Engineering News—October 6, 1892

Travelers over the western end of the Erie, and over the Lake Shore road in northern Ohio and eastern Michigan, must have often noticed long double rows of piles, occasionally running through shallow cuts, and evidently intended for some form of railway. They are an evidence of one of the earliest delusions of American railway construction, provoked by a dearth of labor and superabundance of timber, that a railway perched throughout on piles would have the best possible roadbed at least cost. A correspondent of the New York "Times" has unearthed the full history of these early lines so far as relates to northern Ohio, from which it appears that the system was "worked for all it was worth" in a financial as well as technical way, anticipating the similar use made in later years of the equally delusive narrow-gage theory. The project and plan of construction for the Ohio, Railroad referred to below are given very fully in a paper by Mr. C. P. Leland, on "The Rise and Fall of a Railroad Company, 1837-42," read in 1880 and printed in the 1881 volume of the "Journal of the Association of Engineering Societies." The substance of the story, as told in the "Times," is as follows:

Scattered here and there across northern Ohio in a line between Painesville and Toledo, will be found piles driven in seemingly unaccountable locations, and now far decayed. These fast-disappearing piles are the visible remains of one of the oddest, most peculiar, and most scandalous enterprises ever undertaken in this country.

The Ohio Railroad, as it was called in the articles of incorporation, was one of the schemes of the wild era of speculation, which preceded the panic of 1837, and no "boom" craze in the West to-day has been marked by wilder fancies than prevailed at that time along the south shore of Lake Erie. One sanguine individual predicted a solid city from Buffalo to Cleveland. At every indentation on the coast, town sites and cities were plotted, and speculation ran high. In 1836, one man paid $2,500 for a lot in Fairport, which his children 50 years later, offered for sale at $200. Similar wild inflation existed throughout all this then sparsely settled section.

It was in such an atmosphere that the idea of a railroad built on piles to avoid the expense of grading was adopted. The project was the child of some fertile, hare-brained eastern speculator, who wanted a railroad built from New York City to the Mississippi on this plan. The Ohio Railroad Company was organized in Painesville, April 25, 1836, under the laws of the state, which not only gave it the banking privilege, in addition to that of carrier, but enabled it to borrow most recklessly upon the credit of the state. Under what became notorious as the "Ohio plunder law;" the state loaned its credit in 6% stock to the amount of one-third the paid-up capital. In other words, it became a partner in railroad and canal schemes to the extent of one-third interest, in such a way that a premium was put on dishonesty, and an inducement held out to rob the state. Under this law stockholders turned in land, town lots, right of way, and the like, at fearfully exorbitant prices, in order that upon it more state credit could be drawn. Thus, if a farm were put in at the true value, say $3,000, but $1,000 in state credit could be drawn; but if it was entered at $6,000, twice its value, $2,000, in state stock would be issued for it.

Under such a brilliant financial scheme as this, the men who were not satisfied to stick to the ground in their railroad building, as was to have been expected, bled the state unmercifully. Their lands entered on stilts that were higher than ever the road was expected to run on, and the result was the state lost every cent advanced to the Ohio Railroad Co.—in all, some $250,000. Some of the staggering figures at which land was turned in to the company in payment of stock can be appreciated by a few comparisons. In Brooklyn township, Cuhahoga Co., a farm of 333 acres was put in at $33,300, while the valuation for taxation in 1840 was less than $3,800. One-eighth of 20 acres in Ohio City, now the West Side, went in as equivalent to $6,000 in stock, though four years later it was on the tax duplicate at barely $20. This $20-property, under this law, netted the Ohio company $2,000 in state credit. Never was a more shrewd and unscrupulous deal worked through than this by which a railway on stilts, and half a dozen other railway and canal corporations came near wrecking the credit of the then young and sparsely-settled commonwealth.

The purpose of the stilt railway was, of course, to boom the towns on its line. It was to run from Richmond, on the Grand River, two miles from Painesville, to the paper city of Manhattan, three or four miles below Toledo, on the Maumee. The prospectus was issued by Cyrus Williams, a reputable engineer, who afterward won a high place in his profession throughout northern Ohio. He remarked that, "by reference to the map of the United States, and examining the routes of improvements completed and in contemplation, it will be seen that from Maine to Virginia, in the East and South, and from Lake Superior to Arkansas, in the West, they all concentrate and unite with your road." He continued, at length, with neither statistics nor precedents to help him, to paint a panorama that, read more than fifty years after, is calculated to turn the writer of circus-bill posters green with envy.

The project took three years to get on its feet, and the first pile was not driven till June 19, 1839, the place being near the present Lake Shore & Michigan Southern station, in Fremont. Work was prosecuted during the summer and well into the winter. Thirty miles of the road were built near Manhattan, in what Thomas Richmond, who was Chairman of the Finance Committee of the Board of Directors, described as "a swamp of tall grass." The President of the company was interested in Manhattan town lots, and wanted them boomed; hence the pushing of work at the western terminus.

The actual work of construction was almost without parallel in its uniqueness. One hundred feet in width was cleared through the forest, and along this path at the rate of 330 ft. per day for each machine the most peculiar railway construction circuses on record were put to work. The piles were from 7 to 28 ft. long, varying to meet the grade, and were driven by a machine consisting of two sills about 40 ft. long, and placed parallel with each other at a distance of 7 ft., the width of the track. At the forward end of these sills four timbers 30 ft. high were erected, between which half-ton hammers were drawn up and dropped to drive the pile. A circular saw, attached to a shaft projecting between these four "leaders," cut the pile to the proper grade, and the machine moved forward 10 ft., and proceeded to drive the next pair. Eight men were required to operate each machine. A tie 8 ins. square was fitted to each pair of piles, and pinned down with a 2-in. cedar pin, half a pint of salt being deposited in each auger hole to preserve the wood before the pin closed it up. Behind the pile-driver, on the track that was being laid, was a locomotive sawmill preparing 900 lin. ft. of rails per day. These rails were stringers 8 x 8 ins. and 15 ft. long, "strap-iron" rails, 25 tons to the mile, being placed upon them. Behind all was a traveling boarding-house for the accommodation of the men.

In such a unique manner 63 miles of stilt road was constructed between 1839 and 1843, considerable traces of which still remain. The repeal of the "plunder law" in 1840 was the first blow to the enterprise, and the general financial collapse, together with quarrels among the Directors as to whose axe should be ground first and most, caused the financial abandonment of the project in 1843, before a single train had been run upon it. Ten years later the two roads, which have since been merged into the Lake Shore, were opened over nearly the same line between Toledo and Ashtabula, at a cost of but little greater per mile in that depressed period for earth embankments than the flimsy stilt structure would have cost under inflation.

Investigation by the State Auditor in 1843, after the bubble collapsed, showed that, until the repeal of the "plunder law" in 1840, "not a dollar had been collected from the stockholders; not a dollar was in the treasury as the basis of the state issue." The company had used its power as a bank to issue notes and "upon the expenditure of this character, the fund of the state were procured." Then, "they were used to redeem the circulation already out, and form the basis of a new emission, by which a new sum could be plundered from the public treasury." By this scheme the state was not only building the road and supporting the horde of officials connected with it, but was also a party to the infraction of her own law and the plunder of her citizens by means of a fraudulent banking system.

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