The Nickel Plate Railroad was constructed in 1881 along the South Shore of the Great Lakes connecting Buffalo, New York and Chicago to compete with the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway. In 1964, the Nickel Plate Road and several other mid-western carriers were merged into Norfolk and Western Railway and the Nickel Plate Road was no more. The N&W was formed to be a more competitive and successful system serving 14 states and the Canadian province of Ontario on more than 7,000 miles (11,000 km) of railroad. The profitable N&W was itself combined with the Southern Railway, another profitable carrier, to form Norfolk Southern Corporation (NS) in 1982.
Starting about 1877, two great railroad developers, William H. Vanderbilt and Jay Gould, began competing for the railroad traffic along the south shore of the Great Lakes. By 1878 William Vanderbilt had a monopoly on rail traffic between Buffalo, New York; Cleveland, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, because he owned the only railroad between those cities - the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway. In addition, he was the richest man in America at that time. By 1881 Jay Gould controlled about 15% of all U.S. railroad mileage, most of it west of the Mississippi River and he was considered the most ruthless financial operator in America. Gould's major railroad east of the Mississippi River was the 3350 mile (5400 km) Wabash, St. Louis and Pacific Railway (Wabash). The Wabash mainline ran from St. Louis, Missouri to Toledo, Ohio where it was forced to deliver its railroad traffic to William H. Vanderbilt's Lake Shore Railroad for deliver to the eastern United States.
Jay Gould and William Vanderbilt together oversaw all east-west rail traffic in the mid-west. The owners (the Seney Syndicate) of a 350-mile (560 km) railroad, the Lake Erie and Western Railroad, were interested in tapping new sources of revenue. The stage was set for the creation of the New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad.
On 13 April 1881 the New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railway Company bought the Buffalo, Cleveland and Chicago Railway, a railroad that been surveyed from the west side of Cleveland, Ohio to Buffalo, New York running parallel to Vanderbilt's Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway.
The idea of an east-west railroad across northern Ohio was very popular with the people of Ohio. They wanted to break the high freight rates charged by Jay Gould and William Henry Vanderbilt. No one was less popular in Ohio than William Vanderbilt since the 29 December 1876 collapse of Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway's Ashtabula River trestle, where 64 people had been injured and 92 were killed or died later from injuries.
Another reason for the popularity of the New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railway was the positive economic impact on cities that any new railroad went through at that time. During a newspaper war to attract the New York, Chicago and St. Louis the Norwalk, Ohio Chronicle Newspaper referred to the New York, Chicago and St. Louis as "... double-track nickel-plated railroad." The New York, Chicago and St. Louis adopted the nickname and it became better known as the Nickel Plate Road.
It was decided to start building along the surveyed route between Cleveland, Ohio and Buffalo, New York rather than build the branch to St. Louis, Missouri. Five hundred days later the Nickel Plate's 513-mile (825 km) single-track mainline from Buffalo, New York to Chicago was complete. The railroad was estimated to require 90,000 long tons (80,000 metric tons) of steel rails, each weighing sixty pounds per yard (30 kg/m) and 1.5 million oak crossties. Additionally, the railroad required forty-nine major bridges. It was characterized by long sections of straight track, mild grades and impressive bridges. The Nickel Plate ran its first trains over the entire system on 16 October 1882.
During construction, Vanderbilt and Gould had watched with great interest. If either of them could acquire the Nickel Plate, they could end the threat to their railroads. If the Nickel Plate remained independent it would be able to create a substantial dent in both entrepreneurs' railroad earnings.
Vanderbilt tried to lower the value of the Nickel Plate by organizing a campaign to smear its reputation before a train ever ran on its tracks. If Vanderbilt was successful he could scare the Seney Syndicate into selling to him or drive the railroad company into bankruptcy. However, Vanderbilt's plan came with two important risks. If he slandered the line he risked chasing the Seney Syndicate into an alliance with Gould. The other risk was that his plan to smear the Nickel Plate's reputation might fail and it could quickly grow. Vanderbilt claimed the road was being built with substandard materials and it would use unsafe practices once completed. He succeeded in creating long-standing rumors about the line, but failed to devalue the company or scare the investors.
The cost of construction was higher than expected and the Seney Syndicate began to negotiate with Gould to purchase the railroad, but unlike Vanderbilt, Gould lacked the capital. Frustrated at the failing talks, Gould broke off negotiations and gave up on his attempt to break Vanderbilt.
