Nickel Plate Road
The Nickel Plate Road (NKP) is the nickname of the New York, Chicago, and St. Louis Railroad (NYC&StL) which was incorporated in 1887 by a group of New York bankers. It was planned to connect Buffalo, New York, with Chicago, Illinois, and paralleled William H. Vanderbilt's Lake Shore Railroad for the entire length of its route. Thus it has been suggested that the Nickel Plate was built as a speculative venture, the bankers realizing that a parallel road could not be tolerated by Vanderbilt who would be forced to buy out the original investors. It has also been suggested that the road was backed by Jay Gould, a rival of the Vanderbilt interests. In any case, the NKP was sold immediately upon its completion to Vanderbilt's New York Central.
There are a couple of stories about how the NYC&StL got the nick-name "Nickel Plate." The most likely story comes from the newspapers in Norwalk, Ohio, during the days when the road was being constructed. The nearby towns of Norwalk and Bellevue were competing with each other for the shops of the new railroad and when Bellevue won out, the Norwalk folks claimed that Bellevue paid so much for the privilege that one would think the new railroad was Nickel Plated. Other stories reference the quality of construction of the new road, again referencing the great sums of money being expended.
Vanderbilt operated the NKP until forced by the Interstate Commerce Commission to divest in 1912.
In the 1920s, the NKP was bought by Cleveland real estate magnates Van Sweringer Brothers who were looking for a trolley right-of-way between their Shaker Heights housing development and downtown Cleveland. The Van Sweringers began a massive rebuilding campaign that brought the right-of-way into top condition. They also constructed a station for the railroad in downtown Cleveland, the Terminal Tower which, when completed, was the tallest building between New York and Chicago.
The Van Sweringers also began a massive consolidation program as well. They gained control of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway (C&O), the Erie Railway, the Pere Marquette Railroad, the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railroad, and others.
During the 1920s the Van Sweringers instituted a consolidated mechanical department for all of their railroads. Seeking to gain economies of scale and scope, the single mechanical department worked to standardize locomotive and plant designs across the many allied railroads of the Van Sweringer empire. The most impressive accomplishment of the mechanical department was the design for a super-powered 2-8-4 locomotive. Called a "Berkshire" (or a "Kanawha" on the C&O) this locomotive delivered speed and operating efficiencies.
The Van Sweringers suffered monumental financial reverses as a result of the Great Depression. Their empire was investigated by the Justice Department in the early 1930s. The brothers died within months of each other in the mid-1930s and their railroad empire broke apart.
During the 1940s and 1950s, the Nickel Plate gained a reputation as an efficient and fast carrier using its steam locomotives to greater efficiency than nearly any other U.S. railroad. For this reason, the Nickel Plate was one of the last railroads to give up steam technology, retiring its steam fleet in 1958.
Because if its efficiency and profits, the Nickel Plate was highly prized as a merger partner. In spite of having been associated in the Van Sweringer empire with the C&O, it was the rival Norfolk and Western Railway (N&W) that courted and merged with the NKP in 1964. After the merger, the NKP ceased to have a separate identity.
Following the demise of the NKP, fans and retirees of the railroad organized the Nickel Plate Road Historical and Technical Society. This was the first railroad-specific historical society.