Man with a Wheelbarrow

ALL FALL and winter of 1847, visitors to Cleveland had to stop and stare. A lonely shovelman was gravely clearing and digging a straight right-of-way from the mouth of the Cuyahoga south. His progress was slow, but you could tell he was following a line of stakes.

One startling fact was that he worked in all weather, and he worked with a sense of mission.

Visitors always asked the Warren-Cleveland stage coachman, “What is he doing?”

The coachman always answered, “Building the Cleveland-Columbus & Cincinnati Railroad.”

The coachman enjoyed leaving it right there, and feeding the information out as piecemeal as possible.

“One man? Why?”

“To hold the charter ’til they raise the money.”

“Why do they have to hold it?”

“If they don’t start building the railroad within ten years of getting the charter, they lose it. Time’s almost up. So they started one man to work. Legally, the road is now under construction.”

“Why don’t they really build it like they meant it?”

And in that question lies the story. Railroading on the Cuyahoga is a history of adventures in canniness and contrivance.

The mechanical part of that history is glamorous and boldly exciting for all to see. Some of it has been preserved for us by Mr. Mack Lawry of Akron. As the traveler drives north up Route 8 from Akron, away from the river, he is surprised to see several cold but once real steam-snorting locomotives by the roadside. A sign proclaims this to be “Railways of America.” They are the same trains that once punished the rails from coast to coast, come to pasture now by the Cuyahoga to serve as a sight for tourists.

Mack Lawry was an Akron businessman, but for years his hobby became building and collecting model railroads as well as the old retired locomotives, Pullman cars, and cabooses that stand in front of a red brick station house typical of those that bordered the Cuyahoga for 50 years.

Inside the station house is a museum of railroading and a corridor lined with paintings from the heyday of trains. From there, you will come upon the largest collection of model trains in the world. A single table holds 11,000 feet of miniature track and 300 switches, all built by Lawry.

Solemn-faced, white-haired Lawry, one of those wiry men of deceptive energy, announced, “It’s a piece of America ...”

The rails are a big piece of the Cuyahoga story, because they importantly determined the character of its banks. More important, however, were the people.

This story begins with the group of top-hatted, fine-frocked gentlemen gathered on a sunny afternoon in October 1847, at the river end of Superior Street in Cleveland. Alfred Kelley, stoop shouldered and frail from his work on the canal 17 years before, led them, a long-handled workmen’s shovel over his shoulder. At a point just beyond the city limits the group paused long enough to survey the peaceful scene of trees and meadows.

Then Kelley began to dig, scooping the earth into a wheel-barrow with determined bites. When it was full, Jim Briggs, attorney-at-law, hefted the handles of the wheelbarrow and trundled it a short distance away to dump the contents.

From a fallen log where he had taken a seat, gingerly, so he would not soil his trousers, George F. Marshall laughed. “Bravo, gentlemen,” he slapped his thigh. “Another barrow-load like that and you’ll have it flat enough to stand solid and see which way to aim our railroad.”

The others did not pause in the work.

Marshall cackled, “How long you think it’ll take us to get to Columbus, Alfred?”

Kelley passed the shovel to Mr. Handy and wiped her forehead perspiration. “Well, George, since it’s only taken us ten years doing nothing, think how much faster the job will go with five of us shoveling.”

Mr. Handy drove the shovel deep into the moist earth. “If George’d get off those sitting muscles, we might make it faster.” He heaved the clod into the barrow and passed the shovel to Mr. Sargent.

Oliver Perry staggered a step from the unaccustomed activity at the wheelbarrow, “Get to it, George. We’ve got 200 miles to go.”

“Right, gentlemen,” said Kelley, “and once begun, we can’t stop.”

Even Marshall sobered slightly, “Well, it’s a comic begin-ning for a railroad. We’ve hardly enough money to pay for this ceremony, but we’re obliged from this moment never to stop construction until the road is finished - or lose the charter.” Marshall laughed again, but the smile faded swiftly as he looked at Kelley’s face.

