Danger and inconveniences remain
Railroad at-grade crossings plentiful in Hamilton: once known as ‘largest city in nation divided by street level tracks’
(This is the second of a series on the railroad industry as part of Hamilton’s economy. In this article there is no attempt to trace the complicated ancestry of the two railroads that presently serve Hamilton, CSX and Norfolk Southern. Photographs for this series provided by Dan Finfrock. To read more about the railroad history of Hamilton and surrounding Butler County, consult Railroads of Butler County by Jim Blount, published in 1999 and available from the sources listed below.)
Compiled by Jim Blount
The danger and inconveniences of at-grade railroad crossings have concerned Hamiltonians since the first train entered the city over the tracks of the newly-constructed Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railroad Sept. 18, 1851. Soon after the celebration, residents realized it was life-threatening to walk, ride a horse or steer a buggy or wagon over the tracks.
For 86 years until 1937, only passive crossbucks -- X-shaped signs beside the tracks -- alerted local traffic to stop, look and listen when approaching a railroad right-of-way.
Now, there are thousands of motor vehicles using 34 at-grade railroad crossings in Hamilton daily. Motorists rely on automatic warning devices to prevent a collision with a locomotive, weighing 70 tons, or much more, and often pulling a string of freight cars about two miles in length.
An additional safeguard is the train whistle or horn. Beside the track a quarter mile in advance of each crossing is a whistle post -- a W sign that reminds engineers to sound train bells, whistles and/or horns. With some exceptions, the standard crossing warning is two long horn blasts, one short and one long. If there are vehicles, people or animals on the track, the engineer may use more than four signals with longer duration.
Despite technological advances, at-grade crossing risks remain, according to a railroad web site. "Approximately every two hours somewhere in the United States, a vehicle and train collide at a highway-rail intersection," notes CSX. "A freight train moving at 55 miles an hour can take a mile or more to stop – that's the equivalent of nearly 18 football fields."
Efforts have been renewed in recent years to eliminate what has often been considered Hamilton’s most dangerous and dreaded at-grade crossing -- known as the South Hamilton Crossing -- where Central Avenue crosses two mainline tracks shared by CSX and the Norfolk Southern railroads. (Central and Pleasant avenues meet on the west side of the angular crossing.)
Until the late 1980s, most of the railroad movements over the South Hamilton Crossing were switching operations related to Hamilton industries and the Fisher Body plant in Fairfield. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad spent $300,000 in 1930 to enlarge the freight yard. A 1948 report said 19 tracks south of the crossing and 17 north of it could store 1,151 cars.
Drivers approaching the crossing during its busiest years were often confused because they would see three or four locomotives shuttling cars. The multiple switching moves frequently blocked safe views of faster moving trains approaching on the two mainline tracks.
"The most vital problem in connection with the transportation situation [in the city] is that of grade crossings," emphasized Harland Bartholomew, a St. Louis planning authority, in Hamilton’s 1920 city plan. The planners urged elimination of grade crossings on major streets in the city of 39,675 people.
"By concentrating attention and expenditures upon important points, a great saving would result to both city and railroads." The plan said "the operation of trains through the heart of the city on grade, with the resultant delays to traffic and increasing dangers to life and property, shows clearly the necessity of removing tracks from the streets."
"The several fatal accidents in and near Hamilton in the last year should serve as incentives to abolish this source of danger," said the recommendation written 92 years ago.
Railroads weren’t required to submit accident reports to the federal government until 1910. Included in that mandate was data on collisions at grade crossings. Crossing safety improvements on some rural roads became eligible for limited federal funding in the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916. According to federal reports, deaths at grade crossings reached a record 2,568 in 1928 with 6,666 people injured.
"Only about 50,000 crossings have gates. Just over 23,000 have flashing lights. Less than 1,200 railroad crossings have a traffic signal (flashing lights), wigwag and bells," said a recent report on the Railroad Crossing Accident Attorney web site.
Railroad building increased rapidly after the Civil War. The peak U. S. year was 1887 when 12,876 miles were added, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR). That year President Grover Cleveland signed the Interstate Commerce Act, "making railroads the first U. S. industry to become subject to comprehensive federal economic regulation," noted the AAR. The law was aimed at freight rate abuses, not at reducing rail crossing accidents.
