Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Center Street Crossing

Center Street Bridge and Crossing with the B & O Train Director’s shed. Photo from Bridgehunter licensed under CC BY-SA

Did you know that at one time the crossing pictured above was the busiest manually operated crossing in the United States? As you can see, there are a number of tracks that cross each other. At one time there were eleven different tracks serving five different railroads that squeezed together and crossed each other on the north bank of the Mahoning River just west of the Center Street Bridge, with Republic Steel’s mills in the backdrop. All told, 500 trains pulling 10,000 cars a day passed through this crossing, serving the mills and the other industries of the Mahoning Valley as well as passenger trains.

Four of the railroads used the north bank of the Mahoning as they approached this point. The fifth, the B & O started out on the south bank of the Mahoning and a few hundred yards west of the Center Street Bridge crosses the river and the other lines to the far side of the north bank, furthest from the river. As you can see, that literally is a trainwreck waiting to happen, were it not for the train director.

The train director stayed in the little bungalow-like one story shed in the center of the above picture. It was warmed by a caboose stove. He worked for the B & O, the ones responsible for the crossing, and his job was to manually signal trains when it was safe to proceed. In railroad vernacular, this was a color-coded “highball.” Here are the railroads and their signal color:

  • Baltimore & Ohio (B & O): green
  • Erie: red
  • Pennsylvania: yellow
  • New York Central and P&LE (which shared the same tracks): white

They used flag signals by day and lanterns by night.

The mills are all gone now. The old Center Street Bridge, a truss bridge connecting Poland Avenue on the south and Wilson Avenue on the north, has been replaced with a new bridge. There are fewer tracks. The crossing, now with electric signals still exists as is evident from this Google Earth Image, looking west from the bridge. The old train director’s shack is gone. But the vestiges remain and remind us that there was a day when this was the busiest crossing in the country, all manually operated.

[The idea and some of the information for this post came from former Youngstown resident, William Duffy. Bill was a former B & O yard director, later working at the B & O freight office at Front and Market Streets. I also found helpful information in The Sentinal Volume 37, Number 4, published by The Baltimore and Ohio
Railroad Historical Society.]

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Railroads

PLE-Fogg-Christmasmemory1sThe story of steel-making in Youngstown was also the story of railroads, which transported raw materials to the mills and finished products from them. Almost every picture of the old steel mill complexes features a rail yard beside it.

PLE-DE-GatewayYard-sI first witnessed this as a youngster when my dad took me to the observation deck at the Gateway Yard offices and control tower, located between Campbell and Lowellville. According to Wikipedia, the yard was operated by the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad, and it was used as a sorting and switching yard for freight cars with the Baltimore and Ohio, and New York Central Railroads. Youngstown Sheet and Tube, and Republic Steel had huge complexes nearby. We were there at night and it was an amazing scene of long lines of rail cars being sorted and connected to locomotives in the foreground, with the glow of blast furnaces from the nearby mills in the distance. The Gateway Yard opened in 1957, and I must have visited it within five years of it opening. The facility operated until 1993, when CSX shut it down.

Passenger rail service also was an important means of transportation growing up. I served as a safety patrol boy for a couple years in elementary school and there would be annual Safety Patrol Days at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland. We would take the Erie Lackawanna line from downtown Youngstown for an hour or so trip to downtown Cleveland, see the Indians play, and then ride back to Youngstown. These were the only times I ever rode a train between cities, other than an round trip on Amtrack between Toledo and Cleveland in the 70s. I’ve often wished there were trains between Columbus, and places like Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Chicago, places I visit often. I loved the sound of the cars on the rails and the smooth gliding sensation.

1024px-Youngstown_B&O_Station_-_Face_On_View

By Jack Pearce [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Baltimore and Ohio played an important part in my wife’s family history. Her mother and grandmother arrived in Youngstown on the B & O in the 1920s, coming from Johnstown, PA. Her mother told the story of being permitted by the stationmaster to sleep on the benches in the station because they had arrived in the evening and had no place to go. Years later, when her mother turned 80, and the station had been converted to a restaurant, we surprised her by taking her there for her birthday, and everyone in the restaurant heard that story!

Many of the old train yards have now been torn up, going into oblivion with the steel mills they once served. There is still rail traffic in the area, particularly serving the General Motors complex at Lordstown, northwest of the city. Genesee and Wyoming operate several short rail lines in this area including the Youngstown Belt Railroad, the Youngstown and Austintown Railroad, the Mahoning Valley Railroad, and the Youngstown and Southeastern Railroad. These in turn connect with CSX and Norfolk Southern lines, national rail carriers. The Mahoning Valley Railroad Heritage Association keeps the history of Youngstown’s railroads and their connection to the steel industry alive, including displays at the Western Reserve Village during the Canfield Fair.

What are your memories of railroads in the Youngstown area? Did you have relatives who worked for the railroads and what was this like for them?