Cincinnati & Dayton Short Line Railroad

Standard or dual standard/broad gauge railroad proposed between Cincinnati and Dayton in the mid 1850s via deep level Deer Creek Tunnel under Walnut Hills

Never completed


There was no shortage of ambitious railroad plans for Cincinnati in the decade of the 1850s. This time saw the construction of many of the Kentucky railroads, opening of the various B&O lines into the city, and most notably, the start of the Dayton Short Line's ill-fated deep level Deer Creek Tunnel under Walnut Hills. The Cincinnati & Dayton Short Line Railroad (also frequently referred to as the Dayton & Cincinnati Short Line) broke ground on December 16, 1852 to build a double track standard gauge railroad (with provisions for 6'-0" broad gauge rails as well) between the northeast corner of downtown Cincinnati and Dayton. It would roughly parallel the routes of the later CL&N and PRR Richmond Division to Sharonville. At that point the main line would head due north to Middletown and follow the east side of the Great Miami River's valley, roughly paralleling the Miami and Erie Canal, to Dayton. This route that bypassed the Mill Creek Valley and Hamilton was more than 7 miles shorter than the competing CH&D. Ultimately, the former Big Four/NYC route to Columbus used pretty much this same route between Sharonville and Middletown. Also at Sharonville, the Dayton Short Line was intended to connect with an extension of the Hamilton & Eaton coming in from the northwest, and the Cincinnati, Lebanon & Xenia coming in from the northeast. At Norwood it would connect with the Marietta & Cincinnati, and later plans were drawn up to connect to the Cincinnati & Eastern near Idlewild.


With many railroads planned or already under construction, they needed a final route into downtown Cincinnati. Thus, they were all to funnel into the Dayton Short Line's grandest undertaking, the Deer Creek Tunnel. The ambitious project, presided over by engineer Erasmus Gest, called for a 10,011 foot long tunnel, with approximately 7,903 feet of that being bored directly through the hill. The remaining 2,108 feet of "approaches" (1,525 feet on the south end and 583 feet on the north) was to be cut and cover construction. Had it been completed before 1875, when the Hoosac Tunnel in Massachusetts opened, it would have been the longest tunnel in the United States, and perhaps the entire western hemisphere. The 26 foot wide by 20 foot tall tunnel would be walled with stone and arched with brick. This generous size was enough to accommodate two dual-gauge tracks at an easy grade of 39.6 feet per mile, or 0.75%. The big advantage of this route, aside from its shorter distance and easy grade to points north, was that it is entirely immune to flooding. Until large flood control projects were brought online after 1937, the Mill Creek Valley was regularly plagued with rising waters. Flooding from the creek itself was an issue for one, but water backing up the valley from the Ohio River was a much bigger problem, and this would regularly strangle railroad operations through Cincinnati. The Little Miami Railroad was subject to rising water from the Ohio and Little Miami Rivers as well, while the L&N and C&O tracks in northern Kentucky were prone to floods by the Ohio and Licking Rivers. So not only would the approach tracks of the Cincinnati & Dayton be safe from flooding, the terminal area at Court Street is also on high ground as well. This was a big selling point.


Construction was undertaken from five different access points: the north and south portals, and three vertical shafts about 200 feet deep which were dug at various locations in Walnut Hills. When all was said and done, the distance between portals (which includes some completed cut and cover length on the south end) was 9,000 feet. The south portal was at the location of today's northbound lanes of I-71, where the ramp from northbound Reading Road merges in, and right where the highway transitions from an asphalt surface to the concrete bridge over Florence Avenue. There was about 550 feet of open-cut walled approach south of there, ending up in the southbound lanes of the interstate just before the bridges for the Reading Road ramps. The north portal was also buried by I-71 construction. It was located along the left shoulder of the northbound lanes about 60 feet west of the Blair Avenue overpass. Unlike at the south portal, none of the cut and cover approach was covered over here, so the north portal also marked the start of the bored section of the tunnel. There was 583 feet of open-cut walled approach north of here, with another 75 feet or so of retaining wall in an open ravine. This stone wall was already somewhat buried when I-71 was being built, so it could still be there under the hillside north of I-71 in the headwaters of Ross Run (commonly misnamed Bloody Run) which is now mostly a sewer pipe under Victory Parkway.


The groundbreaking on December 16, 1852 took place at shaft 2, located in the front yard of 2627 Stanton Avenue, which is now a vacant lot with a small community garden. Four days later work was begun at the north portal and at shaft 1, which was in the middle of May Street, aligned with the south property line of building 2333. Work on shaft 3, at the northwest corner of Lincoln and Melrose, wasn't begun until February 15, 1853. Finally, work on the south approach began on April 10 of that year. All three shafts, which were of an elliptical profile 12 x 20 feet wide, were dug to the location of the tunnel's crown between June 5 and 20 of 1853.


Digging was relatively easy through the soft clay, shale, and occasional beds of limestone. Nevertheless, the tunnel was still dug by hand using pick and shovel, with occasional assistance of black powder for blasting and steam powered lifts to remove the spoils and provide fresh air to the men. Under those conditions, the going was certainly not swift. The company's second annual report noted at the beginning of March in 1854 that 2,800 feet had been excavated and 750 feet was entirely finished (meaning the masonry walls and arching was in place). A year later, 3,336 feet of the tunnel had been dug, with 1,514 feet of that being complete. By that time work was slowing down due to diminishing funds. Little to no work had been done on the rest of the line, either north of the tunnel, where extensive cuts and fills were needed to bridge the deeply cut ravines where Victory Parkway runs today, or at the terminal where the casino is located (formerly referred to as Broadway Commons). In the waning days of the project, in June 1855, there was a cave in near the north portal which killed five men. While the soft shale and clay was relatively easy to dig, it was still somewhat unstable until the stone walls and arching could be installed. Shortly thereafter, the project had to finally be abandoned for lack of means, after $475,000 had been spent.