At the same time, Ohio interurban lines -- starting in the 1880s and gaining momentum in the 1890s -- added to the number of hazardous at-grade crossings in the state. Ohio interurban systems totaled 2,798 miles by the end of World War I.
U. S. railroad miles topped at 254,037 in 1916. Ohio had started the 20th century with 8,951 miles and peaked at 9,581 eight years later.
Automobile production and sales were increasing at the same time. In 1905, the 14 Ohio manufacturers sold 2,808 cars. That year 77,988 motor vehicles were registered in the nation. A year later -- the first full year of Ohio registration and collection of fees -- the state registered 10,649 cars.
Street and road improvements were slow to keep pace with transportation technology. In 1912, there were about 2.5 million miles of U. S. roads, but by 1914 only 2,348 miles were paved. Ten years later, in 1924, Hamilton had paved only 42 of its 105 miles of streets.
Across the nation, the pace of paving increased dramatically during the 1920s. Most states had established numbered routes to guide motorists. Travel planning was enhanced in 1926-27 when the national highway numbering system started.
When the Great Depression began in 1929, owners of 36.7 million registered motor vehicles traveled about 198 billion miles over about 830,000 miles of pavement. U. S. auto output reached a high of 5.3 million that year before dropping to 2.9 million units in 1930 when people were losing jobs and their savings,
Despite the Depression, the danger at railroad grade crossing heightened. An extensive railroad and interurban network, paved roads and more reliable motor vehicles contributed to increased travel. Cities had expanded into rural areas during the 1920s boom, adding more rail-vehicle conflict points to the landscape.
Feb. 18, 1888, the Cincinnati & Richmond Railway Co. -- a part of the Pennsylvania Railroad -- completed a new line between Cincinnati and Hamilton.
The Ohio 4 underpass was part of that project. Erie Hwy., part of a Depression relief programs, opened in 1936, built over the former canal right-of-way.
The U. S. Supreme Court has offered varying opinions in several cases regarding responsibility for crossing protection -- the railroads or government? It started with an 1877 decision that cited the "mutual and reciprocal" duties of both parties -- railroads to warn the public that a train was approaching and the public to yield at crossings.
In a 1935 reversal, the court said: "The railroad has ceased to be the prime instrument of danger and the main cause of accidents" at crossings. "It is the railroad which now requires protection from dangers incident to motor transportation." The opinion said "avoidance . . . is now of far greater importance to the highway users than it is to the railroad crossed."
"The Depression era of the 1930s brought about abrupt and varying changes in the volumes of rail and highway traffic, which contributed to changes in the responsibility for crossing improvements," noted a 2007 Federal Highway Administration document. "A new idea of public responsibility for crossings was enhanced by Congress in its passage of the National Recovery Act of 1933 and the Hayden-Cartwright Act of 1934, that provided funds for the construction of highway-rail grade separations and the installation of crossing traffic control devices."
Nov. 5, 1938, the $180,000 McGonigle underpass opened, eliminating two railroad crossings that had claimed several lives because of poor visibility for motorists. Five people -- the bride, groom and others involved in a wedding the previous day -- were killed Aug. 10, 1924, at the Millville-Oxford Road (U. S. 27) crossing. Their car was struck by a train on the Cincinnati, Indianapolis & Western Railroad (later the Baltimore & Ohio and now CSX). Less than 10 months later, May 31, 1925, there were five deaths in an accident at the same crossing.
Jan. 9, 1937, the $133,678 Schenck's Crossing underpass opened, replacing what had been considered the county’s "worst death trap" and was called "the Death Crossing." It is on Dixie Hwy. (Ohio 4) near present St. Clair Avenue at the Hamilton-Fairfield line. Then it was in Fairfield Twp. More than 50 people had died there in 80 years -- 20 since the introduction of automobile in the early 1900s.
July 26, 1936, nine persons in one family died when their car was struck by a Pennsylvania Railroad passenger train at the Bobmeyer Road crossing, then in rural Fairfield Twp., just east of Ohio 4 (Dixie Hwy.).
June 28, 1956, six people died at the Hamilton-Trenton Road crossing of the Pennsylvania Railroad (now Norfolk Southern) in Williamsdale. The collision ranks as the county’s second deadliest crossing accident.
Thirteen-year-old Doris Kappelhoff was one of four persons injured Oct. 13, 1937, when a car collided with a Pennsylvania Railroad locomotive on the High Street crossing at Fifth Street. There were no warning lights or gates at the crossing then.
