Jackson Steinmetz is the author of this column. He is a 2019 graduate of Bluffton High School and a junior at Goshen College, Goshen, Ind. There he is studying film production and communication with minors in Spanish and graphic design. He wrote this column as a part of an Expository Writing class he took online at the start of the pandemic.
By Jackson Steinmetz
On a sunny day last April, I found myself biking through Bluffton, Ohio, with my friends Seth Andreas, Tanner Pinks and Isaac Andreas.
We rolled down the country roads embracing the warm air that had evaded us for so long. As we passed under the highway at the intersection colloquially known as “four-corners,” I noticed an odd path off to the side.
The path was made of stones and had trees on either side of it. It was straight as an arrow and cut through the middle of the fields in both directions. None of us had noticed it before, so we pulled our bikes over to get a closer look. The path wasn’t too overgrown, so we stashed our bikes and set off on our hike.
The four of us had spent many days of our youth exploring Bluffton. After several years, we thought we had explored it all, so when we stumbled upon this path we were surprised.
I had no idea what it was or where it was going. We traversed around pits of mud, over piles of decaying wood beams, and through thorn patches, but still there was no end in sight.
After some time, Seth, who is more observant than I, said “Hey, I think this is an abandoned railroad.”
Once he said it, all the pieces came together: the mound of stones, the perfectly straight path, the piles of wood beams, it all added up. We turned around soon after and walked the mile back to our bikes with a newfound interest.
Once I got back home, I did some research to see what I could learn about the path we found. The website www.AbadonedRails.com confirmed what we knew and added a bit more information to the mix. What’s more, it provided a map of the rail line. I traced the map over aerial images of the land and was shocked to see how distinct the landmarks were. Even without the map, I could see exactly where the railway went.
Throughout the month, I looked around town for the remnants of the past railroad. There were pieces everywhere: the concrete foundations of a bridge here, a pile of cross ties there, even the train depot still stands, although it is now known as the Board and Brush. It is amazing to see the long-lasting impression that the railroad had on the land.
Not long after the discovery, I had the privilege to discuss the abandoned railroad with Dennis Morrison. He is a local history and railroad buff, as well as a docent at the Allen County Museum. Morrison told me about the geography and the history behind the tracks that I had been following.
It was called the Akron, Canton and Youngstown, or AC&Y. It acquired the railway from the Northern Ohio Railroad in 1907. Though it bore the names of Canton and Youngstown, it never reached those destinations. The railway was also bound for Findlay, but it failed to reach the destination because it couldn’t secure the property rights. Instead, it was rerouted toward Bluffton after building the tracks through Pandora.
Morrison explained that the change of plans was beneficial as the railway became an important part of Bluffton’s economy for many years. Farmers were able to transport their goods anywhere on the 171 mile stretch between Delphos and Akron.
While it was primarily used for hauling agricultural cargo, especially dairy, the AC&Y also carried some passengers as well. Later on, the company was bought by Norfolk and Western, which owned it until it shut down in 1982.
Morrison told me “there wasn’t enough business along that railroad track to justify a railroad going through there.”
Two years after it shut down, the railroad pulled up the rails, preventing any further trains from coming through. It has been about 40 years since the last locomotive went through Bluffton on the AC&Y, but the railway has recently gained a different kind of traffic.
In 2014, the Bluffton Lions Way Bike and Pedestrian Pathway was built along the stretch of the AC&Y starting by the National Quarry going east toward the fast-food chains. Though most people don’t realize it, the path runs along the same route that the trains would have taken four decades earlier. The wooden cross ties that used to hold the rails together are still lying in the stones beside the path.
Once I put all of this information together, I started to get excited about the idea of a long bike and pedestrian trail that follows the historic railway through the country. I talked to Bluffton council and bike enthusiast, Mitch Kingsley, about the idea.
During our call, he told me it is not the first idea of its kind. There have been a few groups interested in converting this railroad into a trail. There is also a nationwide initiative called the Rails to Trails Conservancy that promotes the conversion of old railroads into bike and pedestrian trails.
The conversion works well because the property rights that accompany the railways are very adaptable to biking trails, but not much else. The stone beds that the rails would lay on are hard to move, but make a great foundation for trails to be built on. Plus, the paths are already clear of obstacles.
In addition to the convenience of setup, Mitch mentioned that “historically, these rails to trails start to produce an economy.”
As the trails become popular, more traffic is directed towards local businesses which can boost local economies.
Despite the benefits, there are plenty of challenges to overcome. The trail would need some funding, and deals would need to be made with property owners, but I believe that converting the AC&Y to a trail for public use would be incredibly valuable to the community. Not only would it promote health and the economy, but it would also bring new life to the railroad that was once an important piece of our town.
In the future, whether it is an established trail or a rugged path through the countryside, I hope that people will continue to discover this part of Bluffton’s history like my friends and I did that afternoon in April.