We tend to take trains for granted. They operate smoothly and efficiently in the background of most of our lives. And except for the occasional sound of a whistle heard in the night or the impatience of waiting for a train to pass a set of lowered crossing gates, most of us in central Ohio have little contact with railroads.

We tend to take trains for granted. They operate smoothly and efficiently in the background of most of our lives. And except for the occasional sound of a whistle heard in the night or the impatience of waiting for a train to pass a set of lowered crossing gates, most of us in central Ohio have little contact with railroads.

Such was not always the case.

The idea of mounting a steam engine on a wagon and using it for power along a pair of parallel tracks burst onto the world stage in the early 1800s. The rails were originally made of wood. They broke frequently. The wooden rails were later capped with iron and then made completely of iron. Finally steel proved to be the metal to use to make rails and the trains that ran on them.

By the 1840s, railroad companies were being formed across much of the United States, and Ohio was no exception. Most people in most places wanted the speed and power promised by rail transport.

But early railroads had their problems as well as their benefits.

The Columbus and Xenia Railroad was the first to arrive in Columbus in 1850. It crossed the Scioto River at a place a black iron railroad bridge currently spans the river. It stopped at a large barn-like building that stood where the Hyatt Regency is today.

While many people were pleased with the arrival of the railroad, others soon came to have decidedly negative views about the new form of transportation.

An article in the Ohio State Journal in 1854 illustrated some of the early problems faced by the railroads:

"It appears that a misunderstanding has for some time existed between the Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati Railroad Company and certain citizens of Franklinton [now the near west side of Columbus]…"

The dispute involved "the company's right of way to a gravel bed owned by them near the Scioto, one of the finest gravel beds, by the way, in the whole state. The lateral track leading thereto is about one fourth of a mile in length and branches off from the main track of the Columbus and Xenia road just beyond the river bridge. About 80 rods from the bed the gravel track diverges and three nominal streets are crossed by both tracks which are not much used, and over which the railroad company has constructed crossings…"

This track reportedly had been "torn up some dozens of times, always at night. Yesterday, the company re-laid the track with three parallel sets of rails and a double proportion of spikes..." In response, some of the local population "assembled 30 or 40 strong and tore up the track by the aid of a jackscrew and two yoke of oxen, gunpowder having been tried ineffectually. They then carried the bent rails and threw them in the river…"

A local judge granted an injunction to the railroad company to force an end to the conflict. The judge was burned in effigy at a local street corner, but the struggle to keep the railroad off the back streets of Franklinton came to an end.

At other times, public attention has centered on the hazards of rail transport.

On Sept. 18, 1864, during the American Civil War, a train arrived in Columbus between 3 and 4 a.m. According to a local history, the "..train of 29 cars loaded with lumber bound for Cincinnati arrived from Cleveland. According to custom, the engineer attempted to cut the engine loose from the train and run ahead into the round house, expecting the switchman to replace the switch and run the train into the yard, but it happened that nine cars of the train had become detached four miles from the city on a down grade of 40 feet to the mile.

"In the darkness of the night, this was not discovered, and when the engine was detached it left 20 cars with two brakemen who were not able to control them. These cars came upon the switchman before he could change the switch and the train followed and pushed the engine through the roundhouse and into the Little Miami shop."

The engineer stayed at his post in the cab while his engine went through two brick walls. He escaped unhurt. His fireman, William Ryan, was not so fortunate. He jumped from the train and was killed when he landed in a pile of wood from the derailing lumber cars. An employee of the railroad working in the roundhouse was killed as well.

While accidents like this were a matter of public concern, they became rarer as the safety equipment of the lines improved.

In the years after the Civil War, a number of new railroad companies arrived in Columbus and the city became a major center of Midwestern transportation and trade. The various railroad lines competed vigorously with each other and tried very hard to give the public what it wanted before their competitors did.

In October 1866, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad established a "Lightning Express" to bring Columbus items in great demand to the people of the capital city. The cars in the express were specially built to fit into the trains that were providing high speed express passenger service.

And what were these items that were so important that they had to be delivered at lightning speed? Were they urgently needed medical supplies or armaments to defend the country?

They were neither. The Lightning Express was built to carry oysters.

In an age before refrigerated rail cars, there was enormous demand among the residents of the Midwest for Eastern seafood in general and oysters in particular. The B&O was happy to meet the need and sent as many as ten oyster cars at a time rushing to Columbus. Each car held eighty-two cases. Each case held 50 one-quart cans of oysters.

That may seem like a lot of oysters, and it was. But apparently few if any of them went to waste.

By 1875, so many trains were coming to town carrying oysters and other things that it was very difficult to travel north of the downtown on High Street. A double set of tunnels under High Street permitted streetcars, wagons and courageous pedestrians to travel north.

A temporary bridge over the tracks was built of wood in 1888 and demonstrated what was really needed to solve local traffic problems. A second train station had been built in 1875. It was replaced by a new Union Station in 1896 that included a permanent viaduct over the tracks to carry High Street.

Many more overpasses and underpasses would follow along the more heavily traveled roads across Ohio and the nation in the course of the following century. Today America's railroads are just as important to the economic success of the country as they have ever been -- even among those of us who like our oysters with considerably more moderation than our forebears apparently once did.

Ed Lentz writes a history column for ThisWeek.

Ed

Lentz