While its trackage is a bit worn and property somewhat rundown the Whitewater Valley Railroad provides a nice excursion on a former stretch of a New York Central branch that totals just under 20 miles. The property features the added benefit of running along the former towpath of the Whitewater Canal, an historic waterway dating back to the earliest days of the railroad industry. Today's excursion service, using an old name for the property, has been running since the 1980s and provides a long list of different trips and specials. To learn more about these please visit the railroad's website.
The history of trains running along what is now the Whitewater Valley Railroad between Connersville and Metamora, Indiana begins with the construction and opening of the Whitewater Canal in 1845. This waterway was approved by the state in 1836 and offered waterway transportation, at the time the most efficient means of moving people and goods, between Lawrenceburg and Hagerstown, a distance of 76 miles. Unfortunately, canal fever sprang up just before the development of railroads and as a result most saw only a few decades of service before being replaced by the iron horse, which could operate year-round and at much faster speeds.
Such was the case with the Whitewater Canal which also suffered from flooding and droughts. In the 1850s local communities asked the state to sell the tow-path right-of-way for railroad use. In 1863 this task was granted to the Indianapolis & Cincinnati Railroad which formed a subsidiary known as the Whitewater Valley Railroad. The new WVRR set about constructing a new line from a connection with the I&C at Valley Junction, located roughly 17 miles west of Cincinnati, Ohio to the small community of Hagerstown, Indiana which opened in 1868. The WVRR would later disappear into the very large Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railway, formed in 1889 and better known as "The Big Four."
The huge CCC&StL system was an 1889 conglomerate of a merger between the Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati & Indianapolis Railway and the Indianapolis & St Louis Railway (the former had gobbled up the I&C and several other systems). The new Big Four was a formidable Midwestern railroad during its heyday stretching from central Ohio to southwestern Illinois and even the southern tips of Michigan. In addition, it served all of the major cities in its name while comprising a total system of nearly 2,400 miles. It also went on to form much of the fabled New York Central's western network when acquired in 1906.
As history tells us the NYC grew into a colossal eastern giant, the vision of Cornelious "Commodore" Vanderbilt and ultimately spanned more than 10,000 miles from Boston and New York to Chicago and St. Louis. The branch to Hagerstown became just one of many others, diverting north from the Cincinnati - Indianapolis main line. A relatively modest secondary route with only humble volumes of traffic it saw its first cutbacks during the early 20th century. In 1931 the NYC abandoned the section between Beeson (slightly north of Connersville) and Hagerstown that year. Passenger service soon followed, discontinued two years later in 1933.
Remaining freight service continued through the ill-fated Penn Central merger of 1968. A financially sick PC spent the next few years attempting to improve operational efficiency but had little success and filed for bankruptcy in the summer of 1970. With declining service and few customers PC elected to lease the 25-mile section between Connersville and Brookeville in 1972 to the newly formed, non-profit Whitewater Valley Railroad. The line was severed between Metamora and Brookville in 1974 due to a washout, prompting Penn Central to abandon this section soon afterwards. In 1983, under Conrail, the WVRR acquired much of the remaining branch. Since then, the all-volunteer operation has been working to repair and upgrade the property that hasn't seen significant maintenance since the NYC era.
According to the railroad they have spent more than $1 million over the past 20 years to improve the property. In the railroad industry this is not a significant amount of money but for tourist lines it is a substantial sum. Today, the WVRR operates excursions using historic diesel locomotives although once owned a small steam locomotive as well (it currently owns several that are not operational). In addition to the branch line's preservation they have saved railroad structures as well including the NYC/Baltimore & Ohio Dearborn Tower from Lawrenceburg, Indiana and the B&O's depot Rushville, Indiana. They hope to eventually have a new roundhouse and turntable to further preserve their equipment while in the meantime they have built a new a 150' x 60' restoration shop in the Connersville Yard.