Thursday, March 21, 2019


 One of the most distinctive features of East Cleveland when I was growing up there during the 1940s and 1950s was the railroad which ran through town just North of Euclid Avenue.  That railroad was the Nickel Plate Road.  The impact of the Nickel Plate Road was particularly great upon those of us who lived near the embankment upon which the trains ran through town.  The embankment and its bridges divided the town into neighborhoods and elementary school districts.  It was also an attraction to all of us children, who lived near it.
I have a lifelong fondness for the Nickel Plate Road.  To this day I am a member of the Nickel Plate Road Historical and Technical Society, Inc.  Anyone who shares my interest in that great railroad can learn more about it at their website: The organization publishes a wonderful magazine four times a year, which often includes articles and pictures about the Nickel Plate Road impact upon Cleveland and East Cleveland.
I have already written about my adventures on and around the Nickel Plate Road tracks, embankment and bridges in some of my posts about my Shaw and Plymouth neighborhood.  Those adventures occurred while I lived there from 1940 until I moved to Nela View in 1953.  I recently discovered that my friend, Bruce Dzeda, shares my fond memories of the Nickel Plate Road.  He has agreed to write an essay about those memories, which I am publishing below. Enjoy!

Collamer, Collinwood and the Nickel Plate Railroad

By Bruce Dzeda
Collinwood, once called Collinsville by some, is a product of the Lake Shore & Michigan
Southern Railway, which built its locomotive and repair shops in that area after the completion of the railroad in the early 1850's. By 1900 everyone called it the New York Central Railroad, and today it is part of CSX Transportation, whose facilities in Collinwood are but a faint shadow of the glory days.

Just as Collinwood developed because of one railroad, a case can be made that the East
Cleveland we inhabited after World War II was the child of the other railroad that ran through Cleveland. I'm referring of course to the New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad, always called the Nickel Plate Railroad, which was constructed in 1881. The Nickel Plate (NKP) and the New York Central (NYC) were built parallel between Buffalo and Cleveland, in some cases just yards apart and in our area more like a mile apart. The NKP was an unimpressive single-track railroad until Cleveland's Van Sweringen brothers bought it from the NYC in 1916.

The old road or street that connected East Cleveland to Collinwood was Collamer Street,
which, after Cleveland's streets were numbered in 1907, became E. 152nd Street. Collamer was the name pre-Civil War settlers had given to the neighborhood along the Euclid road from about Lee Road to about Ivanhoe Road; St. Paul's Episcopal Church on Euclid Avenue (circa 1850) was the heart of old Collamer. Today's Terrace Road was originally named Collamer Terrace. 

As a kid who couldn't drive, I only got to see Collinwood when my parents would take us there to go shopping at Five Points, where stores like Woolworth's, Western Auto, and Robert Hall, among many others, made it a vibrant neighborhood, or maybe to a fish fry at St. Mary's Church, or on our way to Euclid Beach Park. I always considered Collinwood a little more blue collar or working class than East Cleveland. For example, where Shaw High students looked to me like clean-cut, preppy kids heading off to college and careers, Collinwood students, by contrast, always seemed to me vaguely more threatening, more likely to wear a motorcycle jacket or a beehive hairdo. Of course I'm generalizing and stereotyping, but to me as a youngster, that's the way I saw Five Points. After all, they were the Railroaders at Collinwood; by contrast, the Shaw kids were the Cardinals, a small creature no one is particularly afraid of, right?

As we drove from East Cleveland across Woodworth Avenue into Collinwood we would pass (on the left, or west side of E. 152nd) the Towmotor Corporation, the company that invented the fork-lift truck, and where my dad was a highly skilled and well paid tool and die maker. Then on the right GE's big factory that produced light bulbs and such. Then again on the left the Clark Equipment company, which also made, among other things, towmotors! Over the little railroad spur track and next on the right was the factory of the Murray Ohio Manufacturing Company, which made those wonderful Murray bicycles such as the snappy red and white model I was so proud of which dad and mom bought for me a stone's throw away at Western Auto's Five Points store.

