Dayton & Cincinnati Railroad

(Dayton & Cincinnati Short Line/Dayton Short Line)

Former Dayton, Lebanon & Deerfield/Springboro, Lebanon & Cincinnati/Dayton & Cincinnati/Cincinnati Railroad Tunnel Company

Dual standard/wide gauge (6'-0") railroad proposed between Cincinnati and Dayton in the mid 1850s via deep level Deer Creek Tunnel under Walnut Hills

Downtown terminal: Court and Broadway Streets

Never completed


There was no shortage of ambitious railroad plans for Cincinnati in the decade of the 1850s. This period saw 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. First incorporated in February 1847 as the Dayton, Lebanon & Deerfield Railroad, the fledgling company was renamed the Dayton, Springboro, Lebanon & Cincinnati Railroad in February 1848, and the Dayton & Cincinnati Railroad in February 1849 (routinely referred to as the Dayton Short Line). Their goal was to build a double-track dual-gauge (standard and 6'-0" wide gauge) railroad from the northeast corner of downtown Cincinnati to Dayton. It would roughly parallel the routes of the later CL&N and PRR Richmond Division to Sharonville where it would head due north to Middletown and follow the east side of the Great Miami River Valley to Dayton. This route that bypassed the Mill Creek Valley and Hamilton was more than seven 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 would connect with an extension of the Hamilton & Eaton coming in from the northwest, and the Cincinnati, Lebanon & Xenia, a potential competitor to the Little Miami Railroad, coming in from the northeast. At Norwood it would connect with the Marietta & Cincinnati, and the Cincinnati & Eastern would join the route near Idlewild.

Cincinnati, Lawrenceburg & Aurora Electric Street Railroad Lightweight Car at Cincinnati Car Shops

Cross-section of the Deer Creek Tunnel under Walnut Hills. The width at the widest point is 25 feet and the total height is 19 feet. The flattened elliptical profile of the arch allows for better clearance to the outside top edge of rail cars. From "Narrow Gauge in Ohio" by John W. Hauck.

A major advantage of the Dayton & Cincinnati 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 by rising waters. Flooding from the creek itself was certainly an issue, but water backing up the valley from the Ohio River was a much bigger concern, since this would regularly strangle railroad operations, blocking all routes to the north. 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 Dayton & Cincinnati be safe from flooding, the terminal area at Court Street is also on high ground as well. This was a big selling point.


With many railroads planned or already under construction, they needed a final route to their proposed downtown Cincinnati terminal at Reading Road (at the time known as either Hunt Street or Lebanon Turnpike) and Pendleton Street. This first alignment designed by engineer Erasmus Gest would run the tracks along the west side of Reading Road for about a half mile north, then it would cross Reading and the Deer Creek ravine to a 5,500 foot tunnel starting above Florence Avenue, presumably near Boone Street. Due to the grades involved in reaching the tunnel, and the terminal area becoming built-up and unsuitable for rail use, the terminal was moved to Broadway between Reading Road and Court Street. This site being about 35 feet lower than Pendleton Street required the tunnel length to nearly double to accommodate the grades and hill profile.


This lengthened Deer Creek Tunnel would be the Dayton Short Line's centerpiece. The ambitious project called for a 10,011 foot long tunnel, with 7,903 feet of it 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. The 25 foot wide by 19 foot tall tunnel would be walled with stone and arched with brick. This generous size for the time was enough to accommodate the two dual-gauge tracks at an easy grade of 39.6 feet per mile, or 0.75%.


The aforementioned Hoosac Tunnel was in many ways the big brother of the Deer Creek project, and its history illustrates how the fortunes of Cincinnati's tunnel could have played out under different circumstances. In the early 1840s the Western Railroad was built to connect Boston and Albany through the southern part of Massachusetts via Worcester, Springfield, and Pittsfield. However, railroads in the northern part of the state were cut off from the Hudson Valley by the Hoosac Range, an extension of Vermont's Green Mountains. In 1848, Alvah Crocker, a paper mill owner from Fitchburg, chartered the Troy & Greenfield Railroad to connect its respective cities with a railroad tunnel through Hoosac Mountain.


This tunnel would be 25,081 feet long, almost exactly 2.5 times the length of the Deer Creek Tunnel. With an estimated construction cost of $2 million, ground was broken on January 8, 1851. Technical, financial, and political problems would plague the project over its 25-year construction. Early tunnel boring machines broke down and were discarded after only a few feet of test digs were completed. The east end had to contend with hard quartz and gneiss that resisted blasting, and the west end was filled with unconsolidated ground up limestone soaked with water that resembled quicksand. By 1860 after a $2 million loan from the state and a change in contractor, barely 500 feet had been excavated from the west portal, even after two shafts had been dug from above to create more working points, and 1,810 feet had been excavated from the east portal.


The Western Railroad, led by Chester W. Chapin, opposed the Hoosac Tunnel and its northern route through the state, in much the same way as the CH&D and Little Miami Railroad were threatened by the Deer Creek Tunnel and the Dayton & Cincinnati's shorter approach to Cincinnati. Chapin successfully lobbied to block state funding of the tunnel in 1861, which bankrupted and temporarily stopped the project. In 1863 the state, with Alvah Crocker now superintendent of railroads, restarted the project, and in 1868 the Massachusetts legislature appropriated $5 million to complete the tunnel. Had the political winds not changed through Crocker's deliberate intervention, the Hoosac Tunnel could very well have died just like the Deer Creek Tunnel. In this case however, construction marched on while several chief engineers came and went over the next decade. A large central shaft for digging and future ventilation was added to the project, and advances in technology like nitroglycerin and compressed air drilling moved things along. The first train ran through the tunnel on February 9, 1875 and the state of Massachusetts declared the tunnel officially open on July 1, 1876 after finishing of archwork and cleaning up tight spots. The total cost was around $20 million and 195 lives lost.


