Last revised: April 20, 2023
By: Adam Burns
Ohio's history with railroads is fascinating; its location in the Midwest saw numerous trunk lines passing through its borders, most notably the Pennsylvania, Erie, New York Central, and Baltimore & Ohio.
All four railroads operated first-class passenger trains to and from Chicago such as the 20th Century Limited, Capitol Limited, Erie Limited, Broadway Limited, General, New England States, and Lake Cities.
All of these trains, and others, provided fine dining via a separate car. While flagship services like the 20th Century Limited, Broadway Limited, and Capitol Limited are well-known for the five-star courses they provided, even secondary trains offered first-class meals which rivaled the very best restaurants.
In spite of its rich history with trains, with mileage totaling over 9,000 in 1920, Ohio's heritage railroads are sparse. The popular Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, based in Peninsula (south of Cleveland), offers the closest recreation to what rail travel was like in the immediate post-World War II era.
The railroad not only operates classic streamlined locomotives in the former of model FPA-4s, formerly owned by the Canadian National, but also features four streamlined dome cars that previously operated on the original California Zephyr.
The Cincinnati Dinner Train is another ride exclusively tailored towards fine dining. As the name states, the trip departs from Bond Hill (north of the downtown area), travels down to Lunken Airport and along the mighty Ohio River before reaching the Theodore Berry Friendship Park.
At this point the train is turned and returns back to Bond Hill. The excursions depart at 6 pm each Saturday from mid-March through December.
For train aficionados, the trips operate over former Pennsylvania Railroad trackage. They are pulled by a historic GP30 model locomotive, painted in Nickel Plate Road colors (black and yellow). Officially this company was known as the New York, Chicago & St. Louis but interestingly never served Cincinnati.
The Cincinnati Dinner Train is an often overlooked excursion but offers one of the finest such trips anywhere in the country, hosted within very fine streamlined cars, which date back to the immediate post-World War II era. Also ask about their private dining car available for reservation!
The popular Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad now hosts a dedicated dinner train known as "Evening Dining on the Rails." The ride, which lasts 2 hours, includes a 4 course meal and complimentary bar service. These trips are now hosted in the railroad's elegant dome cars, the Silver Solarium and Silver Lariat, which originally ran on the California Zephyr.
Other trains which offer some type of food service, or alcoholic beverages, includes Ales On Rails, murder mystery trains, Grape Escape, Cocktails On Rails, Canvas and Wine on the Rails, Trivia On The Train, and Truffle Making.
The tracks utilized by the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic, which currently totals 51 miles, were previously owned by the Baltimore & Ohio. The corridor was part of the B&O's CT&V Branch (which operated as part of its larger Akron Division), which had previously been operated by the Cleveland, Terminal & Valley Railway.
The railroad operates through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which is maintained by the National Park Service. Currently, the CVSR does not operate trains directly into downtown Cleveland although it may eventually do so at some point in the future. Its close proximity to the city has allowed the CVSR to maintain strong ridership since it began in 1991.
The Hocking Valley Scenic Railway is located in Nelsonville, Ohio and operates a former Chesapeake & Ohio branch line from Nelsonville to Logan, roughly 12 miles in length. Trains depart from a replica C&O depot in Nelsonville.
The HVSR now offers the only place in Ohio were one can enjoy train rides behind a historic, standard-gauge steam locomotive. This 0-6-0 was built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1920 and spent much of its career for Ohio Power.
The railroad opened in 1972 and maintains a section for the C&O's former Athens Branch that originally ran from Logan to Athens. It was part of the railroad's greater presence in southern Ohio as the company also maintained a secondary line from Logan to Pomeroy, along the Ohio River.
The Hocking Valley Scenic Railway's "Elegant Dinner Train" is a 3-hour trip that runs the length of the line. The railroad states it is a "...four-course meal prepared by renowned Chef Alfonso Constisciani and is served throughout the trip."
In addition to the dinner train the HVSR's other excursions offering some type of food service include the Starbrick BBQ & Brew's Express, New Year's Eve Train & Fireworks, and the Murder Mystery Dinner Train.
The Lebanon Mason & Monroe Railroad (LM&M) is based in Lebanon, Ohio and uses trackage once owned by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The company owns a total of 25 miles of track that forms a rough "Y" running from Lebanon, southward to Mason; additionally another segment branches northwesterly at Hageman Junction to Monroe.
In most cases, LM&M trains operate a 9-mile round trip from Lebanon to Hageman Junction. The line had originally been built in the early 1880s by the Cincinnati, Lebanon, and Northern Railway, a narrow-gauge (3-foot) system that later became a part of the much larger Pennsylvania Railroad.
Under the modern PRR, it was one of three lines running north out of Cincinnati with this particular corridor reaching Dayton. The heritage railroad has been operation since 1985 with trains now departing from a replica depot in Lebanon.
Throughout the operating season, the LM&M hosts murder mystery specials, which includes a buffet at the Cherry Street Café and Lebanon. In addition, a cash bar is available during the train ride.