Hay & Destiny: What Brought the City’s First Railroad In 1846

Mansfield became an early industrial leader in the American Midwest by building one of the first railroads west of the Alleghenies. 

It happened that way because Richland County was settled by farmers, and in the 1830s these farmers had a great talent for growing the single crop that was most needed in big cities of the East Coast.  The problem was, they had no way to get it there.

So they had to get creative.

What they created was the Sandusky, Mansfield & Newark Rail Road.


This story is essentially about transportation and it is easy to understand by drawing a simple parallel between 1846 and today.  In our time, everyone has a car and the most critical factor in being mobile is filling the car’s tank.  Our 21st century economy inhales and exhales on the price of gas. 

In 1830, however, everyone had a horse.  That 19th century world rotated around grass.  Every horse needs food, and there were many millions of horses in America.

Therefore, the nation’s fortunes rode on hay—timothy grass, alfalfa, clover.

Farmers in Richland County might plow a field of corn or wheat or beans, but their plow horses didn’t run without hay, so their first field was always planted in basic green horse salad.

As evidence of the importance of horses to the world of the 1800s all you need to do is page through the Richland County Atlas of 1873.  Aside from colorful maps, the big book has many pages of lithographic illustrations depicting various sites, landscapes, businesses and homes around the county.  Of 39 hand-drawn pictures, there is only one that does not have multiple horses in it.

The sheaves of early Richland farmers were so critical to the local economy that Mansfield’s paper currency of 1816 clearly depicted exactly what was behind the money.

Hay Wagons

Richland farmers had no problem harvesting an endless supply of hay, but there wasn’t anyone who could drive a hay wagon from here to the East Coast.  The only feasible option was to ship it there on a boat, and the only access to real water was by Lake Erie or down the Ohio River.

That’s why the State started digging canals in the 1820s—the Ohio & Erie Canal, the Miami & Erie Canal, and the Hocking Canal—so inland farmers could have a shipping port on an artificial river.

For farmers of North Central Ohio, the canal option was problematic because all the waterways—essential to the operation of canals—drain away from Richland County, which sits atop the Continental Divide.

The state’s three main canals (from the left)—the Miami & Erie, the Ohio & Erie, and the Hocking—clearly skirted North Central Ohio.

So, as local magnates were puzzling out how to get a canal system into the county for local hay wagons, a new and better solution presented itself with the invention of the railroad steam locomotive.

The plan then became obvious—why dig a trench through the county when all that was required would be two rails and a steam-powered engine to tow a whole slew of hay wagons to the Lake.

As early as 1835, charters were issued by the State Legislature to create rail systems through North Central Ohio.

The railroad system that connected Mansfield to Lake Erie and the Ohio Canal was Chartered by the State, funded by local businessmen in four separate segments, and constructed over a period of fifteen years. 

The Plymouth Cut

With great enthusiasm tracks were laid north from Mansfield—following a level course all the way to Plymouth—and, similarly, rails proceeded southward from Sandusky over the flat Northern Ohio plains until they reached the other side of Plymouth.

But work had to pause there for quite a while because there was no route through the village that didn’t encounter a hill.

In order for the tracks to stay level, railroad workers had to dig a big slice out of the ridge upon which the main street was built.

It came to be known around Ohio as the Plymouth Cut.

Making the Cut was quite a chore.  But it ultimately proved an excellent advantage for Plymouth.

Trains passing through the Cut were rolling well below ground level, and it wasn’t difficult to design a warehouse that could span the gap—so box cars would be running just underneath the floor.  In this way wagons could be unloaded right down onto the trains without need of any mechanical elevator.

This simple feat of engineering turned Plymouth into a major hub for hay and grain. 

In later years, J.M. Hunter wrote of his youngster days in 1850 Shiloh,

“It was a great privilege to accompany my father hauling hay to Plymouth.  At the junction with the New State road west of Shiloh, we got with a caravan of hay teams coming from the south, while others were following them from the east.  Thus wedged in, it took us hours to get to Plymouth and wait for our turn to unload.”

Reading about Early American Teamster Songs makes more sense when it becomes evident that sometimes these hay wagons had to wait in line for hours, and those mule drivers needed some way to pass the time.

Nearly every able-bodied person in Blooming Grove Township turned into a Haymaker when grass was ripe for harvesting—even little kids were employed: to keep the horses company.

This view of the Plymouth Cut seen from the north shows, by the bridge on West Broadway, how much clearance there was in the 1840s for locomotives to pass below the level of shops and sidewalks in town.

The first official history of the state, Historical Collections of Ohio by Henry Howe, was published in 1847 just after the new railroad was in service. In his text it was called the Sandusky City and Mansfield Rail Road.

First Locomotive into Mansfield

When the time came that railroad tracks finally ran clear from Mansfield to the Lake after years of talking about it, there was tremendous anticipation for commerce and passenger traffic to begin.  On the day in June 1846 when it was announced that a real locomotive was actually coming to town, a huge crowd spontaneously amassed in the Flats.

The Richland Jeffersonian proclaimed the event “Glorious,” and the railroad stockholder’s report called it a “Day of Destiny.”

That first train picked up people in Plymouth and Shelby but the railroad didn’t have anything like a passenger coach yet, so they lined up a few rows of folding chairs on some utility flatbed cars. The Engineer left it to the riders to provide their own umbrellas or fireproof hats to keep the blowing cinders out of their hair.

At that time, the Sandusky & Mansfield track reached its terminus on North Main Street about where the grain elevators are today, and that’s where the festive crowd gathered to witness the birth of a new era.

The first steam locomotive chugging in was named, the “Mansfield,” and it resembled more of a custom barbeque rig than anything recognizable as a traditional train engine of the last century.

It raced into Madison Township at a speed of 15 MPH, and as it neared the wall of cheering greeters it let off a great happy blast of the steam whistle.

The Mansfield people had never heard a train whistle before.  It sounded to them like the steam boiler was about to explode.

Cheery enthusiasm very quickly turned to panic, and the crowd fled like startled sheep.


The tracks finally connected through to Newark in 1851, but by then the Ohio Canal connection wasn’t much of a factor because canal traffic was already falling out of use due to increased railroad tracks throughout the state.

Looking closely at this portrait of the SM&N RR locomotive “Independence,” it is clear that the “coal tender” car behind the engine has no coal and is actually carrying chunks of wood.  During the first decades of railroading in North Central Ohio, the steam boilers of locomotives were fired with wood, which was plentiful, and, in fact, every engine came equipped with a saw so that train crews could gather fuel in emergencies. 
It wasn’t until the tracks finally extended to Newark that SM&N RR trains had access to the Southern Ohio coal mines to power their steamers, and the coal cars could be filled with coal.

In 1869 the Sandusky Mansfield & Newark Rail Road signed over all its engines, stations, and miles of tracks to the oldest railroad system in America: the Baltimore & Ohio.  Throughout its remaining railroad life, until 1983, this historic line was known as the Lake Erie Division of the B&O.
This B&O engine, photographed on the edge of Mansfield, has a coal car definitely filled with coal.

A segment of the SM&N RR is still in service today—for bikes instead of trains—as 18.4 miles of the Richland B&O Trail.

Thank You!

Some of the images in this article come from the collections of Mark Hertzler, the Sherman Room of the Mansfield/Richland County Public Library, Phil Stoodt, and Richland County Chapter Ohio Genealogical Society. Especially Bob Carter, whose book, The Sandusky, Mansfield & Newark Railroad: Early History of the Lake Erie Division of the B&O, Mansfield 2002, is the definitive source of this local railroad history.

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