Western Reserve Greenway History


At a Glance

Name: Western Reserve Greenway
Length: 43 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Wheelchair Accessible, Snowmobiling, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Ashtabula, Trumbull
Surfaces: Asphalt
State: Ohio

A Brief History

The Western Reserve Greenway follows much of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s (PRR) former branch line, extending to the shores of Lake Erie at Ashtabula, Ohio. The route’s earliest history dates back to the mid-19th century, although delays in construction and lack of financing resulted in many years passing before rail service actually began. The property eventually came under control of the PRR through various subsidiaries where it was used primarily to funnel iron ore to nearby steel mills in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. Over the years, the route slowly lost its importance, particularly as the mills closed, although it managed to survive into the Penn Central era. Eventually, through-service was discontinued after trains were diverted to a nearby line. Service ended entirely during the early Conrail years.

The history of what is now the Western Reserve Greenway begins on February 20, 1853, with the chartering of the Ashtabula & New Lisbon Railroad (A&NL). This system planned a new route from Ashtabula Harbor to New Lisbon (now Lisbon), where it would not only handle freight and passenger traffic from the lake, but also serve new coal and iron ore mines located in northeastern Ohio. While the A&NL was able to complete much of the grading along its 80+ mile route, funding ran out before the company could lay down rails. As a result, it entered receivership and sold at foreclosure in April 1869. What eventually became the Erie Railroad had acquired the right-of-way from Niles to New Lisbon, while a new company (the Ashtabula, Youngstown & Pittsburgh Rail Road Company, chartered on February 11, 1870) acquired the remaining right-of-way to Ashtabula. By May 1873, the line was ready for service between Niles and Ashtabula Harbor. In the succeeding years, the property went through a number of reorganizations or consolidations until it came under the control of the Pittsburgh, Youngstown & Ashtabula Railroad (PY&A) on August 1, 1887. At the same time, it was leased by the Pennsylvania Company, controlled by the Pennsylvania Railroad.

The PY&A encompassed a handful of smaller systems within northeastern Ohio and eastern Pennsylvania that totaled nearly 145 miles during the 1890s, although some small sections were soon abandoned. This left roughly 125 miles in service by the early 20th century. In January 1906, its name was slightly amended as the Pittsburgh, Youngstown & Ashtabula Railway. Under PRR ownership, the route was often referred to as the PY&A Branch or PY&A Secondary. The section now hosting the Western Reserve Greenway split at Niles, Ohio, and ran 52 miles to Ashtabula Harbor. Incidentally, Niles also has significant ties to the long-gone interurban industry, where the Niles Car & Manufacturing Company was based, constructing trolley and streetcars from 1901 until 1917. Freight traffic largely consisted of outbound coal shipments to the docks along Lake Erie, while iron ore was picked up from freighters and delivered to nearby steel mills in Ohio and eastern Pennsylvania.

Within the entire PRR system, which spanned some 10,000 miles by 1950, the PY&A Branch was included under the Central Region as part of the Lake Division. This network of trackage covered several hundred miles running as far south as Marietta, Ohio, as far north as Cleveland and Ashtabula, westward to Lucas, and finally stretching into northeastern Pennsylvania. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, this area was laden with heavy industry such as steel mills, tire factories, glass plants, and other manufacturers, providing the PRR and other railroads with considerable freight. Alas, these fruitful years would not last after World War II, when trucks, the new Interstate highway system, and a general decline in such business saw much of this traffic disappear by the 1970s. Naturally, this loss meant the importance of the PY&A was greatly diminished.

During early 1968, the PRR merged with the New York Central to form the disastrous Penn Central Transportation Company (a.k.a., Penn Central or simply PC). The new railroad initially continued operating the PY&A, but because it ran roughly 10 miles to the west of the former New York Central’s parallel Youngstown Branch, running between Ashtabula and Youngstown, company officials felt it was superior to the former PRR line. As a result, most remaining traffic was diverted to the NYC line, and through-service ceased entirely over the PY&A in 1975 as derailments increased because of deferred maintenance. The line continued seeing local service through the early Conrail era, which formed on April 1, 1976, to operate the bankrupt Penn Central and several other insolvent Northeastern carriers (such as the Lehigh Valley and Erie Lackawanna). Conrail was abandoned in 1979. Today, the remaining 5.2 miles between Niles and Warren is still in use while the rest of the right-of-way north of that point forms today’s Western Reserve Greenway.

Railroad attractions throughout Ohio include the Ashtabula, Carson & Jefferson Railway in Jefferson;Byesville Scenic Railway in Byesville;Carillon Park Rail & Steam Society in Dayton, featuring historic rolling stock and scale train rides; Cedar Point & Lake Erie Railroad at Cedar Point; Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad near Cleveland; Dennison Railroad Depot Museum in Dennison; Hocking Valley Scenic Railway in Nelsonville; Lebanon Mason Monroe Railroad in Lebanon; Lorain & West Virginia in Elyria; the Ohio Railway Museum in Worthington; the Toledo, Lake Erie and Western Railway & Museum in Waterville; and the Zanesville & Western Scenic Railroad in Zanesville.

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