What does the famed Nickel Plate Road have to do with the B-17 “Flying Fortress”?
More than you might think.
Throughout history, nicknames have often caught on, replacing the ‘real’ name with a something a bit catchier and more memorable.
From planes to trains, nicknames sometimes find favor with enthusiasts – and oftentimes newspaper reporters are the originators of popular, enduring nicknames.
From Nickel-Plated Railroad to Nickel Plate Road
Take, for instance, the infamous B-17 airplane that was the workhorse during WWII. In 1935, when Seattle Times reporter Richard Williams first saw the B-17 with its awesome firepower, bomb capacity and machine guns, he called out, “Why, it’s a flying fortress!”
For pilots and crew, the B-17 was indeed a flying fortress, praised for its ability to continue flying even though parts of the plane had been shot off and hundreds of holes made it look like a sieve.
For train enthusiasts, such was the case with the New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad (NYC&St.L). In 1881, an Ohio newspaper editor praised the superb quality of construction of the railroad, acclaiming it as a “double track, nickel-plated railroad.”
And just like the nickname Flying Fortress, Nickel Plate Road (a/k/a NKP) became legendary.
A Glimpse into the History of the Nickel Plate Road
There’s always an official name for everything: the Nickel Plate Road was formally known as the New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad (NYC&StL), an eventual 2,200-mile rail network that stretched from Buffalo, New York, meandering through northern Ohio and Indiana. Its western stops reached St. Peoria, Chicago and St. Louis.
One primary reason it was constructed? To rival the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway (LS&MS), which was a later part of the huge New York Central System. The Lake Shore & Michigan Railway was the only rail in service that connected Buffalo and Chicago, traveling by northern Ohio and Indiana.
On February 3, 1881, the NYC&StL was officially established; the original plan was to build a main line from Cleveland to Chicago. Ground was broken in April 1881, and already the decision was made to extend the eastern terminus from Cleveland to Buffalo. By October 1882, the NYC&StL made its debut, running from Cleveland to Chicago.
How did the NYC&StL railway get its start?
During the late 1800s, northern Ohio already had four railroads winding through the area, so the introduction of a brand-new line gave birth to spirited contests in many cities. It became like an enthusiastic, energetic popularity contest, with citizens doing their utmost to attract a new line.
When three routes were selected and proposed, neighborhoods and towns along each of the proposed routes competed to raise public subscriptions so that each community could donate right of ways.
And, as with many events in history, legends arise. With the lively public involvement, Nickel Plate is no exception.
The generally accepted truth about its infamous nickname is that in the March 10, 1881 edition of the Norwalk, Ohio Chronicle, an article reported the arrival of a group of engineers to conduct a survey for the “great New York and St. Louis double track, nickel plated railroad.”
Check out this YouTube video brought to you by the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society:
Then, later on, in efforts to lure the company to build the line through Norwalk and not Bellevue, Ohio, the Chronicle newspaper again labeled the road as “nickel plated,” referring to the project’s solid financial support and bright prospects for the future.
The originator of the novel nickname did not go unnoticed.
The editor and owner of the Norwalk Chronicle was officially recognized as being the source of the Nickel Plate nickname, and was presented with Complimentary Pass No. 1.
How about testing your train trivia knowledge with a few fun teasers?
5 Nickel Plate Railroad Trivia Facts
#1- Who were two of the legendary railroad developers beginning around 1877?
Answer: Jay Gould and William H. Vanderbilt. These two powerful men were in competition for rail traffic on the Great Lakes south shore.
Circa 1878, Vanderbilt was the owner of the lone railroad (the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway) linking Buffalo, NY; Cleveland, OH; Detroit, MI; and Chicago, IL. Vanderbilt was the wealthiest man in the US back then.
Jay Gould controlled an expansive amount of railroad mileage, especially west of the Mississippi River. He was a force to be reckoned with: known as one of the most ruthless financial operators of the day, he ruled about 15% of all U.S. railroad mileage.
#2- Routing for the Nickel Plate through Cleveland was made a lot smoother by the purchase of which 2 smaller railroads?
Answer: The Rocky River Railroad and the Cleveland, Painesville & Ashtabula Railroad. In September 1881, control was acquired of the Rocky River Railroad, giving the Nickel Plate Road right-of-way through the city’s west side. It was through the acquisition of the Cleveland, Painesville & Ashtabula Railroad that it gained right-of-way through the city’s east side.
#3- What made the Nickel Plate Road so unique regarding its original Buffalo-Chicago main line?
Answer: The Railroad’s original Buffalo – Chicago main line was constructed entirely with private capital. In fact, at the time: “Its only comparable counterpart was the Virginian Railway, constructed with millionaire Henry Huttleston Rogers’ support to serve the southern Appalachian coal fields,” reports American-Rails.com.
#4- During the 1920s, what slogan appeared on Nickel Plate Road equipment?
Answer: High Speed Service. This fitting slogan probably came as no surprise in those days: once established, the Nickel Plate Road had become known for running efficient, high-speed service throughout its entire network, hence the slogan. Though it may have lacked creativity, the simple catchphrase reflected the Railroad’s practical efficiency.
#5- What were the Road’s last passenger trains?
Answer: On September 9th, 1965, the “City of Chicago” and the “City of Cleveland” made their final voyages. Did you know? By 1950, the NKP was operating 2,266 miles of track. It gradually moved out of passenger service, and in 1964, the Nickel Plate Road officially merged with the infamous Norfolk & Western Railroad.
For more history on the Nickel Plate Road:
- American-Rails.com “Nickel Plate Road (Railroad), “High Speed Service”
- Case Western Reserve University Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, “Nickel Plate Road”
- Mad River & NKP Railroad Museum
- The Nickel Plate Road Historical & Technical Society, Inc.
- Trains.com “Remembering the Nickel Plate Road”
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