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!