Kelley said, “Mr. Marshall, I do not intend to be associated with a comic venture.” He looked toward Columbus. And he handed the shovel to a bona fide workman, “Mr. Teasely, commence building this right-of-way to the south; and do not leave the job for any reason except the Sabbath, without calling for a replacement.” He turned to Marshall. “We have money to raise.”

The smiling reporter from the Cleveland Leader asked, “Mr. Kelley, do I understand the ground for the Cleveland & Columbus Railroad is now officially broken?”

Kelley’s responding gaze was steady. The smile faded from the journalist’s face. “You do,” he said slowly, “and there is little prospect of its ever being mended.”

Next morning, the Leader reported the incident as a “Railroad Accident.” The paper took this sarcastic tone because the first charter for the Cleveland & Columbus Railroad had been granted ten years before when railroad fever was running high throughout the land and every city was determined to get rails first. It would mean the making of a city.

The prize was worth it. Cleveland, which the canal had enabled reaching the New York market, was already a trade metropolis, funneling goods from the midwest and the middle seaboard which extended west and north to Michigan’s shores. Railroads, as they were envisioned by the more worldly, would not only siphon off this trade, but also open up the entire eastern seaboard as a market.

The winner in this pit fight to gain the first charters would be a metropolis even greater than Cleveland at the end of the canal.

Sandusky, archrival to the river’s king city, was first to petition the Ohio legislature for a railroad. Their charter to build the Mad River and Lake Erie Railroad was refused, understandably enough, because the legislators were concerned more with paying the debts on the completed canal than with financing a new and so far unproven means of transportation.

Thus began the bickering of a score of Ohio towns that had been ignored by the canal, all trying to attract the railroads and feed on the wealth of a nation’s trade.

On January 26, 1832, the first charter was granted incorporating an “Erie and Ohio Railroad,” but since no terminals were named and the route vaguely implied as “between Lake Erie and the Ohio River,” every city that could conceivably became a part of the route joined the melee to be first with rails. Painesville cited her harbor as “susceptible of as great, if not greater, improvement as that at Cleveland.”

It must be remembered that while those giants who spun the steel webs that eventually entwined this nation were just beginning to grow in power in the east, the midwest thought only in terms of short line roads.

Each city sought to become a rail metropolis by starting first and, hopefully, linking later with other short lines.

Other cities soon squared off in rivalry. While Painesville was planning a route through Chardon, Salem, and Wellsville, the editor of the Ashtabula Sentinel was busy devising a route from his city through Jefferson, Warren, and East Liverpool. Both cities fought bitterly and eventually got their charters.

At this point, Conneaut put in her bid for a railroad, declaring that it was the terminal point of the shortest and least expensive route between lake shore and the Ohio River. On January 11, 1836, a charter was granted for the Conneaut and Beaver Railroad Company.

Clevelanders, seemingly confident of their position as the lake shore terminus of trade, took a smug view of the petty scrapping around them when they eventually chartered their own railroad link to tie the three major cities: Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati.

Saner heads prevailed among the Cleveland railroaders, and it was soon realized that while the Columbus to Cincinnati route would draw upon the midwestern markets, a route to Pittsburgh would eventually open the outlets through the Pennsylvania railroads to the eastern markets. And so it was that on March 14, 1836, the Cleveland and Pittsburgh Rail Road Company was granted a charter.

Now Cleveland may have been a wolf among the bickering scrapping dogs around it, but Cleveland also lacked the one thing that eventually terminated the plans of many short lines in that day - money.

With the financial panic of 1837 already brewing, Pennsylvania refused to support her end of a Cleveland and Pittsburgh route.

Strangely enough, on an eve of panic, the national treasury was choked with money and a national surplus revenue was declared. By an Act of Congress on June 23, 1836, the surplus was divided among the states, a prize of $2,000,000 falling to Ohio. Clevelanders cast a greedy eye on the $120,000 allotted to Cuyahoga County.

