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.
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.
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 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.”
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.
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.