The Nickel Plate Trail is named after the railroad that previously owned the corridor known as the Nickel Plate Road. Its official name was the New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad, and it grew into one of the Midwest’s largest, stretching from Buffalo, New York, across northern Ohio and throughout Indiana; western connections reached St. Louis, Chicago, and Peoria. In its later years, the Nickel Plate was a well-managed system, offering high-speed freight service with connections to all major Eastern and Midwestern railroads. During the early 1960s, it was acquired by the Norfolk & Western and eventually became part of today’s Norfolk Southern system. During the 1990s, the section from Peru to Cassville was finally abandoned after years of declining service.
The Nickel Plate Road was constructed primarily for one reason: to offer competition against the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway (LS&MS), a later component of the giant New York Central System. During the late 19th century, the LS&MS was the only railroad in service between Buffalo and Chicago via northern Ohio and Indiana. The New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railway (NYC&StL) was formally chartered on February 3, 1881, with its initial sights set on linking Buffalo with Cleveland. With strong financial backing, the NYC&StL was opened during mid-October 1882 all of the way to Chicago via Cleveland. The railroad had been built to such high standards that during 1881, an Ohio newspaper editor lauded its construction as a “…double track, nickel-plated railroad.” The phrase stuck, and the company adopted the nickname the “Nickel Plate Road” (a.k.a., NKP).
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Soon after it was opened, the LS&MS acquired the Nickel Plate to preserve its monopoly on the territory it served. Things remained this way until 1915 when the U.S. Attorney General advised the New York Central that it violated federal anti-trust laws by controlling both the LS&MS and Nickel Plate Road because both served the same region. As a result, the NYC&StL was sold to the famed Van Sweringen brothers, Oris Paxton and Mantis James, in 1916. Up until this time, the railroad had remained relatively the same, operating its original 523-mile main line between Chicago and Buffalo. Under new ownership, things changed. In 1922, the Nickel Plate more than doubled its size when it acquired the Lake Erie & Western (LE&W) and Toledo, St. Louis & Western (a.k.a., the Clover Leaf, a 449-mile system reaching Toledo and St. Louis).
A section of the Lake Erie & Western is now what makes up the Nickel Plate Trail. The LE&W was formed in the 1880s and would eventually grow into a 723-mile system connecting Sandusky, Ohio, with East Peoria, Illinois, as well as linking Michigan City, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, and Connersville in Indiana. Its Michigan City-to-Indy route primarily comprised two predecessors: the Indianapolis, Peru & Chicago Railway (IP&C) and the Chicago, Cincinnati & Louisville Railroad (CC&L). The former was created in 1864 from the reorganization of the Peru & Indianapolis and would connect those two cities by 1854, a distance of 73 miles. The latter, from Peru to Michigan City (88 miles), was formed in the mid-1860s through a number of predecessor roads. It was short-lived and the IP&C took it over in 1871. The LE&W then went on to acquire the IP&C in 1887.
By the 1920s, the Nickel Plate Road had blossomed into a formidable Midwestern system. It became well known for operating efficient, high-speed service across its entire network, so much so that it emblazoned the slogan “High Speed Service” on its equipment. During the late 1930s, the company came under the control of the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O), which hoped to merge the NKP with its other holdings (the Pere Marquette and Wheeling & Lake Erie). Unfortunately, the C&O was forced to divest the Nickel Plate in 1947. Once again an independent operator, the NKP leased the Wheeling & Lake Erie in 1949 and gained access into northeastern Ohio. It was even able to reach Wheeling, West Virginia, which provided coal and bridge traffic. By the 1950s, the Nickel Plate was transporting virtually every type of freight imaginable thanks to its positioning in the Midwest, connections to major cities, and interchanges with all major railroads, such as the B&O, Pennsylvania, C&O, New York Central, and others.
The Nickel Plate never spent lavishly on its passenger trains. Its premier run was the “Nickel Plate Limited,” an overnight service from Chicago to Buffalo with through-cars reaching Hoboken, New Jersey. In 1950, the railroad did somewhat conservatively enter the streamliner era when it acquired 25 sleek, lightweight, stainless-steel cars from Pullman-Standard. This equipment was pulled by new Alco PA-1 diesel locomotives, adorned in a gorgeous blue and light gray livery; dubbed the “Bluebird,” the color scheme is still fondly remembered today. For the most part, however, the Nickel Plate focused on its freight business, and in the 1950s, spent millions on its physical plant by adding central traffic control, installing radio service, and upgrading its shop/maintenance facilities. The railroad was late to give up on steam and was one of the last to continue operating the motive power in main line freight service through the late 1950s. Diesels would prevail by the summer of 1958, and the Nickel Plate entered the 1960s as a strong carrier, albeit one surrounded by larger competitors. As such, it found a suitable merger partner in the Norfolk & Western (N&W) on October 16, 1964.
In 1982, the N&W merged with the Southern Railway, forming today’s Norfolk Southern. After this time, the Nickel Plate’s former Indianapolis Division (Indianapolis-Michigan City) lost importance, and the section from Tipton to Argos was leased out by NS to various short lines in the 1980s for continued freight service. The Cassville to Peru segment remained in use by short line Central Railroad of Indianapolis for about a decade until lack of traffic allowed NS to abandon the line in 1999, forming today’s Nickel Plate Trail.
Railroad attractions include the Hesston Steam Museum (offers train rides powered by steam locomotives) in La Porte; Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum in North Judson; Indiana Railway Museum in French Lick; Indiana Transportation Museum in Noblesville; Linden Railroad Museum in Linden; Madison Railroad Station in Madison; National New York Central Railroad Museum in Elkhart; Wabash Valley Railroaders Museum in Terre Haute; and the Whitewater Valley Railroad in Connersville.