The Alphabet Route
Nickel Plate Road
The New York, Chicago, and St. Louis Railroad was commonly called the
"Nickel Plate Road". The most likely origin of the name "Nickel Plate"
was that it first appeared in an article in Norwalk, Ohio "Chronicle" of
March 10, 1881, which reported the arrival of a group of engineers to make a
survey for the "great New York and St. Louis double track, nickel plated
On February 3, 1881, the Seney Syndicate met at Seney's New York bank
and organized the New York, Chicago, and St. Louis Railroad. The
original proposal was for a 340-mile railroad from Cleveland, OH, to
Chicago, IL, and a 325-mile branch to St. Louis, MO. It was to be
built to compete with the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway (owned by
William Vanderbilt -- later part of the NYC system). On April 13, 1881, the
Nickel Plate purchased the Buffalo, Cleveland, and Chicago Railway (which
had surveyed between Buffalo, NY, and Cleveland, OH). It was decided
to start building the Cleveland, OH, to Buffalo, NY, surveyed route.
500 days later, the 513-mile single track mainline from Buffalo, NY, to
Chicago, IL, was completed. The first train over the entire mainline
ran on October 16, 1882. On October 25, 1882, the Seney syndicate sold
the Nickel Plate to Vanderbilt for 7.2 million dollars. Vanderbilt
moved most of the traffic to the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway,
only keeping enough on the Nickel Plate to keep it from falling into
receivership. In 1897, the Nickel Plate obtained trackage rights over
the Lake Shore and Michagan Southern Railway from its own line to LaSalle
Street Station in Chicago.
The Van Sweringen brothers of Cleveland, OH, were the next owners of the
Nickel Plate. As early as 1909, they proposed a stub-end terminal on
Public Square in downtown Cleveland. The Nickel Plate started a grade
separation projuect on Cleveland's East Side in 1909 (finished in 1913).
In late 1915, the US Attorney General advised the NYC that owning both the
Nickel Plate and the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway was in
violation of Federal anti-trust laws. The Van Sweringen brothers
purchased the Nickel Plate for 8.5 million dollars on April 13, 1916.
The Van Sweringen brothers did not want to run the Nickel Plate, so hired a
NYC vice-president named John J. Bernet to run the railroad.
John J. Bernet grew the Nickel Plate substantially. On July 1, 1922,
the Nickel Plate secured control of the Lake Erie & Western Railroad Co.
This added 707 miles of trackage from Sandusky, OH, to Peoria, IL with 2
branches in Indiana. On July 15, 1922, the Nickel Plate entered an
affiliation with the Toledo, St. Louis, and Western Railroad (the Clover
Leaf Route) adding another 453 miles to the system. This finally gave
the Nickel Plate access to St Louis, MO, as well as the port in Toledo, OH.
Bernet left the Nickel Plate in late 1926...but returned in 1933 until his
death in 1935. In 1934, Bernet ordered the Nickel Plate's famous
Berkshires. On December 29, 1937, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway
gained control of the Nickel Plate.
In 1947, the Chesapeake and Ohio ended its control of the Nickel Plate.
In 1949, the Nickel Plate received its last Berkshire #779 (also the last
locomotive built by the Lima Locomotive Works). On December 1, 1949,
the Nickel Plate leased the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railway (see the W&LE
section of this website for more
In 1960, the last steam locomotive was retired from service. On
October 16, 1964, the Nickel Plate, the Wabash, and several other smaller
railroads merged with the Norfolk & Western. In 1982, N&W merged with
the Southern Railway to form Norfolk Southern Corporation...which still
operates much of the original Nickel Plate routes.