The Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad, commonly referred to as the Panhandle Route, was a railroad that was part of the Pennsylvania Railroad system. It connected Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Bradford, Ohio where the line split into a northern line to Chicago, Illinois and a southern one to Indianapolis, Indiana and East St. Louis, Illinois.
The railroad was first chartered as the Steubenville & Indiana Railroad (S&I) on February 24, 1848, to build west from the Ohio River at Steubenville to the Indiana State line near Willshire and Fort Recovery via Mt. Vernon. The railroad was authorized to build a line westward to Columbus and a bridge across the Ohio River in March 1849.
The first section opened between Steubenville and Unionport on December 22, 1853. An extension to Cadiz Junction opened on February 2, 1854, and a branch to Cadiz was completed on June 12. The line was extended westward to Masterville on June 22, Bowerston on July 12 and to Newark by April 11, 1855.
Construction of the Steubenville to Newark section included the construction of numerous tunnels that were slow to build. The Bowerston tunnel took two years to complete as some of the tunnel required arching and the completion of side walls.
“The tunnel on Section 42 is worked day and night from both ends. Mr. Kelley, the contractor, expects to have the shaft sunk in a few days, when a third force will be kept constantly at work. From present appearances, I have no doubt this tunnel will be finished by the end of June or early July.”
-Steubenville & Indiana Railroad’s chief engineer, April 1854
The S&I came to an agreement with the Central Ohio Railroad to use its tracks from Newark west to Columbus, and the extension opened on April 16, 1857.
The Pittsburgh & Steubenville Railroad (P&S) was chartered on March 24, 1849, to build east from Steubenville to the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh. It was authorized to extend to Pittsburgh on April 21, 1852. To expedite construction, the S&I deeded right-of-way it had acquired from 36 landowners in Virginia to the P&S, which allowed the P&S to build without a charter.
The P&S opened from Smithfield Street in Pittsburgh west to Steubenville, connecting to the S&I. On the same day, the P&S connected to the Pennsylvania Railroad via the Monongahela River Bridge. Until 1868, the P&S was operated as the Pittsburgh, Columbus & Cincinnati Railroad.
The railroad was sold under foreclosure to the Panhandle Railway on November 6, 1867, which had been chartered earlier in April 1861. On April 30, 1868, the S&I, Panhandle, and Holiday’s Cove Railroad merged to form the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati & St. Louis Railway.
By 1893, the Panhandle Line was mostly double-tracked with gauntlet tracks used in the tunnels.1
The Pennsylvania Railroad leased the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati & St. Louis Railway in 1921. During World War II, the Panhandle Line was among the busiest in the United States.2
In 1949, the Pennsylvania Railroad began a multi-million dollar construction project to improve the Panhandle Line between Dennison, Ohio and Steubenville.1 The goal was to raise clearances along the route to accommodate unusually large shipments via flat and open-top cars and to double track the line. The railroad needed to remove four tunnels:
- Tunnel No. 7 at Bowerston
- Tunnel No. 6 at Fairplay
- Tunnel No. 5 at Broadacre
- Tunnel No. 4 at Reeds Mill
Work to eliminate the Bowerston tunnel began in June 1949.1 The $2 million project required the construction of one new mile of track north of the tunnel through a cut 600-feet long and 220-feet deep. It required the removal of 2.5 million cubic yards of earth, the blasting of one million cubic yards of rock, and the use of 500,000 pounds of explosives. Approximately 200,000 cubic yards of earth were used to make fills for the railroad. Additionally, a mile of Ohio State Route 151 was relocated and two steel and concrete bridges were erected, requiring 5,000 cubic yards of concrete. The project was completed on October 24, 1950.
In 1968, Pennsylvania Railroad merged with the New York Central Railroad to form Penn Central Transportation. After Penn Central failed in 1976, the railroad fell into the hands of Conrail. A train wreck west of Steubenville shortly after required Conrail trains to be rerouted between Pittsburgh and Columbus to the Fort Wayne Line.2 Much of that traffic was further rerouted onto the Pittsburgh-Cleveland-Chicago line, which could then reach St. Louis. After noting the change reduced operating costs, Conrail abandoned the Panhandle Line from Columbus to Bradford, where the railroad split into a northern segment to Chicago and southern segment to Indianapolis. Both segments were also abandoned.
In the mid-1980’s, Conrail decided to abandon segments of the Panhandle Line east of Columbus to Pittsburgh, along with three branch lines.2 Various county, state and federal officials fought the effort and were successful. In 1992, the Ohio Rail Development Commission (ORDC) convinced Caprail I to purchase the Panhandle Line from Columbus east to Weirton for $7.3 million. Caprail I then leased the Panhandle Line to the ORDC for 20 years. The ORDC then granted the Columbus & Ohio Railroad the operating franchise on the Panhandle Line.
Conrail was able to abandon the Weirton to Pittsburgh segment.2
Today, the easternmost section of the Panhandle, from Carnegie, Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh, has been converted into the West Busway, a bus-only roadway. The section between Carnegie and Walkers Mill is operated by the Pittsburgh & Ohio Central Railroad while the segment from Walkers Mill to Weirton, West Virginia has been converted into the Panhandle Trail, a rail-to-trail.