-haul runs, so the increase in revenues was offset by equally large cost increases.
By the late 1960s, railroads everywhere were in decline. Competition from the new interstate highway system compounded by legacy tracks and regulation would nearly lead to the death of railroads in the United States. The PRR controlled over 10,000 miles of track, much of it in local light-density lines like the CL&N. To try to cut costs, 11 miles of track north of Lebanon to Lytle was abandoned in 1952. In 1968 the PRR and the New York Central (NYC), merged to form Penn Central (PC). At that time, another 3 miles of track north of Brecon at the Hamilton/Butler/Warren County lines was abandoned, cutting the line into two sections which remain to this day. All service through the Deer Creek Valley into the Court Street Depot, as well as from Hageman Junction to the Little Miami Division, was suspended. The tracks and yards at Court Street were closed in 1970 (supposedly a few informal runs were still made until approximately 1974), only a few years after new bridges over I-71 had been constructed to allow the railroad to continue operating. Today, the Greyhound Bus terminal and the bulk of the casino parking garage along Gilbert Avenue stand on the former downtown yard.
Penn Central could not stop the bleeding of cash from America's railroads. When PC went bankrupt the US government stepped in and formed the Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail). Conrail acquired from the PC the CL&N mainline through Norwood into the new industrial parks of Blue Ash, as well as the former M&C mainline from Middletown to Hageman Junction. It also gained control of short sections of the former DL&C near Dayton and Hempsted. It was up to Lebanon businesses to pay operating expenses for the Lebanon branch and save it from abandonment.
In early 1977, a number of Lebanon businesses banded together and saved the line from abandonment. It would be an historic decision for Lebanon's future. In 1984, the up and coming regional railroad Indiana & Ohio (I&O) purchased the Mason subdivision from Conrail, including the Lebanon branch. It reopened the Lebanon Branch in 1985, which had been closed by Conrail for quite some time due to lack of online business, having only operated south of Hageman through Mason to Prasco Park. I&O operated excursions from Mason to Lebanon until the company was sold to Railtex in 1996. Mr. Thomas McOwen, the principal owner of I&O when sold to Railtex, retained the I&O Rail Passenger Corporation, which operated the passenger trains. Today, the passenger operation lives on as the Lebanon Mason Monroe Railroad (LM&M) under the ownership of the Cincinnati Railway Company, also owners of the Cincinnati Dinner Train. The city of Lebanon owns the track from the end of the line at Cherry Street to Hageman Junction, where I&O's ownership starts, though both companies have trackage rights to operate passenger or freight trains as necessary.
In 1986 I&O purchased the Blue Ash subdivision. An attempt was even made to reconnect the former CL&N trackage between Brecon and Mason, which failed due to NIMBY opposition in the neighboring suburban developments. I&O, owned by RailAmerica and parent company Genesee & Wyoming, continues to operate the freight business from Norwood to Blue Ash, as well as to online businesses near Mason. Operations south of the B&O Midland in Norwood were discontinued by the mid 1980s and the tracks torn up, save for some turning and yard tracks used by the N&W at Idlewild Junction at Dana Avenue near Xavier University that were themselves abandoned by the 1990s or early 2000s and since removed. The center of operations is the McCullough yard in Norwood, which was originally built to serve the GM plant after a preexisting yard was swallowed up by the plant's expansion. Here cars can be exchanged between the former B&O Midland or the former PRR Richmond Division, both of which are operated by I&O and connect the Blue Ash subdivision to the rest of the world.
Photographs from Downtown to Lebanon
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