The Nickel Plate Road, High Speed Service

The New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad (NYC&StL), historically known as the Nickel Plate Road, was the ultimate bridge line.  Its 2,200-mile network linked Buffalo with Chicago and St. Louis in the hotly contested Midwestern market.  The Nickel Plate was not your standard "David among Goliath's" struggling to hold its own among far larger competitors.  It was constructed to incredibly high standards with a main line boasting few grades and long tangents.  Its impeccable physical plant, high-speed freight service, relatively few branch lines, and modest passenger business resulted in a railroad earning strong profits during an era when many others were failing.  According to John Rehor's excellent book, "The Nickel Plate Story," it grossed $2.8 billion between 1945 and the 1964 merger with Norfolk & Western while enjoying profits of $250 million.  The NYC&StL gained its nickname from a Norwalk, Ohio newspaper columnist complementing the railroad’s high standard of construction calling it a "double-track nickel-plated railroad."  Today, many of the Nickel Plate's primary corridors remain in use under successor Norfolk Southern.

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. 

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The Advisory Mechanical Committee

Norfolk & Western, "Precision Transportation"

Wabash, "Follow The Flag" 

Detroit, Toledo & Ironton, "We Have The Connections"

Illinois Central, "The Main Line Of Mid-America" 

Chicago, Indianapolis & Louisville (Monon), "The Hoosier Line" 

Notable Nickel Plate 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)

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).

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. 

Diesel Locomotive Roster

The American Locomotive Company

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
S21-6, 25-451942-195027
S446-61, 65-831951-195335
RS11558-577, 850-8641956-196035

The Baldwin Locomotive Works/Lima Locomotive Works

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity

Electro-Motive Division

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity
GP9448-534, 800-8141955-1959102

Fairbanks Morse

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity

General Electric

Model Type Road Number Date Built Quantity

Steam Locomotive Roster

Class Type Wheel Arrangement
B-5 Through B-11, MSwitcher0-6-0
C-17, U-2, U-3Switcher0-8-0
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
P, P-4, P-5, P-6, RTen-Wheeler4-6-0
S Through S-3Berkshire2-8-4

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.

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