On some of the happiest days of my life we would drive from our house on Northfield, next to the NKP tracks, to Euclid Beach Park, passing directly through Collinwood, a neighborhood I always found fascinating. The best part of the journey was the humpy bridge over the NYC because on the left I could get a great view of the massive roundhouse, outside of which you could see the turntable and some of the largest steam locomotives in the eastern United States, and on the other side of the street were the diesel repair shops. I didn't know what to look at first as we went by! I'm glad my dad liked to slow down a bit to look too.

Continuing on through Collinwood and towards the lake, a few blocks later we passed on the left Memorial School and the beautiful garden next to it. I'll never forget hearing from my dad what the significance of the garden was and what it commemorated. The worst school fire in American history had happened there only fifty years earlier, but to me as a kid 1908 seemed a century past. Today I realize that many people who were living nearby had themselves attended the school, or seen, or were touched by the terrible fire.

Shaw and Collinwood high schools had a great rivalry, of course, and on the Friday nights
when football games between them were played in a jam-packed Shaw Stadium, the loud cheers could be clearly heard at our house some blocks away. In fact, one season in the late 1950's I remember the thundering cheers for Shaw's star kicker Mario Gerhardt "Mar-ee-o, Maree-o" the crowd of thousands cheered again and again. Mario was rather small for a football player and he would run out on the field to kick a field goal with a bare kicking foot.  He learned that skill growing up in post war Germany and playing soccer without shoes because most kids couldn’t afford to buy shoes.  Mario went on to be a teacher at Chagrin Falls High School.  His younger brother, Dieter was our Cleveland Press carrier.

These days when I’m in Collinwood, it's always in the dead of night or near dawn. That's the time Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited, the New York/Boston to Chicago train, passes through on its journeys. As I look at the still standing coaling tower or the old Electric Shops built in 1929 for the Terminal Tower project, I sometimes wonder if anyone else on board knows that the name Lake Shore Limited comes from the days when "the old Lake Shore" Railway made Collinwood a true railroad town.


East Cleveland and the Nickel Plate Road

Now back to the Nickel Plate Railroad, for it was the NKP, in fact, that in 1951 brought my family to East Cleveland in the first place. My mother's sister worked in the GE plant on E. 152nd Street and lived with her husband in an apartment on Eddy Road next to the NKP embankment and tracks. Her husband was a daily habitué at a nearby bar on Hayden Avenue, where one of his buddies was an officer in the NKP real estate department downtown in the Terminal Tower. One day he informed my uncle that the NKP was going to auction off a number of houses and lots it owned in East Cleveland. My uncle knew our family was looking to buy a house and asked his friend if my father could put in a bid
on one. The man proceeded to tell my uncle which houses were going to be auctioned and what to bid, since he figured there would be very few bids. It turned out there were no other bids and consequently my mom and dad became the proud owners of their own first house for $4,000 cash   (about $38,000 today, adjusted for inflation).

The house on Northfield Avenue was a neglected wreck of a rental when we moved there  in August of 1951. It took two or three years for my parents to clean the place out, paint and wallpaper it inside and out, and make the yard a pretty one filled with flowers. Because they never had a mortgage, they never had a house payment. This, plus the fact that dad had a good paying job at UAW-unionized Towmotor, meant that our family could live a version of the idyllic American middle-class life of the 1950's. So the Nickel Plate Road played a key role, maybe the key role, in my family's history, and I remain grateful.

The first night we were in our new house was a warm August evening, so our windows were open and we had just gone to bed, when there came an enormous sound, getting louder and closer, and sounding like a dragon, or so I thought. It turned out it was a huge Nickel Plate 700-series Berkshire steam locomotive, creeping its way towards the red signal just ahead. By the time it finally hissed to a stop, we were gathered together at our upstairs hallway window, mesmerized by the spectacle just fifty or sixty feet away from us. The engineer, as he looked around, saw us and gave a friendly wave and we eagerly waved back. I could see behind the locomotive some stock cars, filled with either cattle or hogs, I can't recall, and we could hear them as well as smell them. I then realized that I was now living right next door to the most amazing thing I ever saw in my life...a mainline railroad with passenger trains and steam locomotives! And just think, we now owned our own house, and we lived next to a railroad! As Ira Gershwin once wrote, "Who could ask for anything more?”