But it was up to the county officials to designate the money either to internal improvements which would give the railroad its start, or to private individuals. The dog fight continued in earnest with only two things positive about the prize: it was generally agreed that the state would loan the money with the interest going to support public schools; and, what was most important as fuel to this bitter fight, the United States would never ask for its money back.

The compromise law of March 24, 1837, was almost immediately dubbed, “The Plunder Law.” And Cleveland campaigned to raise the two thirds necessary to match their plunder, expecting Pennsylvania to do likewise for her end of the road. Valiantly, the editor of the Cleveland Herald exclaimed, “Private investment and state aid combined would have to raise less than a million dollars.”

He called for a public meeting to determine where the county’s plunder would go. Unfortunately, words weren’t enough. No meeting was ever held, and the fund commissioners of Cuyahoga County finally announced that the money would go to private individuals.

While the plunder law was just one more fruitless route to nothing for Clevelanders, it indirectly applied a pressure to the railroad builders that couldn’t be ignored.

It seems that the city of Sandusky had succeeded in obtaining plunder from the state and had used it to build their long-delayed Mad River and Lake Erie Railroad.

It may have been a rickety strap-iron, “shake gut” line, plagued, as always, with snakeheads and shifting roadbeds; it may have been horse-drawn and only 33 miles long, but, by Godfrey, it was a railroad.

Sandusky was out in front.

Now the railroad interests pitched into the race with a vengeance. In the utter confusion of short-line railroads that were chartered during the 1830s, one of them, the Ohio Railroad, rallied enough support to give Sandusky a good run for its money.

The Ohio Railroad Company set out to build a rail link from Sandusky to Manhattan at the mouth of the Maumee. Unfortunately, this stretch of so-called land had been known from the time of the early frontiersmen as “The Black Swamp.” The “walk on the mud” as it was called, was a railroad on stilts sunk in the swamp. It was doomed before it started, but at least it had been started.

The charter for the Cleveland, Columbus & Cincinnati had lain dormant since 1835, and in those days charters were granted with the stipulation that work would begin within a certain period of time and continue uninterrupted. In time, the Big C’s charter had quietly expired, but no one seemed to notice. Cleveland still had the canal.

Sandusky extended her rails southward while Clevelanders, who knew these puny, strap-iron affairs could never carry the weight of freight that poured over the canal, were content to wait until someone got up gumption enough (and money enough) to build a real railroad.

On the morning of July 27, 1846, however, an incident occurred that shook the Big C to the roots of its complacency. Fifty passengers arrived in Buffalo, intending to travel by lake ship to Cleveland where they could catch a canalboat for Cincinnati. No doubt ship captains were prompted by the additional fares they could collect by extending their passage to Sandusky, but their argument appealed to the sophistication of the travelers. “Why suffer that plodding canal,” they reasoned “when you can take the railroad at Sandusky and get fast, modern transportation all the way to Cincinnati?”

Fifty passengers promptly voted to bypass Cleveland and booked passage for Sandusky.

Clevelanders panicked. It was an omen that couldn’t be ignored. In desperation, the old charter for the Cleveland, Columbus & Cincinnati Railroad was revised and the Ohio legislature passed an act enabling Cleveland to subscribe money for the road.

But the directors trying to sell bonds for the enterprise in New York soon found that old canal debts were still hampering investors and the Mexican War was siphoning off most of the extra money available. They returned with a mere $250,000 in conditional stock subscriptions and pledges, hardly enough to resume the project. As far as the discouraged directors were concerned, it would take a genius to make the Cleveland, Columbus & Cincinnati Railroad a reality.

With only a small glimmer of hope, Richard Hilliard of the Big C endured the stagecoach to Columbus and called on Alfred Kelley, who now lived there.

“Mr. Kelley,” Hilliard explained, “you’re the only man who can do the job. Our second charter is about to run out. If work doesn’t start, we’ll lose it. There won’t be a railroad. There won’t be a Cleveland.”

