Above: A Maumee & Western train slowly makes its way through the thick weeds on the former Wabash 5th District. All photos by DIB Contributor Brent Kneebush.
On August 22nd, 2016 we found ourselves along the former Wabash 5th District between Napoleon and Defiance, Ohio. Today, this line is operated by Pioneer Rail’s Napoleon, Defiance & Western Railroad Company. Purchased on December 28, 2012 from Spencer Wendelin’s Maumee & Western Railroad – this 51-mile long shortline began operations in January of 2013, serving industries and elevators between Woodburn, Indiana and Liberty Center, Ohio.
Since day one, Pioneer Rail has gradually been upgrading the line through long-term heavy maintenance projects. This shortline has been nicknamed “the world’s worst maintained railroad” because of the fifty years of deferred maintenance by its various owners. Pioneer hopes to change that and has made a lot of improvements since our last visit in 2013.
Today’s locomotive is PREX #1601, a GP16 locomotive that was originally built for the Atlantic Coast Line in 1951 as GP7 #233. The locomotive was upgraded to a GP16 classification when it was rebuilt in the late 70s by “The Family Lines.” Its signature high hood was removed for better crew visibility and the locomotive has been active in serving branch lines ever since.
Above: Maumee & Western #4 leans as it switches a few cars around Defiance Yard. Photo courtesy of DIB Contributor Brent Kneebush.
This line was originally built in 1855 by the Toledo and Illinois Railroad, five years before the civil war began. The route follows the Maumee River between New Haven, Indiana and Maumee, Ohio and was built to connect the growing cities of Fort Wayne and Toledo. Known as the 5th District, the railroad was built over the former Great Black Swamp.
40 miles wide and 120 miles long, the Great Black Swamp was once an oozing mass of water, mud, snakes, wolves, wildcats, biting flies, and clouds of gnats and mosquitoes. The swamp was a pre-historic extension of Lake Erie that is responsible for the rich and fertile flatlands in Northwest Ohio. It was nearly big enough to cover the entire state of Connecticut and the water could be as much as five feet deep.
Above: ND&W file footage from 2014, taken just west of Defiance, Ohio.
In the early 1850s, state and federal drainage projects gradually made the region navigable for transportation by horseback and the soil was very fertile for agriculture. Because the region was completely flat, it made for an ideal railroad route between the two growing city centers. Therefore, the railroad was chartered in 1853 and and began running daily scheduled passenger, mail, and freight trains after its completion in 1855. The towns of Toledo, Defiance, and Fort Wayne were the location of three large rail yards.
The railroad would eventually come under control of the Wabash Railroad System in the late 1870s, after being consolidated through a series of midwest railroad mergers. The Wabash would operate this line until 1964, when they were taken over by the Norfolk & Western Railway. Passenger service would end five years prior to the takeover, in 1959. Under the N&W, the 5th District became a secondary branch and maintenance was deferred.
Above: Napoleon, Defiance & Western’s motive power is seen at Defiance Yard. Photo by DIB Contributor Brent Kneebush.
Combined with the fact the line was built with light-weight rail over a former swamp land, the roadbed began to sink into the ground, causing trains to lean to the west. In 1982, N&W became part of Norfolk Southern Railway who would operate the line for only eight years. Due to declining traffic, NS abandoned a segment of the branchline from Maumee to Liberty Center. In 1989, the line was sold to the Indiana Hi-Rail Corp. for operation between Liberty Center, Ohio and Woodburn, Indiana.
Indiana Hi-Rail operated the line for several years with ALCO locomotives until the company was liquidated in 1997. By that time, this once prosperous line seemed to be facing a possible abandonment. However, the Maumee & Western Railroad, with help from the State of Ohio’s, “Rail Development Commission,” purchased the line between Woodburn and Liberty Center, with their headquarters being located in Defiance, Ohio. The Maumee & Western operated a daily train between Defiance and Napoleon, except for Saturdays and Sundays.
Maumee & Western File Footage:
At the time, the cost to repair the line was estimated in the millions, and way too costly for the MAW to maintain. Despite the poor conditions, the MAW had made some minor improvements with ballast and tamping. But without the sufficient funds, the line still deteriorated further – forcing the MAW to sell off their remaining assets to Pioneer.
In 2012, we caught the Maumee & Western Railroad at Jewell, Ohio (see the above video). Using a former Illinois Central GP10, the train slowly rocked back and forth on this horribly maintained stretch of track. During the summer of 2012, we were able to shoot the same locomotive in Napoleon, Ohio through the thick weeds and brush that covered the rails. Since taking control in early 2013, Pioneer has greatly reduced the presence of weeds and shrubbery along the right of way.
Approaching Defiance, the train had to stop so the crew could remove a fallen tree that was blocking the right of way. It gave us a few extra moments to photograph the Indian-Hi Rail sign over the bridge leading into Defiance Yard. After clearing the tree from the right of way, we caught the train rolling over the Maumee River Bridge in downtown Defiance, Ohio. Here, the train would drop off the loads and pick up a lone empty hopper car for one of the customers along the line. You can watch the video below.