We lived next door to the Nickel Plate for nine years and I learned a lot from the wonderful
experience.  For one thing, each passing freight train brought a geography lesson to me. As a life-long compulsive reader I couldn't help but look up and read the advertising on the cars as they went by: "Burlington...Everywhere West," "B&O...Linking 13 Great States with the Nation," "Northern Pacific...Main Street of the Northwest," "Lehigh Valley," "Fruit Growers Express," "Armour Star," "Hormel," "Delaware & Hudson," etc. When I was very young I'd ask my dad where those places were and he'd explain their location or their nicknames; later on I would look them up or figure out their meanings for myself.
Maybe the most important lesson the Nickel Plate taught me was never to take anything for
granted. For example, I thought nothing could be more real or more alive than an NKP steam locomotive. But then in May of 1958 the steam locomotives just... disappeared, only to be replaced by new but prosaic-looking diesel locomotives painted black with gold stripes. Although the trains still had all the usual cars and a caboose, railroads suddenly became (only) a little less interesting. At the same time, I learned how to take snapshots of things I liked. In all those nine years of living next door to the Nickel Plate, our family took not a single photograph of a steam locomotive. None. After all, we thought, why bother? "They'll always be there." Until one day they weren't.

Before the Civil War, East Cleveland township was the name for everything between the
Cleveland city line at Willson Avenue (today's E. 55th Street) and Euclid Village (the area in Euclid Township where the eponymous road, Euclid Creek and today's Chardon Road intersect. After the Civil War and the continuous annexation of large tracts of township land by the city of Cleveland, rural East Cleveland became ever smaller in size.
In the 1870's a rich young John D. Rockefeller bought land in the township east of Doan's
Corners (E. 105th Street) called Lakeview or Lake View, west of Collamer, and helped to finance the building of the Lakeview & Collamer, an early railroad which started at Becker Street and Superior Avenue in Glenville and entered today's East Cleveland at Lakeview Street. It then proceeded northeast for not quite seven miles to Euclid Village. Rockefeller's plan to use the little railroad to bring paying customers to Forest Hill, which he hoped to convert into a vacation resort or hotel, came to nothing. So when he was approached in 1879 to sell the Lakeview & Collamer to another railroad company (the NKP) seeking an inexpensive right-of-way, he sold. Beginning in 1881 the NKP operated trains on a single track from Chicago to Buffalo through today's East Cleveland, where, over the years, the Nickel Plate was to prove to be a good corporate citizen in a number of ways.

To begin with, because of the many sidings it installed along its line, the NKP served many
local businesses, which in turn, employed many East Clevelanders. Then in 1916, in order to increase competition, the NYC was ordered by the Interstate Commerce Commission to divest itself of the Nickel Plate, which it had owned and operated since 1882. The NYC sold the NKP to two brothers, Oris P. and Mantis J. Van Sweringen, local real estate developers in the Heights area and subsequent builders of the Terminal Tower. Their long-range plans for Cleveland included building several rapid transit lines, one of which became the Shaker Heights Rapid Transit.

Another rapid transit line was projected to run east from the Terminal Tower alongside their NKP railroad to perhaps Euclid or Mentor. As part of the Terminal Tower project, the NKP right of way through East Cleveland was double-tracked and raised on a two-story earthen embankment, passing over all the city's streets on steel bridges faced with cement. The effects of this embankment project on East Cleveland were profound. In the first place, once the tracks were elevated in 1928, NKP trains could pass through the city quickly and more-or-less quietly, since the absence of grade crossings eliminated the need for locomotives to slow down and blow their whistles as they crossed each street. The city became safer, too, as the embankment, or "the hill," as we called it, by itself discouraged, if not prevented, adults and kids from trespassing on the dangerous right of way. To appreciate the beneficial effects of this construction project, one has only to look to modern-day Lakewood, another suburb the NKP passed through. The NKP never elevated its tracks in Lakewood. Consequently, Lakewood residents to this day have their
neighborhoods bisected by slow-moving freight trains each blasting their horns four times for every crossing. Each year the local news media feature a story or two about cars or pedestrians in Lakewood being struck by trains, with the predictably tragic results.