No doubt, as they talked, Kelley was remembering the long years he had slaved to bring the canal into reality.

He looked at Hilliard, his firm mouth pinching the words. “I’m sorry, I can’t do it.”

Hilliard continued the discussion far into the night, but Kelley refused.

Hilliard spent a fitful night as guest in Kelley’s house, perhaps dreaming of his report to his fellow directors. At breakfast he greeted Kelley with a bleak good morning and seated himself at the table.

Kelley cleared his throat. Hilliard’s eyes snapped up from his plate. He waited, not daring to speak.

“I’ve reconsidered,” Kelley said. “It is a matter of great importance to the interests and welfare of the state. I feel it is my duty.”

Alfred Kelley returned to Cleveland by stage as the president of the Big C. He would return to Columbus by rail.

The clock was running. Kelley raced to begin construction before the charter ran out. The surveys were made, the estimates totaled, but on deadline eve not a shovelful of earth had been turned.

And so it was, on October 1, 1847, a solemn group again marched to a spot just outside Cleveland proper, their top hats and frock coats contrasting blatantly with their shovels and wheelbarrows: Kelley, followed by the treasurer of the Big C, T. P. Handy; the engineer, J. H. Sargent; Attorney James A. Briggs; H. B. Payne, Oliver Perry, John A. Foote, and the laughing, slouching, logsitting George F. Marshall.

And it was that fall and winter that a solitary workman was to be seen laboring forlornly in this remote spot, languidly picking at the earth, loading his wheelbarrow and carting it to a spot where the mounds grew bigger and the task more hopeless.

In one last now-or-never gesture of defiance at the lethargy that had stalemated the Cleveland railroad for ten years, Kelley called a meeting in the Empire Hall on the evening of August 1, 1848.

The Herald described the audience as “the bone and sinew of Cleveland-Commercial men, Dry Goods, Grocery and Hardware dealers, Mechanics, Capitalists, Bankers, Lawyers, Doctors and even the clergy.”

Kelley took the podium gravely, “Gentlemen, we are here to discuss the condition of the Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati Railroad.” At that moment, a number of men grouped at the doors, prepared for an early exit, were startled to hear the bolts click. Kelley was taking no chances.

“Yes, gentlemen,” said Kelley. “The doors are locked and will remain locked until we have enough subscribers to make sure the road.”

Kelley then launched into one of the most persuasive arguments of his career.

Murmuring grew as Kelley took his seat and John A. Foote moved forward. He pointed directly at Richard Hilliard.

“Mr. Hilliard. Will you raise your subscription to fifteen thousand dollars?”

Hilliard rose as if to a question. But he said, “Yes.”

With every “yes,” cheers rocked the hall. All told, they totaled $114,000.

Mr. Kelley had his railroad. And he built it with the same shrewd integrity and hawkeye to the future with which he had built the canal.

“Strap iron, Alfred?”

“No. Solid iron. I’ll be in Quebec this June to see that seven thousand tons of English iron are delivered promptly.”

“That’s not enough.”

“It’ll last the year. By then, I’ll be in Wales. I’ll get another five thousand tons. Spread the order in thinner piles. A thinner price.”

“But the money, Alfred?”

“We’ll pay in company bonds.”

“The culverts? We’ll build in wood?”


“The bridges?”


“There’s not enough.”

Kelley bit the words. “We’ll find enough. We build in stone and iron so we don’t do the work twice.”

As Henry Clay had observed years before in addressing the Ohio Legislature, “Alfred Kelley has too much cast iron in his composition to be popular.”

A scant year from the historic meeting in Empire Hall, the first locomotive puffed up the grade at River Road. Knee-breeched boys swarmed over the wooden flat cars and slowed the train to a stop.

With such a faltering first run, one wonders if the Big C would ever rival the canal in freight. However, on November 22, 1851, the train made its complete run from Cincinnati to Cleveland carrying a full load composed of the entire state legislature, the mayors and city councils of Cincinnati and Columbus, headed by Ohio’s governor, Reuben Wood.

