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