By the early 1930's the Van Sweringens were bankrupt and the planned rapid transit line
through East Cleveland alongside the NKP tracks was abandoned, although the necessary
bridges, pylons, and graded right of way were already in place. After World War II the idea was revived and the CTS Rapid Transit was eventually built on the unused right of way from downtown to Windermere. East of Windermere the NKP owned a wide strip of land on the south side of their right of way as far as London Road.

When the embankment was built the NKP became the landlord of the houses on its now widened right of way, and it was one of these houses which my parents bought in 1951 after the plan to extend the rapid transit line east of Windermere was dropped. Subsequently, the CTS Rapid Transit opened in 1955 from Windermere to downtown and the West Side.

The construction of the Nickel Plate's double-track, two-story railroad embankment along the entire length or spine of East Cleveland resulted in a physical barrier between the Euclid Avenue side neighborhoods on the south and those on the north that tended to center on Hayden Avenue. These neighborhoods were developed by different real estate companies and the very houses themselves reflected this divide. On the south or Euclid side of the tracks, single-family houses were the norm. Our house, built in 1912, was one of several such built on that part of Northfield Avenue. The northern, or Hayden-side, of the NKP embankment had primarily the ubiquitous two-story Cleveland-style double houses, and therefore twice the population density. In my experience, kids from north of the tracks and kids from the south side didn't mix very much, in part because the embankment demarcated the Prospect kids from the Mayfair and Chambers School kids. The infrequent times I met boys from the Hayden Avenue side was when I went swimming at Shaw Pool, or played on the Jungle Gym and Merry-go-round (with a hard asphalt surface to hit if you fell off!) at Mayfair School, or at the Shaw-Hayden Theatre.
Generally our crowd played on the Euclid, or south side, of the embankment.
On the south side of the embankment a series of footpaths linked Windermere on the west to at least Shaw Avenue, and probably farther. I say probably because Shaw Avenue marked the edge of my turf.  Farther east was to me, anyway, terra incognita. These footpaths connected the various places that were of interest to boys in the neighborhood. Small animals lived on the hill in the weeds and brush, and between Strathmore and Northfield the path went behind the Ohio Bell garage, behind the Board of Education warehouse with its sand piles to dig in and its concrete coal railroad trestle (still standing in 2019) to play on, dangerous as it was with big nails sticking up from the floorboards and large gaps in places. The path continued behind the Lectroetch Company, then behind a long apartment garage, and finally down a driveway to Strathmore Avenue. The path continued east of Strathmore alongside a building of the East Cleveland Lumber Company, which fronted on Shaw Avenue.

West of Northfield the path went behind another series of Elderwood Avenue apartment
garages until it reached Wymore Road. A tall poplar tree stood on the top of a grass and weed covered hill. There before and below us, until about 1958 when the A&P and a bowling alley were built, was a large piece of empty property that we kids played on and considered our own.  This property was, in fact, all that remained of "Wymore," a small estate at the turn of the century owned by Sophia Taylor, an important early landowner. Wymore faced Euclid Avenue and extended back to the NKP embankment. Although there was a small house at the rear of the property, the main house was long gone. But! The carriage house at Wymore was still standing, totally abandoned, without doors, and as frightening to me in its appearance as any Hollywood set. I had heard from boys who dared to look inside that there were carriages! This really isn't so surprising; only fifty years earlier Wymore included, along with the house, a livery stable, no doubt the swains of East Cleveland at the turn of the century could rent a horse and carriage to take a girl out for a drive. It's also very likely that if the barn had carriages it must have had a sleigh or two. In those days sleighs were a common winter sight in Cleveland; west of Willson (E.55th) Avenue to Erie (E.9th) Street, Euclid Avenue sleigh racing was a well known and well
attended daily sport. So Wymore was to me a bit of the East Cleveland of the 1890's, like the large Queen Anne style houses that anchored the corners of Euclid Avenue at other Avenues such as Northfield and Strathmore.