Officially, Big C said good-bye to their man with the wheelbarrow who had worked so diligently through the winter of ’47, but he was not to be unemployed long. It is said he immediately went to work on the Lake Shore Line.

Railroad fever became epidemic and men sought new rails to carry their money. The Cleveland & Pittsburgh, whose charter had also lain dormant these past ten years, was revived. Rail lines began creeping into the Cuyahoga valley like steel tributaries.

But the Big C Railroad made one decision that was to give rise to a dramatic competitor. It avoided Kent Township’s part of the river en route to Columbus. That would not have made much difference except for one thing. That was where Marvin Kent lived.

Kent had settled in Madison Falls where the Cuyahoga’s southern course begins its westerly loop toward Akron. By 1850, he was head of a glass works, a woolen mill, and a flour mill. The town changed its name to Kent.

As trains began to roll over the Big C rails, Kent was ready to begin his next enterprise, a cotton mill by the falls of the Cuyahoga. When the Big C avoided Kent Township’s part of the river, Kent took it personally. “What’s the use for us to build these mills if I can have no railroad to connect us to the outer world!”

Kent voiced the views of hundreds of unrailed towns. Kent, however, did something about it, personally. He stormed off to the state legislature at Columbus and introduced a bill chartering a railroad to run east from his home town, through Warren to the Pennsylvania line, and west from Kent to Ashtabula. Kent was moderate in his immediate plans, but not in ideas. To make sure he would have as many markets at the disposal of his mills as possible, he described a route ultimately running to the southwest corner of the state, to the very border of the south itself.

Originally Kent’s name for this road was the Coal Hill Railroad, but to understand Kent’s next move, we must understand that this was the era of the great rail mergers and the rail merchants, most of them roughnecks like Jim Fisk and Daniel Drew who used every power at their command to gobble up rivals presuming to be any more than short-line, intercity roads. The history of the big lines is corroded, of course, with cloudy, deals and scandals. Towns and cities which had innocently and sincerely invested money to build rails through their towns often found the charters absorbed by the big roads, their bonds repudiated, their money gone and, in some cases, the rails diverted to other destinations. The merged railroads rushing between the cities made big cities bigger and backwatered the small towns.

But Marvin Kent, with a small railroad charter in his pocket and a big railroad idea in his head, was about to bring the big railroads and the big markets to Kent. Kent’s charter presumed a great deal by granting the right to stretch across the entire state of Ohio. It was a juicy plum for the big roads, if they found out about it.

Kent determined that they would not. But the name he had chosen made people wonder about its terminals, and ask. Consequently, Coal Hill was changed to “The Franklin and Warren Railroad,” safely mundane. Both towns were well to the east of Kent’s prime target on the Cuyahoga. Kent was able to maintain an illusion that his short line was barely long enough to connect two unimportant cities. However, Kent shrewdly kept the terms of his original charter unchanged.

The Franklin and Warren was organized at once and $900,000 raised in stock subscriptions. On July 4, 1853, Kent stood by the banks of the Cuyahoga and turned the first shovelful of earth. Seven days later, work commenced in earnest to extend the road, not east to Warren or Franklin, but south to Dayton where it would connect with the new Cincinnati, Hamilton and Dayton line.

Kent’s so-called Franklin and Warren line was well started on its cut across the state when the money markets plunged again. Drought hit the midwest farmlands, rail building came to a standstill. Kent decided it was time to bring his road into the open and his plan to its rightful place in the commerce of the United States. In 1855, he made a slight change in the name from Franklin & Warren to the Atlantic & Great Western Railroad. Now there was a railroad!

Over the next ten years, the Atlantic & Great Western grew beyond even Kent’s grandiose dreams. Edwin Drake in Titusville brought oil to the road’s traffic in 1859.

