The Central Ohio Railway is a former railroad that connected Columbus, Ohio to Bellaire, Ohio at the Ohio River. The line played an integral role in the development of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O), especially after a bridge was completed over the Ohio River that enabled eastern markets to connect with Chicago and the Midwest.

In the mid-19th century, it was realized that a railroad to connect Wheeling, West Virginia to the Midwest would be valuable in transporting freight and passengers from the east coast westward into Ohio and ultimately Chicago.

The Central Ohio Railway, chartered in February 1847 by interests in Zanesville, was proposed to connect Columbus, Ohio to Bellaire.3 Construction began in June 1850 2 but was besieged with obstacles. The wide Muskingum River at Zanesville had to be bridged and major cuts had to be performed through hard sandstone, such as at Blackhand Gorge along the Licking River east of Newark. The Blackhand Gorge alignment required the excavation of 65 feet deep by 700 feet of rock. Much fill and trestle construction was required along Big Walnut Creek and a tunnel in Cambridge had rockfalls, which forced the daylighting of nearly half of the tunnel.3 The section between Zanesville and Bellaire required six tunnels and 12 large bridges.

In January 1852, the first portion of the line was opened from Zanesville west to Newark, followed by the Newark to Columbus segment.3 In Columbus, the railroad crossed Alum Creek and Nelson Road south of Fifth Avenue and past military barracks where it swung southwest to enter Union Station. In November 1854, the entire line was opened east from Zanesville to Bellaire completing the Central Ohio Railway.

The railroad was hastily constructed and was in poor condition early on.3 The track had no ballast and derailments were frequent. A lack of frequent sidings meant that regular freight schedules could not be met. Financial difficulties plagued the railroad until it was placed into receivership in May 1859.

Regardless, the completion of the Central Ohio Railway to Bellaire led to the development of heavy industries in the region, such as the Bellaire Nail Works. Completed in 1860, the facility was the forerunner of the Carnegie Steel Mill.1

It was not until December 1865 that the railroad was reorganized due to an increase in traffic on the line relating to the Civil War.3

In West Virginia, the B&O was the first to be completed to the Ohio River in Wheeling.The new line not only connected to a bustling city but to the first coal mine connected to a railroad in the United States.

The B&O desired a link to Chicago, a growing market that few in the east had access to. On November 21, 1866, the Central Ohio Railway concluded a deal with the B&O for a term of 20 years during which the B&O would operate the Central Ohio. The deal was finalized on December 1.2 With a later acquisition of the Sandusky, Mansfield & Newark Railroad, the B&O was linked from Bellaire to the port of Sandusky along Lake Erie, which gave it a direct connection to Chicago.

All that was needed was a span over the Ohio River. Discussions on a crossing began after an Act of Congress was approved on July 14, 1862.4 The Act stated that bridges built over the river have an elevation of 90 feet or more over the low water mark in the channel and feature a main span of 300 feet and greater and adjoining spans of 220 feet and greater.

Construction was held up due to the presence of a ferry between Bellaire and Benwood, West Virginia. The ferry owner had an injunction filed in court and the matter eventually escalated to the U.S. Supreme Court where the injunction was lifted. Immediately after, the B&O selected Jacob Linville, president of the Keystone Bridge Company, to fabricate the superstructure of the new river bridge.

Construction of the foundations began on May 2, 1868 and the 3,916 feet bridge was opened to traffic on June 21, 1871.4

The new Ohio River bridge consisted of 1,490 feet of approaches.4 The Bellaire approach included 43 arched spans, measuring 33 feet, four inches wide, each varying in height from 10 to 20 feet. Each span consisted of 37 stones, representing the 37 states in the United States at the time. The Benwood approach consisted of stone piers with nine Bollman deck trusses, four deck spans and two through spans of the Linville and Piper type.

The Bollman deck trusses were constructed by the B&O’s Mt. Clair Shop in Baltimore, Maryland, while the remainder spans were built by the Keystone Bridge Company.4 The bridge consisted of:

  • Spans 1 – 7, 14 and 15: Bollman deck trusses, ranging in length from 106 feet to 124 feet;
  • Spans 8, 9, 10 and 13: Deck spans, ranging in length from 209 feet 213 feet;
  • Span 11: 348 feet Linville (Whipple/Whipple-Murphy/Double Intersection Pratt) truss;
  • Span 12: 241 feet Piper truss.

The original Ohio River crossing was designed for a uniform load of about one ton per feet.4 By the late 1800’s, the superstructure of the bridge needed replacement due to heavier train loads that stressed the trusses.

In 1892, plans were drawn for the replacement of spans 14 and 15 with new wrought iron deck trusses that were designed to hold 107.5 tons.4 The spans were replaced by the Union Bridge Company in 1893.

Spans 1 through 7 were re-designed in 1896 and replaced in 1900 by Pencoyd Iron Works.4 The new soft open-hearth steel deck trusses were designed to hold 125 tons.

Plans to replace spans 8, 9, 10 and 13 were drawn up in 1896 and were replaced with soft open-hearth steel by the American Bridge Company’s Edgemoor Plant in 1902.4 The new Parker through trusses were designed to hold a train load of 2½ tons per feet.

The replacement of spans 11 and 12 over the Ohio River were met with resistance by the War Department.4 The B&O had obtained a special War Department permit in 1900 for the reconstruction of spans 8, 9, 10 and 13 on the existing masonry. The War Department desired Spans 11 and 12 replaced with a single span, which would require the extension of piers 10 and 12 and the removal of pier 11. The single span would measure 589½ feet and cost about $253,500 more than reconstructing the Linville and Piper trusses on the existing piers.

The War Department preferred a 700 feet main span over the Ohio River, which would require the removal of three piers and the lengthening of one pier and the replacement of spans 9, 10, 11 and 12 with one span of 284½ feet and another span of 730 feet.4 The scheme would cost about $563,000 more than reconstructing the Linville and Piper trusses on the existing piers.

The War Department and the railroad disputed who should bear the cost of the main span replacement cost differences and the logistics, with the B&O ultimately deciding that it would replace spans 11 and 12 with Parker through trusses of equal length.4

Reconstruction consisted of erecting spans 11 and 12 on the outside of the the existing Linville and Piper trusses, keeping traffic moving on the bridge was much as possible.4 Work on the main spans was completed in 1905.

The Central Ohio line ultimately became part of the B&O’s Cincinnati to Pittsburgh Secondary, with the section of line between Columbus and Newark being shared with the Pennsylvania Railroad.3 By 1955, the B&O had one passenger train each way and generally less than 10 freights per day. In 1983, the B&O abandoned the route from Cambridge east to Bellaire.

Today, portions of the Central Ohio Railway alignment have been preserved as a rail-to-trail:

  • The Blackhand Gorge Trail cuts through Blackhand Gorge for 4.5 miles on an old alignment of the B&O;
  • The Great Guernsey Trail links the east side of Cambridge to Lore City, a distance of 6 miles;
  • Approximately one mile of trail follows the grade and tunnel in downtown Barnesville.