Abandoned Railroad Lines: Hiding in Plain Sight

Guest post by Richard C. Carpenter

The sweeping view from the interstate includes traces of many abandoned railroad lines. During the last 30 years, nearly half of the 165,000 Class I railroad route miles remaining in 1980 in the United States were reduced, falling to 94,000 route miles by 2009. Traveling on the Ohio Turnpike (Interstate 80) east of Toledo, we always keep watch for three abandoned railroad lines beneath underpasses: the New York Central “Old Road,” now a bike path, at mile 83.3 ; the Nickel Plate Road, which ran from Sandusky, OH, to Peoria, IL, at mile 98.9; and the old Big Four (later New York Central), from Sandusky to Springfield, OH, at mile 103.4.

Many miles of abandoned railroad lines can be found crisscrossing the American landscape. Some are hard to find. Others are easy, if you know what to look for. Both a straight or gently curving line of trees across open farmland, or an unused, derelict line of telegraph poles with missing insulators, suggest that a railroad once ran here. A dashed line on a USGS topographic map—with the legend “abandoned railroad”—as well as the closely spaced topographic contours of a high full or a deep cut almost certainly reveal where a railroad once ran.  In small towns, a former railroad station or freight house placed along a discernible straight or gently curving path, now in a new life as a restaurant or feed store, signifies that a railroad once served the town.

Fostoria Ohio capenter_railroad_intBellevue Oh page 83

Richard Carpenter’s illustrations of Fostoria, Ohio and Bellevue, Ohio. Both drawings appear in A Railroad Atlas of the United States in 1946: Volume 3: Indiana, Lower Michigan, and Ohio


Google Earth is a new and valuable online resource with which historians can locate an abandoned rail line by using aerial photographs and zooming in for greater detail. Often, evidence of gravel ballast from a railroad right-of-way that has been returned to agricultural use can be detected from the air. Grain or corn storage silos, seen from a distance in open country, serve as another sign that a railroad once ran through.

So next time you are enjoying the scenery along an interstate or any road, keep a sharp lookout for these visual clues that a railroad once ran here!

A Railroad Atlas of the United States in 1946, vol. 5 $49.00 (reg. $70.00)

A Railroad Atlas of the United States in 1946, vol. 5

Richard C. Carpenter is the author and illustrator of five volumes of A Railroad Atlas of the United States in 1946, published by Johns Hopkins Press. His most recent book is A Railroad Atlas of the United States in 1946, Volume 5: Iowa and Minnesota. Now retired, Carpenter was the executive director of the South Western Regional Planning Agency in Connecticut.

Iowa Public Radio’s recent interview with Carpenter can be heard here.