In 1983, the former Burwell, Nebraska (Chicago, Burlington & Quincy) depot sat abandoned along the remnants of the Burlington Route branch line than served the community in Nebraska’s “Sand Hills”. I was told it once saw loads of grain and cattle headed for market, along with the occasional “mixed” train of freight and passengers

I have been a fan of trains and train-watching since I was a 7-year-old kid getting a cab ride from my cousin’s grandfather on his last run as engineer of a Canadian National Railway’s passenger locomotive.  But I’ve also always had a deep regard for and interest in history, and not just in the sense of big events. It’s the seemingly small things that get overlooked, like rusty old railroad spikes or a long-abandoned railroad bed where the rails are long gone and nature has taken over.

Where there is now rust, weeds and brush, there once were trains.  They might have been fast, mainline freights or passenger trains.  Perhaps they were just the typical branch line train that served the local feed mill or brought the Sears catalog to a small town along the line.

 . . . few things speak of days gone by like a decayed set of tracks barely visible in the grass . . .”

This rusting, iron signal bridge served the Panhandle line and passenger yard that stood just west of Columbus Union Station. Since 1986, this area just to the south has become home to Nationwide Arena and the NHL’s Columbus Bluejackets.

For me, few things speak of days gone by like a decayed set of tracks barely visible in the grass that has grown up around it, or the old depot where the locals gathered to see Mr. Jones take delivery on a new tractor,  to see their sons off to a World War, or to mourn the arrival of the casket of one who didn’t survive D-Day or Iwo Jima.  An old, iron signal bridge with no rails running underneath makes me wonder about the trains its lights commanded to stop or proceed.

To be sure, it’s great to catch that perfect photo of a brand new “heritage” locomotive dashing by.  But let’s not forget that the evolution of railroading and of history has left behind bits and pieces of history that we should also take the time to find and document. There are more than a few I’ve seen and made that mental note to come back someday with my camera, only to return and find them gone.  But here’s a few I did catch along the way during a career in TV news that took me from my home in New England to Iowa, Nebraska and Ohio.  I still keep looking.  I hope you do, too.

The grown-over right-of-way of what once was the mainline of the Wabash Railroad at Cecil, Ohio. There used to be a double-track main that hosted the Wabash “Cannonball”. In 2007, the rail line was used primarily for car storage by the former Maumee & Western, which did little to maintain the tracks.
The 100-plus-year old iron bridge and coaling tower on the former Hocking Valley Railroad (C&O) at Nelsonville, Ohio. By 2008, when I shot this, this was the end of the line for what is now the Hocking Valley Scenic Railroad. The railroad was abandoned and torn up south of where I stood.
A landlocked B&O steel boxcar, compete with the top-side brake wheel, sitting on a short spur track near the Columbus, Ohio airport that had long been cut off from the main. It looks like it spent its last days in MOW service. It was scrapped on-site a few years after this 1987 photo.
Near downtown Columbus, Ohio in 1986, I found this weather-beaten “phone booth” surrounded by bulrushes along what once was the Panhandle Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad.
A string of old Milwaukee Road freight cars and a caboose, white-lined and ready to be scrapped, sat on a spur on a cold, winter day  just north of Ottumwa, Iowa in 1980. The caboose managed to survive and was bought and restored by a rail museum in Wisconsin.
The former Wabash (N&W) depot at Liberty Center, Ohio in 1985. The depot was moved and preserved and the rail line is now a recreational trail.
An old industrial spur is barely visible in the dirt between the huge old warehouses near downtown Omaha, Nebraska in 1981. It was once served by the Union Pacific Railroad. Today, all of this is gone and the land redeveloped. One can still imagine an old steam or diesel switcher navigating through this “canyon”.
It was a typically foggy morning along the coast of Maine in August of 1984. Where once the Maine Central ran through the coastal town of Milbridge, only the old depot and tracks remained. The line had not seen service in over a decade.
Land-locked on what’s left of the old Toledo & Ohio Central (NYCRR) yard at Bucyrus, Ohio, I found this Norfolk & Western caboose in 2014. It is privately owned and still there.

Stu NicholsonPhotographs and text Copyright 2017

6 thoughts on “Railroads in the Weeds

  1. This was a very thoughtful and evocative look at abandoned railroads. The images really brought home the message of the text, the sadness of a once busy route now lying abandoned and forgotten.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I’ve been a history buff my whole life and railroads have always struck me as one of those threads that runs through that history.

  2. I believe this collection of photos is more relevant than most people give them credit. A lot of information is contained in these pictures, and if it weren’t for the fact that these former ROW’s have no business value to the railroads, these photos would have nothing in them but real estate. Abandon, but just their presence speaks volumes.

  3. Stu,
    Amazing what feelings you evoke with great pix and succinct, contextual cutlines. To me, you’re still a talented newsman with a great, big heart.

  4. Love your site….It connects with my RR DNA first created when I was 5 yrs old and given a cab ride in a steam yard switcher in Peterborough Ontario 1951..Last fall ran across two old diesel electrics and some passengers parked on a weed infested spur track near Oneoneta NY

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