In 1872, after more than 15 years of inactivity, the company was reorganized as the Cincinnati Railway Tunnel Company. Some limited work began again, though it stopped in 1874 after little additional progress had been made. There was another cave in near Oak Street (presumably the north end of the tunneled section under shaft 2) in the intervening years as well, hampering efforts to continue the project. The company became dormant again, and sale to other interested parties was hampered by an excessive asking price for the property.


By 1896, owners of the Cincinnati, Jackson & Mackinaw were trying to gain control of the CL&N, which by then had built its own route down the Deer Creek Valley, with two much shorter tunnels at a higher elevation. The CJ&M, unable to buy out the CL&N, and dissatisfied with trackage rights to use their Court Street station, attempted to secure the tunnel company to gain their own entrance to the city. Calvin Brice of the CJ&M and his associates gained control of the tunnel company by forcing it into receivership after securing enough of the outstanding mortgage bonds to demand a foreclosure on the property. On May 19, 1896 the Cincinnati Railway Tunnel Company was sold to Ira Bellows of New York, a covert associate of Brice. At the same time the Pennsylvania Railroad was busy orchestrating its own purchase of the CL&N, and it succeeded over Brice and the CJ&M. The CJ&M was ultimately foreclosed and reorganized, then it was acquired by the Big Four in 1901. With no use for the unfinished tunnel or trackage rights over the competing PRR/CL&N, the Big Four sold the tunnel property and terminal land at Court Street to the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1902. Not long after this time, much of the valley and the south portal was filled with earth to create a level ball field called Deer Creek Commons. Interest in the tunnel was briefly resurrected in 1927 by the Beeler Report, a study of the Cincinnati subway rapid transit loop. However, the deep location and sloping profile meant a station in the tunnel would be impractical, and its incomplete status eliminated it from any further consideration.


For several decades knowledge of the tunnel gradually faded. The south portal was buried under Deer Creek Commons, and the north portal remained in obscurity buried under trees and brush in the creek bed of a lonely industrial neighborhood. It is not known what happened to the three vertical shafts in Walnut Hills, but they could still be there under some unassuming manhole cover or bulkhead a few feet below ground. It is also possible that they were filled in over time, being used as garbage dumps for the surrounding neighborhood. In March of 1966 however, the tunnel was rediscovered by construction workers excavating for I-71. A stretch of the tunnel very close to the south portal was breached and quickly filled with dirt after a few newspaper articles and some photographs were taken. The north portal was also buried a few years later when highway construction reached Avondale, and the remaining section of tunnel was blocked off by a poured concrete bulkhead. About 550 feet of the north end of the tunnel remains in place south of the bulkhead however, and as mentioned already, the retaining walls for the north approach could very well still be in place below the surface. In fact, because of the low grade, the rest of the tunnel may still be in place under I-71, though filled in. A similar situation might exist near the south portal as well, since the highway bridge straddles the tunnel location somewhat. On December 5, 2007, a backhoe that was excavating for the SpringHill Suites Mariott partially fell into the south end of the tunnel near the northeast corner of Florence Avenue and Eden Park Drive. Some brief investigation was done, but it doesn't appear that any photographs were taken. Controlled density fill, which is basically a weak form of concrete, was dumped into the opening to fill the breach. Nevertheless, about 500 feet of tunnel is probably still intact north of there, ending under the north curb line of Florence Avenue near the corner of a parking lot's retaining wall.


The failure of this project is rather unfortunate, to say the least. Had it actually been completed, the Deer Creek Tunnel would have changed the shape of Cincinnati's growth immensely more than the subway project 70 years later. It's possible the CH&D would be the only mainline railroad in the Mill Creek Valley south of Sharonville. That would certainly have impacted the valley's industrial growth, a great deal of which would have shifted to Avondale, Evanston, Norwood, and Bond Hill. No doubt it would also have greatly impacted the railroad terminal pattern of the city. The Plum Street station would likely have remained a smaller facility for just two or three railroads, rather than growing into the city's first union station. Court Street would be much more important on the other hand, becoming the de facto union station for Cincinnati. We would have seen much more substantial connecting tracks along Eggleston Avenue from the Pan Handle station, and perhaps a direct connection with a much more substantial L&N bridge. Even without the completed tunnel, plans were floated in the early part of the 20th century for a union station along the north end of downtown. Had the tunnel been finished, this plan would almost surely have been implemented, perhaps using the drained canal bed for approach tracks. Of course the very ambitiousness and potential impacts of the Cincinnati & Dayton Short Line was a big part of its ultimate failure. As many new railroads were being constructed into Cincinnati at the time, investors were unwilling to jeopardize their previously made contributions to competing railroad companies like the CH&D, Little Miami, or the Marietta & Cincinnati. Financial blackballing by the relatively young but already powerful interests of the existing and under construction railroads and their financiers prevented the Dayton Short Line from raising enough capital to finish its tunnel. We will never know for sure how things would be different had the project been completed, even partially, but it is nonetheless a fascinating thought.


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