That’s shortline, not shoreline. It’s a term used to describe very small railroads.
I first became aware of shortlines a couple of years ago when we took a brief trip to Vermont during early Autumn. One of our activities included an excursion along the western bank of the Connecticut River on the White River Flyer, a vintage train belonging to the Green Mountain Railroad.
My Brief Green Mountain Railroad Video
I didn’t discover that the railroad was an independent entity with only about 50 miles of track (all within Vermont) until I began writing an article on my travel site. My second encounter occurred as I researched a 12MC article on Railroad Ferries. I learned about the Bay Coast Railroad with 96 miles of track on the Delmarva Peninsula, running from Pocomoke City, Maryland to the southern tip of Virginia Eastern Shore and then via ferry to Norfolk.
Until then I’d though that maybe there were only a handful of railroads and that they were all large. That misconception couldn’t have been more completely wrong. American-Rails.com explained that shortlines "by far make up the bulk of railroads in the country today, totaling some 500."
The U.S. Government tags shortlines with a more bureaucratic name — Class III railroads. Those are defined as "Carriers having annual carrier operating revenues of $20 million or less after applying the railroad revenue deflator formula" and feel free to examine the deflator formula on your own if that thought excites you. Thus, in the eyes of the government, shortlines aren’t measured by miles of track but by piles of money. The Class III category contains an array of railroad types. The longer ones might serve to connect a few towns to the larger railroad network, like the Green Mountain Railroad excursion I experienced. Others are more specialized terminal or switching railroads, connecting rail to other modes of transportation or moving cars within the confines of a rail yard.
I wondered what might be the shortest existing railroad and quickly concluded that it’s difficult to say. Trainweb provided a great list of very short railroads, with each line ten miles or shorter. I got lost on that page for awhile, amazed at the vast array of micro-railroads catalogued there. The following instances were amongst the shortest mentioned.
The Kendallville Terminal Railway Co operates 1.1 miles of track, transporting sugar and other cooking materials for the Kraft Foods marshmallow and caramel manufacturing plant. Sweet! The Kendallville railway also connects to the much larger Norfolk Southern Railroad, and offers facilities for railcar storage.
Google’s satellite view shows a few of those railcars in storage.
Michigan is home to the Lapeer Industrial Railroad. It owns about 1.3 miles of track although it leases an additional 0.9 miles-or-so from the Grand Trunk / Canadian National railway, which also offers it an interchange to the rest of the railroad world. Clients include a local grain elevator which provides seasonal business and a furniture factory that receives bulk plastic pellets year-round.
The tracks crossing the road in this Street View image belong to the Lapeer Industrial Railroad. Notice the railcar in the distance and the warehouse on the right.
I found a nice article about the Effingham Railroad on the Trains website. It mentioned that "Effingham is ideally suited as a regional distribution hub, being intersected by north-south and east-west Interstate highways and railroads, the railroads being heavy-duty mainlines of Canadian National (ex-Illinois Central) and CSX (ex-Conrail)."
The Effingham Railroad has an owner, two employees and a single locomotive delivering railcars to the Hodgson Mill (a manufacturer of flour, bread and breakfast cereal), and a couple of warehouses. Effingham Railroad started with 400 feet of track and has since expanded to a much larger 2 miles. Their sole locomotive can be observed in the Google Satellite image next to a loading dock at Hodgson Mill. Flickr also has a nice image although it didn’t have a Creative Commons license so you’ll need to see it on your own.
The 500+ Class III railroads fill a vital need. They provide an economic lifeline to small towns and rural manufacturers. Larger railroads wouldn’t be able to operate in many of those locations profitably or their rates would be exorbitant, which is why they’ve abandoned a lot of track now used by Class III providers. The shortlines prove that it doesn’t take an extensive network or lots of equipment to provide a vital service at a reasonable rate, and still make a living.
I wrote about Abandoned Canals in Canada several months ago. That prompted 12MC reader Bill Harris to comment on an unusual re-purposing of an abandoned canal across the border in the United States. He noted that a portion of the Erie Canal that originally flowed through downtown Rochester, NY (part of my ancestors’ journey) was abandoned due to rerouting. It was subsequently drained, covered, and transformed into a tunnel for a light rail system. I thought it was a great comment, I conducted additional research and… somehow I forgot about it. Recently I came across my original notes so I’m posting what I intended to write last September.
Rochester, New York
Flickr by Patrick Haney via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0)
The Erie Canal, responsible for much of upstate New York’s economic growth, was considered an obsolete eyesore by the turn of the century. The state legislature allocated money for relocation of the canal, and the last boat traveled through the city locks in 1919. After much debate about what to do with the abandoned canal bed, the city of Rochester then purchased the land for construction of a trolley subway that would greatly reduce the amount of surface traffic in the populous city. Eight years after the last canal boat was piloted through the city, the Rochester Industrial & Rapid Transit Railway was opened to the public in December 1927.
