By Ron Hill
The development of the steam locomotive and the construction of railroads changed life in the United States and Clermont County. During the 1800s most people only traveled a short distance from their homes in their lifetime, because of traveling by horse and the deplorable condition of the roads. The railroads opened up a whole new mode of transportation that increased their mobility.
The first railroad in Clermont County (1841) was the Little Miami Railroad, which connected Cincinnati and Xenia. It served the northwestern side of the county, primarily Milford and Loveland.
In 1876 Samuel Woodward conceived the idea of a railroad serving the central part of Clermont County. He approached the leading citizens of Batavia and convinced them a railroad would be advantageous and profitable. The Cincinnati, Batavia and Williamsburg Railroad Company was incorporated, and construction began that year, with Batavia as its headquarters. Later the same year the name was changed to the Cincinnati and Eastern Railroad, with the terminus to be Portsmouth, not Williamsburg. The narrow gauge railroad opened for business from Batavia Junction (later called Clare) near Plainville/Newtown to Batavia, a distance of 16 miles, in March 1877. The original wood depot at Batavia was replaced by a brick structure (the only one on the line) in 1896.
The railroad crossed the East Fork Little Miami River at Batavia on a 320-ft. wooden Howe Truss bridge. This bridge was the location of a train disaster in 1884 (to be discussed later). Once across the river, the tracks climbed the Batavia Hill out of the valley.
C.P. Tracy, an employee of the railroad noted, “The Batavia Hill had the worst grade and alignment of any section of the entire railroad, and stock cars loaded with tan bark had turned over on every section on every rail length on the hill, I do not
know the exact grade (over 2 percent), but I recall that it was steep and the locomotive at that time was unable to pull more than five or six loaded cars up the hill, and it took all the brakes on the locomotive and cars to keep the train from running off down it.”
In 1897 the problem was corrected with the Maywood Cut-off. The cutoff took 18-months to construct and the resulting grade was 1 percent. The current railroad follows that line.
O.C. Knight, who worked for the railroad from 1887 to the 1930s, described the early days of the railroad:
“Equipment was very limited. Both freight and passenger cars were small, freight cars having a capacity of 20,000 lbs. and coaches of about 40 passengers. Coaches were heated by coal stoves, one in each end of the car and lighted by lard oil lamps. All braking was done by hand, air brakes were not yet invented … The speed of passenger trains was about 20 mph, when there was no live stock on the track. If there was, it was often necessary to stop the train and drive the animals off by heaving lumps of coal at them … Engine water tanks had to be filled with water from creeks and ponds with a two-man hand pump by the crew.”
Over the years, the gauge of the track changed three times, the name changed several times, and it went into bankruptcy four times. In 1877 the railroad built a line from Batavia Junction to New Richmond. The Norfolk & Western took over the railroad in 1901. For years the railroad only ran to Batavia Junction. Passengers had to change to the Little Miami Railroad to reach downtown Cincinnati. In time the N & W made agreements with the Pennsylvania and B&O Railroads to run over their tracks.
In 1982 the railroad became the Peavine Branch of the Norfolk and Southern System. The Peavine Branch was closed to Portsmouth in 2003, because the bridge over the Scioto River at Portsmouth was unsafe. The section from Cincinnati to Winchester remained open for limited use.
The wooden bridge across the Little Miami River was replaced by a steel bridge in the early 1900s, which is still in use today. In 1940 the N&W and the county built an underpass for West Main Street adjacent to the depot. The depot was raised 16 ft. and rebuilt.
In the early days four trains, two east and two west, passed through Batavia each day. Trains left Cincinnati at 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., arriving in Batavia 1½ hours later. The westbound trains to Cincinnati left Batavia at 7 am and 4pm.
Time Line of Railroad
1876: Began as Cincinnati, Batavia &Williamsburg
1876: Renamed Cincinnati Eastern
1876: Reached Batavia
1877: Reached Williamsburg
1878: New Richmond Branch opened
1884: Reached Portsmouth
1887: New Richmond Branch failed
1891: Became Cincinnati, Portsmouth & Virginia
1901: Acquired by Norfolk & Western Railroad
1971: Passenger Service ended
1973: Freight service ended
1982: Becomes Norfolk & Southern Peavine Branch
1988: Batavia depot removed
2003: Peavine Branch closed to Portsmouth
The railroad helped fuel the Batavia economy. People, mail and goods flowed in and out of the village by rail. The depot was a center of village activity. Presidential candidates spoke there. Santa came to town by train. Soldiers from the National Guard boarded the train for World War I, World War II and the Korean War. For years the Batavia elementary first-grade class took a field trip to Mt. Orab by train. Famous N&W steam locomotives passed thru the village: the Pocahontas; Powhatan Arrow and the Cavalier.
Several train derailments have taken place in recent years in the Batavia area. In 1975, 13 cars of a 17-car train derailed at the base of a steep incline near Erion Road. An N&W camp car was pushed off the end of a siding near the depot and fell onto Main Street below in 1981. A load of track shifted on a flat car resulting in the car dangling from the overpass on SR 132 in 1989. Luckily no one was injured in any of these mishaps. This was not the case in 1884 when the bridge across the East Fork Little Miami River collapsed with a passenger train on top. This tragedy will be discussed in Part 2.
Author Ron Hill, a Batavia Township resident, is the past president of the Clermont County Historical Society. He has been a member of the society since the 1970s. He was the editor of the Society’s newsletter for 17 years, edited two of the Society’s books and written another. He is a member of the Cincinnati Railroad Club.