By the time the Civil War swelled the railroad’s traffic to the bursting point, the Atlantic & Great Western, connecting with the Erie Railroad, had the first trains traveling all the way from Salamanca, east of Erie, over 369 miles of track to Dayton, Ohio. By this time, however, Kent was thoroughly disgusted with the mad expenditures, the scandals, repudiated bonds, stock manipulations, bankruptcies, forced sales and the extravagant moneysucking construction which clung like a plague to everything that came near the eastern railroad moguls. In 1864, he resigned.

The Atlantic & Great Western was leased to the Erie Railroad and, although its name remains only in histories and legends told by the railroad buffs of today, it had gone far beyond its original purpose in crossing rails with the Cuyahoga.

Into this fantastic garble of railroads that were conceived, born, built, and often bankrupted during the ’40s and ’60s, we must add one more road - a rather important one in Cleveland’s future which led to rails along the Cuyahoga.

While all other roads could take the products of industry and the midwest farmlands out of the port city, the Cleveland & Mahoning was the one road that brought in fuel so necessary for the industrial furnaces. It tapped the heart of the best coal country in Ohio, the Briar Hill deposit near Youngstown.

The question that seemed eminent as far as rail building was concerned was whether or not Cleveland was to use coal and raw materials to become an industrial center or send them out and become a loading dock for the markets of the world.

Quiet voices over the matter were heard occasionally through the 1860s, while the thriving Cleveland & Mahoning hauled coal in two directions, alternating with loads of butter, cheese, and produce from the midwest farmlands. So much commerce passed over the “Butter and Cheese” road that in 1858, Jacob Perkins, the line’s prime mover commented, “If I die, you may inscribe on my tombstone, ‘Died of the Mahoning Valley Railroad.’”

As business increased, so did prices; and when coal topped $1.50 a ton, Clevelanders woke up. On December 6, 1871, the Cleveland Leader commented: “There are millions of tons of coal waiting to be brought to Cleveland over this new route and millions of tons of Lake Superior ore waiting to be smelted here whenever Cleveland can command sufficient cheap fuel to do the work.”

The charter for the new line was under the name of the Valley Railroad Company. Unfortunately, the details of the road’s construction did not please all the cities along the proposed route.

Akron industrialists wanted broad gauge so that they could load freight and connect at Cleveland with the coast-to-coast railroads without discharging freight and reloading on ordinary gauge lines.

Clevelanders, on the other hand, were interested in the coal the road could bring. They were also interested in freight profits as long as the road never fell into the hands of the big lines. However, that eventually could be offset by building to narrow gauge.

The controversy waged politely in meetings, and the year 1871 closed quietly on a stalemate.

Professor J. S. Newberry, state geologist, offered a suggestion: “... the only way to prevent the Baltimore & Ohio from getting control of the road is to have the stockholders hold onto their stock.”

By 1872, every town along the proposed route had sold its share of stock in the enterprise, all except Cleveland.

On February 23, the Leader, almost with a sigh of relief, but certainly without enthusiasm, reported the decision of 300 men “representing the capital of the city” who met at City Hall. Standard gauge would be built, which “closes definitely, we suppose, all the debate on the question.”

In April, the newspapers were still prodding. Cleveland businessmen just wouldn’t get off their wallets. By November, a bond issue was proposed to finance Cleveland’s share of the road. And the citizens voted No.

Finally the panic of 1873 crimped business money in an unrelenting grip and the Valley Railroad project silently closed its books and temporarily drifted into history’s file of abandoned projects.

But it was not the end. After seven more years of rising coal prices, private capitalists gathered enough money. On February 2, 1880, ten years after its charter was granted, the first train rolled over the Valley Railroad overlooking the banks of the Cuyahoga.

That railroad finally brought the coal to Cleveland blast furnaces. It stirred the great hearths and fanned the flames which marked Cleveland as one of the great cities of the world during the ’80s and ’90s.

Today, time has forgotten the little railway along the Cuyahoga. But against the sky stands the silent silhouette of the steelmaking it fueled.