After the accident, she developed her singing skills, instead of her legs and feet. In 1943, then known as Doris Day and singing with the Les Brown band, she had one of the year's top single records (Sentimental Journey). It was the start of her stardom as a club, movie, radio and TV entertainer that continued into the 1970s.
In 1919 -- as part of a plan for a Hamilton union passenger station -- a High Street railroad underpass was advanced to remedy traffic delays and safety concerns. It was 66 years before it became a reality -- after busy railroads had blocked High Street crossings at Fourth and Fifth streets on the eastern edge of downtown Hamilton for almost 100 years.
In the late 1970s, an average of more than 21,000 vehicles a day crossed the tracks that carried as many as 30 freight trains within a 24-hour period. (A recent survey, almost 40 years later, tallied an average of more than 51,000 vehicles daily at that location.)
Before the underpass, it wasn’t unusual for motorists and pedestrians to wait for a train at each High Street crossing. Some Hamiltonians added from 10 to 20 minutes to planned crosstown travel to allow for potential delays caused by trains. Although the personal delays were annoying, there was the more serious threat that a call for police or fire assistance or an ambulance could be prolonged by the situation because all rail crossings in the city were at grade.
In December 1979 Conrail announced plans to abandon service over 6.4 miles of track from Seward Road (southeast of Hamilton in Fairfield Twp.) to Old River Junction (north of Hamilton at New Miami). The remaining companies agreed on a track sharing plan in 1980. A year later, the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) awarded contracts for demolition of about 40 buildings in the path of the new rail right-of-way. July 14, 1981, ODOT awarded a $7.6 million construction contract, which was less than the state's $8.75 million estimate. "I never thought I'd live to see this day" was the reaction of many longtime Hamilton residents as ground was broken Sept. 24, 1981.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony Sept. 13, 1983, opened two eastbound lanes of the underpass. It wasn't until Feb. 14, 1985, that a southbound Chessie train became the last to use the old tracks and block High Street.
By completion, the total underpass cost — including demolition of buildings, underpass construction, railroad relocation and railroad signalization — had reached about $15 million. Later, the improvement was named the Jack Kirsch Underpass, honoring the work of a former city manager in bringing the 1919 dream to fruition.
George Crout, the late Middletown historian, claimed that until the High Street underpass was opened, "Hamilton was said to have been the largest city in the nation divided by street level railroads tracks."
A newspaper summarized traffic counts compiled by the city on a Saturday in March 1931 between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. at more than 50 at-grade crossings on railroads in Hamilton. That was early in the Great Depression when rail movements had declined because local industrial production was down. The data included number of vehicles, pedestrians and trains at each crossing.
The crossing blocked the most times by train movements was South Hamilton. At 199 trains in eight hours, that averaged a fraction under 25 per hour. Surveyors didn’t total the time the crossing was blocked, only the number of times a train crossed that point.
Among other crossings, Baltimore & Ohio trains blocked South Fifth Street 63 times, Hanover Street 51, Belle Avenue 49, Maple Avenue 38, High Street 25 and Heaton Street 24. On the B&O’s Indianapolis division, 11 trains crossed Millville Avenue and on the Belt Line, serving Champion and other industries, Black Street was blocked 29 times.
On the Pennsylvania Railroad, totals included 122 at East Avenue, 35 at South Seventh Street, 26 at Maple Avenue and 18 at Grand Boulevard.
Hamilton officials proposed an underpass at the South Hamilton crossing to the U. S. Bureau of Public Roads in September 1935, but two years later city leaders had other priorities. Only the unchanging, motionless, unlit crossbucks marked Hamilton’s numerous rail crossings at the start of 1937.
Some crossings were protected by watchmen with hand signals, but most were manned for only 16 hours a day or less. The busy Grand Blvd. crossing at the Pennsylvania Railroad, for example, was guarded only between 7:30 a.m. and 7:50 p.m. During the watchman's off hours, only a small sign on top of his trackside shanty alerted motorists that no one was on duty. That haphazard system was inadequate in an industrial city of about 50,000 persons with constant railroad action.
Several car-train accidents in the 1930s were blamed on weather conditions (fog and rain) or darkness -- elements that blocked or limited a motorist's vision of a watchman's hand signals or the crossbucks.
The need for better protection had been demonstrated in Aug. 17, 1933, when a Hamilton fire department pumper was demolished in a collision with a B&O steam locomotive at the Sycamore Street crossing.