The covered-over canal became a subway tunnel and the surface above it became Broad Street (map). The subway wasn’t very successful although it somehow managed to sputter along until the mid 1950′s. The portion of Interstate 490 east of Rochester’s Inner Loop replaced much of the former canal and subway
Sections of tunnel still exist inside the city’s central core although largely hidden from sight. It pokes into view very briefly at the Broad Street Bridge which was designed originally as the Second Genesee Aqueduct of the Erie Canal, carrying the canal across the Genesee River. From street-level it seems to be just another roadway (Street View). From the side one can clearly observe the lower level where water once flowed and street cars later crossed (Street View).
Amateur spelunkers sometimes sneak through the abandoned Rochester Subway for urban exploration. The photograph above was taken by one such explorer inside of the Broad Street Bridge tunnel.
Was it common to cover abandoned canals and convert them into subway tunnels? I quickly uncovered two more examples that were mentioned frequently on the Intertubes. Cincinnati was one of those two although critics could easily split hairs and claim it didn’t count. The system was never completed and trains never ran through the intended tunnel.
The city planned to follow the route of the Miami and Erie Canal which had been constructed in 1825. The canal served a useful purpose for a time, connecting the Great Lakes to the Ohio River (and thus the Mississippi River watershed). However it suffered a fate similar to many other canals competing with railroads. It went into decline and eventually failed as a commercial enterprise.
Construction started in 1920. Work stopped in 1927. The money had run out. Crews of men, mules and horses had completed 10 of the 16 miles in the system’s loop – including two miles of tunnels – running under downtown and Central Parkway and above ground along what would become the routes of interstates 75 and 71 and the Norwood Lateral.
Tunnels and stations are still down there below the city streets in a remarkable state of preservation including the Race Street Station at Central Parkway & Race St., which would have been the main hub. The Cincinnati Museum offers occasional tours as part of its heritage programs for those who are curious to observe the mysterious tunnels of a stillborn subway firsthand.
Newark, New Jersey probably wins a prize because its a subway that still operates along the original route of an abandoned canal. The stretch from the Military Park Station to Branch Brook Park Station at Heller Parkway (route map) converted the pathway of the Morris Canal to a new mode of transportation when the subway opened in 1935. The entrance to the Military Park Station is displayed in the Street View image, above.
The Morris Canal ran across northern New Jersey for about a century, beginning with its construction in the 1820′s. It was probably noted most for its innovative use of 23 inclined planes in addition to traditional locks in order to move coal barges over a series of hills. I’ve talked about the inclined plane technique previously although not in the context of the Morris Canal. It was pretty impressive.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Newark Light Rail is the only place where one can visit a canal that’s been converted into a subway without any hassles, other than purchasing a ticket to ride the train. As always, I hope the 12MC audience can prove me wrong.
There were a few notable places which did not fit the strict definition of a canal converted to a subway. They deserved to be mentioned for other reasons.
(1) Manhattan made Internet searches difficult because of Canal Street running across the lower tip of the island and accompanying stations on the New York City subway system. Canal Street Stations serve a whole spaghetti tangle of different lines. The canal referenced by Canal Street was essentially a drainage ditch that emptied the Collect Pond, which had become a cesspool by the early 19th Century. Canal Street followed the route of the old canal after the fetid pond was eventually filled-in. The old canal did not become a subway tunnel although it still hid an interesting history.
(2) The Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal forced a railroad to tunnel through a mountainside at Point of Rocks, Maryland. The canal held the right-of-way next to the Potomac River, as recounted by the C&O Canal Bicycle Guide; "After the canal failed, the railroad built a second track in the abandoned canal bed." The second track, however, wasn’t converted into a tunnel although the two tracks looked fascinating in Street View.
(3) The Third Welland Canal in Ontario, part of a system connecting Lakes Ontario and Erie to bypassing Niagara Falls, included a train tunnel that went under a canal. As noted by Wikipedia, "The Grand Trunk Railway Tunnel, also known as the ‘Blue Ghost Tunnel’, is an abandoned railway tunnel located in the community of Thorold, Ontario, which runs under lock 18 of the former third Welland Canal (1887-1932)." (map). Again, an interesting feature, although not exactly what I was hoping to find.
I receive an inordinate amount of visitor traffic on my Ferry Maps of the World site. Very few of those hits come from 12MC readers. It’s basically a lot of one-and-done landings from people who never return to the website ever again. Google decided it didn’t like me about a year ago or I was SEO’ed into irrelevance so the traffic has dropped considerably, however, it still doubles or triples the volume of what I see on Twelve Mile Circle on any given day.
The 12MC audience doesn’t have a reason to know or care about this curious circumstance other than it offers a fascinating insight into the random travel thoughts of the larger world. The site answers most visitor questions with ease. It doesn’t deal well with certain esoteric queries. I’ve observed and compiled a list of frequently requested "wishful thinking" ferry lines that do not exist. Some of them have a grain of truth behind them while others are rather more fanciful. The common denominator is that many people believe these routes exist, or perhaps want to hope that they exist, and seek to know how to take advantage of them.
