As a student at Ohio State, I take particular interest in our local railway history. Nothing is more local than a railway that runs right through the center of campus. While I was aware that at one point a long coal spur ran to the power plant, I never had been able to find the right resources to write a more substantial article.
That changed the other day when I discovered the Lantern’s on-line archive. The Lantern, Ohio State’s Student Newspaper, has been continuously published since 1881. I found a number of articles describing key features of the school’s private, industrial railroad and was able to piece together enough for this article.
The industrial spur that was Ohio State’s railroad was originally built in 1909 to transport coal from the C&O mainline on west campus (then part of the Hocking Valley) to the school’s power plant. It was two and a half miles long and ran all the way to the original university power plant, located behind University Hall in the open area where the Brown Hall Annex used to stand. From there, the line ran north to Woody Hayes Drive (then Stadium Drive) where it turned west and ran for a bit in and along the roadway. The track then crossed the Olentangy River in the middle of the two-lane road. On West Campus the track turned north one final time to make its connection with the C&O, just short of the Lane Avenue crossing (the underpass not being built until 1956).
Construction costs for the University (including the bridge over the Olentangy) were $39,500. Additional tracks were later added with the addition of the McCracken Power Plant in 1918, and temporary tracks were sometimes laid to campus construction sites.
After the spur’s initial construction, the railroad’s own switch engines were used to spot coal cars at the power plant as well as for the occasional special movement. Typical locomotives to be seen on the spur included 0-8-0’s, 2-8-0’s, and the occasional 2-8-2’s. Larger engines were prevented from operating at OSU due to weight restrictions on the Olentangy bridge. After World War II, Ohio State acquired their small industrial locomotive to assist with local switching duties. The war surplus GE 45-ton switcher was used for local coal switching as well as moving coal cinders to the dumping pit (located near the French Field House).
Rolling stock owned by OSU included a few hoppers and two cranes. The older steam crane was built in 1917, while the second diesel crane was acquired a number of years later. The cranes were used for offloading equipment and unloading the cinder cars. There are also records of the university owning two private passenger cars.
The railroad was used to move everything from coal to science equipment. It hauled the construction materials for the William Oxley Thompson Library, Ohio Stadium, St. John Arena, Mershon Auditorium, French Field House, and numerous smaller classrooms. It brought in special equipment for science laboratories. Basic school materials also came in by rail. Items like paper were spotted at the Central Receiving Warehouse. At one point athletics brought in a load of clay to repair the tennis courts.
Quite possibly the railroad is most remembered for hosting “Scarlet and Gray Specials” that carried Ohio State football fans to far away games. In 1909 a round trip to Ann Arbor could be had for $2. Other team’s fans and football specials from elsewhere in the state also arrived on Ohio State’s tracks. Up to six passenger trains could be stuffed into the tracks around the stadium (although six trains were rare and required the use of the west campus mains). After disembarking passengers, the specials moved to the C&O’s Yard A for servicing, and were back on the OSU spur before the game was over.
On September 5, 1948 a “Freedom Train” stopped and visited Ohio State, carrying with it original copies of the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence.
During the C&O years, a local operating out of Parson’s Yard known as the “Pole Job” was responsible for servicing the school. It arrived from the south and then backed onto the spur. Due to the extensive amount of street running, the train was generally escorted into campus by the University Police. A patrol car would clear the street ahead of the caboose as the train shoved back towards the power plant.
Around 1957, OSU began receiving coal by truck due to its cheaper cost. The little engine was still started once a month in order to maintain it, but most of the incoming supplies were handled by the C&O.
In the late 1960s, the power plant’s boilers were converted one-by-one from coal to their present day configuration of natural gas turbines. By 1970, with the railroad no longer in use, no attempt was made to integrate continued access with the design of the 315 Expressway. Construction of the highway severed the line at the C&O end, and the rest of the tracks were removed by mid-July. For a time Ohio State used the Lane Avenue Team Track, transitioning over time to all truck delivery.).
- Clements, Clifford L. “The Ohio State University Railroad Spur.” The Ohio State University Archives. 8 Jan 2008.
- Felsenthal, Norman and Scanlin, Jan Lynne. “Ohio State’s Railroad Bravely Carries On.” The Lantern. 19 Jul 1962.
- “OSU Railroad Derailed.” The Lantern. 16 Jul 1970.
- “Railroad Track Spur Planned For Removal.” The Lantern. 7 Apr 1970.