The design of the Hoosac Tunnel is similar to Deer Creek in many ways. It was also planned to have two tracks, although it wasn't until 1885 that the second track was finally installed. The primary design difference is that the Hoosac Tunnel has a circular arch versus Deer Creek's elliptical arch. They both have slightly buttressed side walls, but Hoosac is 24' wide by 20' tall and Deer Creek is 25' wide by 19' tall. Because of the different arch profile, the effective clearances were probably pretty similar. Both tunnels are perfectly straight, which made surveying much easier, and it allowed for a narrower profile since curves need a wider cross-section to accommodate the same size train. While The Deer Creek Tunnel slopes up from south to north at a grade of 0.75% the Hoosac Tunnel's portals are both at the same elevation, although there is a 0.5% slope up to the middle to allow for natural drainage out each end. The other difference is that no vertical shafts were part of the Hoosac Tunnel's original design, whereas Deer Creek had three shafts about 200 feet deep which were located throughout Walnut Hills. The Central Shaft at Hoosac was a later design addition to aid in digging. Although it was widened and large fans were added for ventilation after the tunnel was completed, smoke was still a major problem that prompted the use of electric locomotives in 1911 until cleaner-burning diesels were available and the electric catenary was removed in 1946. Ultimately due to declining traffic, the Hoosac Tunnel was reduced to a single track in 1957 and it was re-centered in 1973 to allow for more generous clearances. In 1997 a strip of stone was removed from the top of the tunnel and the tracks were lowered to allow for even taller rail cars, and it is still in use today.

Cincinnati, Lawrenceburg & Aurora Electric Street Railroad Lightweight Car at Cincinnati Car Shops

This photo shows the south portal of the Deer Creek Tunnel in approximately 1880. Gilbert Avenue and the CL&N are climbing to Walnut Hills from left to right and Reading Road, then known as Hunt Street, is in the background. From "Narrow Gauge in Ohio" by John W. Hauck.

Groundbreaking for the Deer Creek Tunnel took place on December 16, 1852 at shaft number 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 number 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. 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 into the overpass at 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 built, 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. Prior to highway construction, the approach was filled in to create yard space for nearby industries, though the tunnel was apparently still visible in the 1950s. The buried approach walls could still be there under the hillside north of I-71 in the headwaters of Ross Run (commonly misnamed Bloody Run, which is farther north) that is now mostly piped under Victory Parkway.


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 use of black powder for blasting and steam powered lifts to remove the spoils from the vertical shafts and to provide fresh air to the workers. 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. A nominal amount of horizontal digging was accomplished from shafts 1 and 2, while significant northward progress had been made from shaft number 3.


By 1855 the project was slowing down due to diminishing funds. A financial panic centered in Ohio in 1854 didn't help. This panic led to bank failures in Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, and Maryland. The causes were a bank tax imposed several years earlier and speculation in railroad securities. During the panic, banks in Ohio relied heavily on their correspondent banks in New York City, resulting in a drop in deposits and diminished investment funds for projects like the Dayton & Cincinnati. 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 feeding into Ross Run, or at the Broadway Street terminal where the casino is located today. In June 1855, there was a cave in near the north portal which killed five men who were prepping the ceiling for brick installation. While the soft shale and clay was relatively easy to dig, it was still unstable until the stone walls and brick arching could be installed. Shortly thereafter, the project had to finally be abandoned for lack of means, after $475,000 had been spent. This is not unlike the situation of the Hoosac Tunnel in 1861, when its funding was pulled and the company was bankrupted by unscrupulous competitors and the politicians doing their bidding. While that project's chief promoter was elected to a position that allowed him to revive the project, the Deer Creek Tunnel had no such white knight.


In 1872, after more than 15 years of inactivity, the enterprise 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 number 2) in the intervening years as well, complicating 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 terminal, attempted to secure the tunnel company for 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 foreclosure. On May 19, 1896 the tunnel company was sold to Ira Bellows of New York, a covert associate of Brice. At the same time the Pennsylvania Railroad was orchestrating its own purchase of the CL&N, and it succeeded over Brice. 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 around 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.

Cincinnati, Lawrenceburg & Aurora Electric Street Railroad Lightweight Car at Cincinnati Car Shops

The south end of the Deer Creek Tunnel was exposed during construction of I-71 in March 1966. In the early 20th century the land around it was filled to a higher level, burying the tunnel and its approach. From "Narrow Gauge in Ohio" by John W. Hauck, photo by Cornelius W. Hauck.

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. There are no obvious manhole covers or other accesses, so they were most likely filled in for being safety hazards.


In March of 1966 the tunnel was rediscovered by construction workers excavating for I-71. A stretch of the tunnel near 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 too, 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 secure 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 edge of the Cornerstone Insurance Broker parking lot and 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, in no small part because of its much earlier influence on the region's development patterns. 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, rather than a small depot for a minor branch line and its one tenant. We would have seen much more substantial connecting tracks along Eggleston Avenue from the Little Miami/Pan Handle station, and perhaps a direct connection with a much more substantial L&N bridge and associated viaducts, with more of the Kentucky railroads feeding into that bridge and changing the development pattern of Newport and Covington.


Even though the Deer Creek Tunnel was never finished, plans were still floated in the early part of the 20th century for a union station along the north end of downtown where Central Parkway is today. Had the tunnel been finished, this plan would almost surely have been implemented, using the drained canal bed for approach tracks with through-running to the east and the west. Of course the very ambitiousness and potential impacts of the Dayton & Cincinnati Short Line was a primary factor in its ultimate failure. While 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, but it is nonetheless a fascinating thought.


Photographs and Diagrams


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