The Nickel Plate Road, High Speed Service


The New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad, historically known as simply the Nickel Plate Road, was a medium sized Class I operating in the Midwest from Buffalo and Pittsburgh in the east to Chicago and St. Louis in the west. Although this railroad is usually associated as another David among Goliaths in the Northeast-Midwest rail market it held its own and operated excellent freight service throughout its area of operations. The NYC&StL gained its nickname from a Norwalk, Ohio newspaper columnist as a compliment for the railroad’s high standard of construction when it was completed and opened in 1881 calling it a "double-track nickel-plated railroad."

GP9 #811 and a classic red, wooden caboose rest at Chicago's 79th and Wallace Street yard during late March of 1964.

The original Nickel Plate Road main line ran between Buffalo and Chicago and closely paralleled New York Central’s future affiliate the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern. Wanting no part of competition along its main line to Chicago the NYC quickly purchased a controlling interest in the Nickel Plate soon after it opened and the railroad would linger on until 1916 as an unwanted predecessor of its parent. Restored hope for the NKP arrived that year when the NYC was forced (due to new anti-trust laws) to let go of either the NKP, Lake Shore & Michigan Southern, or the Michigan Central.

Although not wanting to let go of any, the NYC settled on the Nickel Plate and the little railroad would go on to be a thorn in its former owner’s side for the rest of its life until it was purchase by the Norfolk & Western in 1962. Sold to the renowned Van Sweringen brothers of Cleveland, Ohio (of C&O, Erie and Rio Grande fame, just to name a few of their railroad interests) they quickly upgraded the dilapidated system and formed a strong Midwestern competitor when they merged the Lake Erie & Western and Toledo, St. Louis & Western into the Nickel Plate, giving the new system a territory which extended to places such as Pittsburgh (through later subsidiary Wheeling & Lake Erie), St. Louis, Peoria, and Indianapolis.

An upgraded physical plant and locomotive fleet by the mid-1930s allowed the Nickel Plate Road to become quite a force to be reckoned with (although its total system barely broke 2,000 miles at its peak) as its bridge line status was nearly perfect for the region and the cities it served, as it had several connections with large eastern and western roads. By the end of the 1940s the railroad was introducing centralized traffic control (CTC), diesels, and even more bridge traffic to its system when it began to haul W&LE traffic to Lake Erie ports at Huron, Ohio.  Aside from the railroad’s underdog status, which continues to make it an interesting study even today, it is also remembered for a number of other things including its famous 2-8-4 Berkshires and its beautiful blue and gray “Bluebird” passenger livery (albeit the railroad never had a strong market for passenger service).

One of the Nickel Plate's largest steam locomotives, Class L-1 4-6-4 Hudson #173 (sporting smoke deflectors, which helped to pull smoke away from the locomotive when operating at speed so that the engineer had better visibility) pulls out of LaSalle Street Station with its train on July 17, 1947.

The famous Berks, which was a diverse and extremely capable locomotive for the railroad (it was used for everything from heavy freight to speedy passenger service), soldiered on for the Nickel Plate as late as the summer of 1958.  The end for the Nickel Plate began in the late 1950s when, as competition became more and more fierce and mergers began pick up momentum, management knew it had to act and align itself with one of the larger eastern carriers to assure its survival (particularly as, during this time, the Pennsylvania and New York Central were contemplating merger and the C&O and B&O had already merged along with the Virginian having become part of the N&W in 1959).


As it so happened, the N&W was actually looking for some way to extend its lucrative and vaunted coal traffic to the Midwest and found such an extension by way of the Nickel Plate Road (the NKP was interested in the merger since the N&W was a very wealthy coal-hauling system).  This new marriage resulted in a strong Midwest-Tidewater system and resulted in other smaller railroads scrambling for some way to remain competitive. These roads included the Wabash; Akron, Canton & Youngstown; and Pittsburgh & West Virginia, all three of which asked to become part of the new system as, which was granted. And, after four years of negotiations, hearings, and planning the new, larger N&W became a reality (all three additional railroads were merged into the N&W) on October 16, 1964.

NKP NW2 #21 pulls a cut of cars through Chicago's Pullman Junction on April 7, 1966.

The Nickel Plate itself never lived long enough to own many diesels, especially since it was late to dieselize, and only contributed a little over 400 units to the N&W, almost all of which were first generation power. In spite of this the railroad’s main lines continue to serve successor Norfolk Southern quite well today as high-speed routes to the cities the NKP served. As mentioned above, several of the Nickel Plate’s steam and diesel locomotives continue to not only survive but also are fully restored and operational, most notably Berkshire #765 and sister 763, which was just recently purchased by the Ohio Central and is expected to be fully restored to operation as well. Also, while not originally of Nickel Plate heritage, the only soon-to-be-operating Alco PA in the country is adorned in NKP's beautiful Bluebird passenger livery and numbered #190 just like the original.

One of the most beautiful steam locomotives ever built were the Nickel Plate's Class S 2-8-4 Berkshires. Seen here is #779, polished and on display at the Chicago Railroad Fair on September 25, 1949.

Diesel Locomotive Roster

The American Locomotive Company

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
S21-6, 25-451942-195027
S446-61, 65-831951-195335
S18519501
PA-1180-1901947-194811
RSD12325-33319579
RS3535-557195423
RS11558-577, 850-8641956-196035
C42057819641
RS36865-875196211

The Baldwin Locomotive Works/Lima Locomotive Works

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
DS-4-4-1000100-10119472
LS-1000305-30819494
LS-1200309-31219504
AS16320-3231953-19544

Electro-Motive Division

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
NW27-221942-194816
SW1105-10619502
SW8107-11419528
SW7230-23219503
SW9233-2441951-195212
GP7400-4471951-195348
GP9448-534, 800-8141955-1959102
GP3591019641

Fairbanks Morse

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
H10-44125-1331948-19499
H12-44134-1551953-195822

General Electric

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
44-Tonner9019491

Steam Locomotive Roster

Class Type Wheel Arrangement
B-5 Through B-11, MSwitcher0-6-0
C-17, U-2, U-3Switcher0-8-0
D-9American4-4-0
E-3Atlantic4-4-2
F-6, F-7Mogul2-6-0
G-1 Through G-10 (Various), N-2, N-4Consolidation2-8-0
H-5, H-6/a/bMikado2-8-2
L-1Hudson4-6-4
P, P-4, P-5, P-6, RTen-Wheeler4-6-0
S Through S-3Berkshire2-8-4

Notable Passenger Trains

Nickel Plate Limited: (Chicago - Buffalo)

Blue Arrow: (Cleveland - St. Louis)

Blue Dart: (St. Louis - Cleveland)

City of Chicago: (Buffalo - Chicago)

City of Cleveland: (Chicago - Buffalo)

Commercial Traveler: (Toledo - St. Louis)

New Yorker: (Chicago - Buffalo)

Westerner: (Buffalo - Chicago)


The Nickel Plate was a regular customer of Alco products, even coming back to purchase second-generation equipment. One of its RS36s, #875, is seen here powering today's City of Chicago as it pulls into the Windy City's Englewood Union Station on April 21, 1965.

For more reading about the Nickel Plate consider The Nickel Plate Road: The History of a Great Railroad from author Taylor Hampton. The book gives a superb history on the railroad, so if you are looking for a book which provides a great historical account of the NKP you will enjoy this book very much. Overall it is one of the premier books which covers the history of the Nickel Plate. If you're interested in perhaps purchasing this book please visit the link below which will take you to ordering information through Amazon.com, the trusted online shopping network.

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