But the cost of flashing, lighted signals was a major obstacle to converting to 24-hour protection. The situation changed after four people were killed and several seriously injured at city rail crossings in the first seven months of 1937. In August -- after months of negotiations -- the city, the Pennsylvania and the Baltimore & Ohio railroads agreed to install lighted warning signals at 23 crossings. The railroads agreed to pay the full cost, estimated at $70,000.
The B&O signalized 15 crossings; the Pennsylvania eight. The first red flasher -- at the Grand Blvd. crossing of the Pennsylvania Railroad, near the Mosler Safe Co. -- was activated Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1937.
Most of the first signals were not automatic. They were activated by watchmen who usually were responsible for three adjacent crossings. Watchmen activated the lights when they saw a train. The safety improvement was dramatic. In the first 30 years of lighted warnings, only six of the 12 crossing deaths in Hamilton were at locations with flashers -- an average of only one every five years.
In recent years, railroads are encouraging communities to close local crossings -- especially those with lower traffic volumes. They suggest abandonments where one or more at-grade crossings are close to an underpass or overpass, or within reasonable travel time of protected crossings that have the capacity to handle more vehicle traffic.
Later, some residents contended there was too much railroad noise surrounding the South Hamilton crossing. Before radios were practical, railroaders communicated with each other with hand signals, lanterns and whistles. A motorist at the busy crossing could be confounded by a multitude of locomotive whistles -- unable to distinguish a warning from a signal.
By 1900, public appeals demanded either an underpass or overpass to avoid danger at SHX. The campaign reached a peak in 1910 after 12 people were killed there in a series of accidents.
A year later the CH&D offered plans for various improvements, ranging from an $88,000 underpass to a $330,000 overpass. City officials studied the plans for six months, but took no action as the public outrage subsided. The tracks and the crossing were destroyed in the March 1913 flood, diverting attention and money to rebuilding the city’s infrastructure for the next few years.
Interest was renewed in 1920 when Hamilton's first city plan spotlighted the problem. Although the ‘20s were boom years, the city had financial difficulties during the decade. Nothing happened until September 1929, when city council asked Butler County commissioners to apply for state highway money for the project, then estimated at $150,000.
It was eligible for state funding then because the crossing was on two state routes (4 and 9). On similar projects, the railroads were paying 50 percent of the cost with the state and county each providing 25 percent.
"Records of Coroner Edward Cook show heavy loss of life at the crossing and police reports for recent years reveal hundreds of accidents," noted a newspaper in 1929.
Before the state acted on the request, the Great Depression began and in 1930 Hamilton announced it would build an underpass without state assistance. The city agreed to pay 35 percent with the B&O assuming the remaining cost. But the $150,000 plan was shelved as the continuing Depression took its toll on the city and B&O treasuries.
Hopes for a South Hamilton solution were revived in 1945 when World War II ended. Instead, city funds went for other improvements, ranging from building Neilan Boulevard and swimming pools to slum clearance.
But public complaints about traffic delays and risks at the crossing continued into the early 1950s. In that post-war era, more Hamiltonians were driving to and from work instead of walking or riding buses. A result was lengthening the line of cars waiting for slow-moving switching operations and long freight trains at the crossing. Longest delays were before and after shift changes at Mosler, Herring Hall, Hamilton Foundry and other East Hamilton shops.
Post-war estimates for an underpass rose to $2.5 million and the railroad would have been required to pay only 15 percent of the cost, not 50 percent.
In August 1952 city council agreed to place four measures on the November ballot, including a $1.5 million bond issue for the city's share of a South Hamilton underpass. A month later, council changed its mind and killed the South Hamilton bond issue. Voters approved only one of the other three bond issues.
Five years later, city council -- in an unrealistic move -- asked voters to approve seven separate city improvement measures, requiring taxes to finance $10 million in enhancements.
One of the seven was a $2.5 million bond issue to build a South Hamilton underpass with a cloverleaf connection to surrounding streets. It would have cost property owners 85 cents a year for 30 years for each $1,000 of valuation. But only 23 percent of the 1957 voters (4,176 out of 18,191) favored it and the fervor for a South Hamilton solution faded.
Within a few years, the public and city leaders shifted their emphasis to securing a High Street underpass. Drivers have flocked to that underpass -- Hamilton’s only east-west street not subject to train delays.