Crossroads of the B. & O.
Deshler, Ohio, April 2016
On our way back from Chicago and the annual conference of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art in the spring of 2016, my friend George Hiotis and I looked in on a number of the iconic locations of Midwestern railroading, including Rochelle, Illinois, where the Union Pacific and BNSF mainlines cross; Junction 18, Western Avenue, and Union Station in Chicago; and the South Shore's street running in Michigan City, Indiana. We concentrated on places like Rochelle and Junction 18, where tracks intersect on diamonds. Although comparatively rare in the East, diamonds exist throughout the Midwest, where in the 19th century seemingly hundreds of railroads built arrow-straight lines across the flatlands aiming at almost every point of the compass; wherever one line crossed another, the four rails of every pair of intersecting tracks formed a literal geometric diamond. Where they cross at a 90 degree angle, the diamond looks like a square; where they cross at a more acute angle, the diamond takes on more of the shape we think of on a deck of cards.
Whatever the exact orientation, whenever trains hit these pieces of special trackwork at high rates of speed, they make a lot of noise; in places where one track crosses two or more tracks, one diamond right after another, they make a LOT of noise. For George and me, even though we did not make movies, a lot of the appeal of the diamonds comes from the sounds associated with them -- veritable symphonies of heartpounding clangor, seemingly out of control but still rhythmic.
At least on main lines, diamonds have always had accompanying signals, and in the old days all mainline diamonds had adjacent interlocking towers whose operators controlled those signals and thus the passage of trains in all directions; some of the towers still stand, although almost none have people working in them anymore. Through his research ahead of our trip, George found locations where we would find the most trackside "furniture" for our photos; he had circled Deshler, Ohio, erstwhile "Crossroads of the B. & O." on his maps as a must-see: Home to two diamonds, where the former Baltimore & Ohio main line to Chicago crosses the now-single-track B. & O. Toledo District, Deshler also has a brick interlocking tower, a brick passenger station (out of service for decades), and, as of 2016, a huge concentration of B. & O. color-position-light signals.
As you can see from the 1906 USGS map, Deshler once had an additional railroad, the Lima & Toledo Electric interurban, which paralleled the "Detroit Line" (the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton, later part of the B. & O. and now the Toledo District), so back then the town hosted at least four diamonds, two of them under trolley wire. For the present-day satellite view, click here.
Thus a chilly spring evening found us rolling into Deshler from the west. Although traffic had not fully rebounded from the depths of the post-2008 recession, the current owner of all of the tracks here, CSX, still sent quite a few trains through, and we had barely stretched our legs before an eastbound mixed freight pounded the diamonds in front of the old depot:
After that train passed, we had a few quiet minutes, and I paid my respects to some of the signals, relics of the 1930s and living on borrowed time as Positive Train Control would lead to their replacement and scrapping in the next few years.
But then the tracks came alive, and within the next hour we saw seven more trains: a westbound with Canadian Pacific locomotives on the head end, an eastbound that turned to head south on the Toledo line, another westbound, a train that came up the Toledo line and went straight across the diamonds, another eastbound on the main, a Toledo District train that turned to go east, and at a few minutes past 8 o'clock a southbound on the Toledo line. I hardly knew where to look.
The station, used in part for storage, looks the worse for wear, with parts of the roof beginning to fail; the tower, on the other hand, still serves as the local maintenance crews' "office", and in addition to better repair its windows even showed lights on in the dusk.
We did not stay long after the "blue hour" ended, knowing that we would come back in the predawn darkness only nine or so hours later, and since Deshler does not have any hostelries we had a half-hour drive in each direction, to a hotel in Findlay. Once we got there, though, I could not resist looking at the evening's photos, and sitting on the bed I made a quick edit of one image of that last train, a one-second exposure that includes a self-portrait, or at least of my shadow.
The next morning, our good luck with trains did not hold, and we only saw two in more than three hours -- but we had a cloudless sky above and plenty to look at. Many of the storefronts in the two-block-long downtown have gone vacant, and even during what would pass as rush hour in an urban area we saw hardly any road traffic; I can recall a single pedestrian. In common with many small Midwestern towns, a grain elevator stood taller than any other structure for miles around, but Deshler's showed no signs of activity; relatively modern, it also showed no sign of ever having had service by rail.
With no train traffic, we could get close to the tracks and make photos of the diamonds, lit here by the just-risen sun at about twenty minutes after 7 o'clock; two small birds, barely more than a few pixels here, perch on the railheads in the distance, the only things stirring on the railroad:
The spiderweb of wires and cables coming into the back of the interlocking tower serves as a reminder of the changes in technology that have overtaken railroading in the last eight or so decades.
At about 7:40, a train came west on the main and curved to the south, heading for an automobile-loading facility. The mainline signals here had already gotten modernized, with CPLs remaining only on the Toledo District.
At about twenty after 8:00, a stack train went east, the CPLs continuing to do their jobs:
Until the coming of Amtrak in 1971, the Capitol Limited passed through here at 9:18 p.m. eastbound and 5:12 a.m. westbound, both of them making conditional stops; the last passenger train on the former C. H. & D. quit much earlier. That the station survives at all seems a small miracle; I cannot remember ever seeing curved wooden eaves above brick walls like these. Across the Toledo District track, the tower too has so far beaten the odds and will likely outlive the small forest of CPL masts in the vicinity.
For another hour or more, while the sun rose but almost nothing else moved in Deshler, George and I explored the nooks and crannies where the edge of town met the railroad -- a particular type of landscape that every railroad town shares, although every one has its own unique variations. Even as the town looked ready to blow away -- it had already dried up -- some traces of its former prosperity, if not grandeur, remained.
The sun had risen fairly high by now, and the light had flattened; we took one last look around and then got back in the car, headed east for Fostoria and its own diamonds -- all 13 of them! We'll see you there in a little while.