Ferry lines are expensive. I don’t suggest that any of these fictional lines might ever be feasible financially or geographically. My point is that I wish they existed because they sound interesting and because they’d have an immediate set of customers based upon my observation of search patterns.
A Galveston, Texas to New Orleans, Louisiana ferry has never existed to my knowledge. Nonetheless, this is by far the most commonly requested fictional route. I’ve observed a lot of chatter about the Galveston-Port Bolivar Ferry over the years. It offers a convenient means to bypass Houston traffic for those living on the southern side of the city who wish to travel onward to Interstate 10, heading to New Orleans or beyond. However, the queries I’ve seen are something different. Lots of people seem to want to avoid I-10 altogether by hugging the Gulf of Mexico shoreline in a boat for hundreds of miles.
At the moment there are no marinas along the 350-mile stretch — all the recreational boating facilities that once existed were wiped out by the series of powerful hurricanes (Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike) that have battered the area. What’s more, there are plenty of obstacles in these waters, including commercial shipping traffic, barges, and off-shore oil-field equipment.
Traffic will need to hit a much higher degree of gridlock I believe, before it reaches sufficient critical mass to justify a ferry.
A ferry line between New Orleans, Louisiana and Key West, Florida comes up less frequently than the Galveston route, although it still makes regular appearances. This one also arrives with a number of variations. Sometimes the embarkation point is farther east than New Orleans while debarkation points range along the entire length of Florida’s Gulf Coast, with Key West the logical extreme.
This one has a grain of truth. Ferry service exists from Fort Myers Beach and San Marco Island to Key West on Key West Express. The route eliminates a 300 mile drive including the entire Overseas Highway that hops atop the Keys (map). That’s often touted as one of the most beautiful drives in the world. However, from repeated experience, I can say with all honesty that it can also be a traffic-clogged multi-hour nightmare. The Overseas Highway provides more than abundant incentive to justify a ferry.
Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could string Galveston to New Orleans to Key West together into a single line, and cruise the entire northern arc of the Gulf of Mexico? Yes, it would. It’s also never going to happen.
I simply love the thought of a Trans-Caribbean Route. Imagine rolling onto a ferry and skipping from island-to-island, driving off at the paradise of your choice, dawdling as long as you liked before moving on, and having your own automobile with you the whole time. That would be wonderful. It would also be wishful thinking.
The fictional routes I’ve observe tend to vary. Often they start at Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands although more ambitious fantasies begin all the way back in Florida and island-hop the entire length of the eastern Caribbean to South America.
Ferry service in the Caribbean tends to be spotty and subject to frequent change. It’s hard to maintain up-to-date maps of what even exists at any given time. It’s not practical to cobble together a trans-Caribbean route, much less with an automobile. Ferry boats can’t replicate cruise ships in these waters.
Chesapeake Bay car ferries once existed as I’ve noted previously. They became obsolete overnight due to the bridges — amazing engineering marvels really — that were strung across the mouth of the bay and the midpoint. That doesn’t stop people from searching for those old ferry lines, whether from a feeling of nostalgia or an ancient lingering memory. I receive lots of hopeful visitors hitting the site for that purpose.
One can still cross the Chesapeake Bay by ferry today, by sailing from the western to eastern shores via Smith Island in Maryland or Tangier Island in Virginia. These are passenger-only routes (no automobiles) and they are not particularly efficient either, but it’s possible to cross the bay by ferry. I categorize the Chesapeake Bay Route within the "grain of truth" category.
Lots of people seem to want to cross between Canada and the United States by ferry. This has much more than a grain of truth. It happens all the time. One can cross from numerous places in British Columbia and Washington in the Pacific Northwest. There are also several ferry crossings between southwestern Ontario and Michigan’s lower peninsula, even for trucks! That’s not what my searchers seemed to want, though. They were seeking routes across the width of the Great Lakes.
And why not? A couple of different ferry lines cross Lake Michigan within the boundaries of the United States (my experience, for example). Also there was a fast ferry that ran across Lake Ontario between Toronto, ON and Rochester, NY. It lasted only three years (2004-2006) before succumbing to financial difficulties. Additionally one can hop across the western side of Lake Erie via Pelee Island, ON (map) and take an automobile.
I’m not sure it’s feasible as a shortcut or as a time-saver, which is what people seem to want, however the service does exist for one of the four Great Lakes shared by Canada and the United States. The other three? Car ferries remain fictional for now.
Wow. This one is really ambitious. I’m not sure if people seek this alternative because traffic on Interstate 95 is so awful or because they are geographically challenged, or both. The route almost always extends from some point in New York (often Long Island) to a point in South Florida, without any intermediate stops. This wouldn’t be as much a ferry as a voyage. I can’t discount the logic of attempting to avoid the monstrosity that’s known as Interstate 95; I hate it as much as anyone. Nonetheless this represents exterme wishful thinking.