On 25 October 1882 (a few days after the first trains ran) the Seney Syndicate sold the Nickel Plate to Vanderbilt for 7.2 million dollars. Vanderbilt transferred it to his Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway. However, Vanderbilt had a problem: he could not run the business into the ground or it would fall into receivership and someone else would buy it. He could not close the Nickel Plate either because it cost a fortune to buy. So, the Nickel Plate Road did business, but just enough to keep it solvent. By the advent of the 1920s the Nickel Plate was an obscure line that earned its keep through the transfer of freight from other rail connections. During the same period Vanderbilt's Lake Shore and Michigan Southern prospered and expanded.
Vanderbilt kept most of the rail traffic on his Lake Shore and Michigan Southern. Fewer trains on the Nickel Plate meant that they could move faster, so that is the railroad traffic they went after. By 1888 the Nickel Plate had been dubbed "The Meat Express Line." Observers at Fort Wayne, Indiana reported six long meat trains every night and a couple of fruit trains during the day.
Vanderbilt consolidated many of his railroads into the New York Central Railroad. In 1915 Vanderbilt was found to be in violation of the federal antitrust laws because the New York Central had a controlling interest in the Nickel Plate. Over time the Nickel Plate had been reduced as a serious threat to competing lines and in return for operating concessions and access to certain stations, the New York Central sold the Nickel Plate to the Van Sweringen brothers of Cleveland, Ohio.
The Nickel Plate was the key. It transversed Cleveland from east to west, had a high level crossing of the Cuyahoga River Valley, and it was adjacent to the proposed terminal. The Nickel Plate also provided natural route to the proposed terminal for the Van Sweringen's rapid transit and the other traction lines.
Between 1890 and 1913 Cleveland had a fourfold increase in population. Cleveland wanted to clean up the city and started many civic projects. Cleveland wanted to consolidate all of its railroad stations. The Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway, Pennsylvania Railroad, and Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad shared a crowded lakefront Union Station. The Erie Railroad, Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, Nickel Plate Road, and the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad all occupied separate stations on the north bluff of the Cuyahoga River, just south of downtown. The city also encouraged the railroads to build grade separation throughout the city. The Nickel Plate started a grade separation project on the East Side of Cleveland in 1909 and finished in 1913. Cleveland approved a bond issue in 1910 to "depress" the Nickel Plate through the most congested part of the West Side.
The Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway was controlled by the New York Central Railroad's Alfred H. Smith, a close friend of the Van Sweringens. He had guided the Van Sweringens and even financed their rapid transit to Shaker Heights. The Attorney General of the United States advised the New York Central that its control of the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern and the Nickel Plate was in violation of the Federal antitrust laws in late 1915. Alfred Smith called his friends, the Van Sweringens on 1 February 1916 and offered them the Nickel Plate. They bought it for 8.5 million dollars on 13 April 1916. They only put up a little over half a million dollars but they controlled 75% of Nickel Plate's voting stock.
The Van Sweringens had no intention of running the Nickel Plate. Alfred Smith was happy to give the Van Sweringens a vice-president of the New York Central, John J. Bernet, and some of his top men. Smith wanted to show that the Van Sweringens were not New York Central puppets, and the Nickel Plate needed to earn money to retire the $6.5 million in notes owed to the New York Central.
Bernet also doubled the railroad's total freight tonnage and average speeds systemwide, while cutting fuel consumption in half. Bernet left the Nickel Plate in late 1926.
Bernet returned to the Nickel Plate in 1933. In 1934, Bernet ordered 15 Berkshire Locomotives, which would become legendary with the Nickel Plate. Bernet remained as the president of the company until his death in 1935.
After the war, in 1947, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway ended its control of the Nickel Plate, when it sold off its remaining shares. That year, the Nickel Plate also ordered 11 ALCO PA diesel-electric locomotives, named the "Bluebirds." These were the first locomotives for the Nickel Plate that were not painted black since the early 1900s.
In 1949, the Nickel Plate received its last Berkshire, #779, also the last steam locomotive built by the Lima Locomotive Works. Later that year, on December 1, the Nickel Plate leased the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railway.
In 1960, the last steam locomotive was retired from service, officially "dieselizing" the Nickel Plate.
As the financial situation of American railroading continued to decline after World War II, the Nickel Plate Road together with the Wabash and several smaller carriers merged with the profitable Norfolk and Western on October 16, 1964.
N&W had merged with long-time rival Virginian Railway in the Pocahontas coal region in 1959, and grew through the mergers with other rail carriers including the Nickel Plate and Wabash railroads with operations in adjacent areas of the eastern United States to form a more competitive and successful system serving 14 states and a province of Canada on more than 7,000 miles of road.