The property that had once been Wymore was one of the best places I knew to play. Here we kids constructed forts, played cowboys & Indians, or re-enacted the World War II battles we were learning about on TV. We made spears from sticks and dried goatsbeard stalks. We brandished swords. We shot arrows from our bows. We nearly put our eyes out! We ran with real knives. But we also flew kites here and a few memorable times put hot dogs on sticks and held them over a fire of twigs and small logs. In retrospect, one of the very best things about playing at Wymore or anywhere else I went, was the absence of fear. It never occurred to me that any adult would harm us. We might fear a big kid we didn't know, and I might be too timid to look into the Wymore barn because a ghost could get me, but I not only felt safe everywhere I went in East Cleveland, I felt I owned the place.
The footpath along the bottom of the NKP hill continued west to Eastham Avenue, then west again down a one-block section of Elderwood Avenue, finally ending at Doan Avenue. After 1955 the CTS Rapid Transit had a bridge here that carried a turning track on top, but allowed a pedestrian to walk underneath and enter the precincts of the Windermere Rapid Transit Station, another place of eternal fascination to me as a kid.
Still another impact the Nickel Plate Railroad had on East Cleveland was the large and
handsome passenger station constructed of brick and stone that was opened in 1930 as part of the enormous Terminal Tower project. As a boy, I was drawn to that station like a moth to a light. Unfortunately, I was forbidden by my mom to ride my bike to the station ("too far"), probably because it involved crossing busy Superior Avenue on the eastern edge of the station parking lot. Nevertheless, I went there a number of evenings after dinner, in order to watch Nickel Plate train #8, The New Yorker, arrive from the west at 7:20. While it was stopped, I got as close as I could to this beautiful train with its coaches, dining car and sleepers painted silver and blue, led by two Alco "Bluebird" diesel locomotives, throbbing away at the head end like impatient horses. After boarding the usual half dozen or so passengers, the train sped away to the east, leaving me to watch the large red light on the door of the last car fade away out of sight. I vowed to myself that one day I would ride that and other trains.

The Nickel Plate's first station for East Cleveland wasn't really in East Cleveland, per se, but farther west on Euclid Avenue across from the Cleveland Railway Company's Lake View Shops and the eponymous cemetery. This station was demolished about 1929 as the new station near Superior Avenue was nearing completion. The new station was designed by architects Graham, Anderson, Probst, & White, the Chicago firm that designed Cleveland's Union Terminal and its Tower. The Nickel Plate shared both stations with the New York Central, the major tenant. From 1930 until 1953 powerful electric locomotives pulled NYC passenger trains through East Cleveland on their way downtown and then west to Linndale, which, like Collinwood on the east, was where the steam locomotives took over.

East Cleveland's station was striking in its size and appearance; it might well have served a city two or three times the size. Inside the cavernous room was a Union News stand, an imposing ticket counter, racks with timetables for every railroad imaginable, a baggage room, large chandeliers, very comfortable dark benches, restrooms, with floors of terrazzo and walls of marble. At the far west end of the station a passage led underneath the railroad tracks to the stairways and elevators to the two platforms and four tracks above.
It was a busy station until the 1960's. When it opened in 1930, thirty passenger trains called at East Cleveland every day. The NKP served the station with four trains daily, the others belonged to the New York Central. After World War II the number of trains began to diminish. In 1948, twenty-two trains called at East Cleveland; in 1960 there sixteen trains. By 1963 the last two NKP trains stopped using the station and the NYC did likewise by 1964.

It's interesting to note that in 1936 when O.P. Van Sweringen died aboard his private railroad car on his way to New York, his remains were returned to Ohio via the Nickel Plate and brought though the East Cleveland station he and his brother caused to be built, before being taken to Lake View Cemetery for burial.

In my opinion, the railroad station was one of the two finest buildings ever constructed in East Cleveland, the other one being Kirk Junior High School. Both were opened in 1930, and they perhaps mark East Cleveland's high water mark as a prosperous suburb of middle and upper class people. Nothing quite as substantial and beautiful was ever built again in the city, as evidenced by the inexpensive and cheap-looking new City Hall building on Euclid Avenue that was built about 1958 on what had been the front lawn of the modest and attractive old City Hall, imposing the new facade onto the sidewalk.

The beautiful and capacious East Cleveland passenger station was demolished in the
mid-1960's after only thirty-six or seven years of service, in order to provide space for a Ford dealership, the business that helped to kill passenger train travel in America.
Sic transit gloria mundi.