LIMA — Three decades after the first train chugged into Lima on the Dayton and Michigan in the late 1850s, the city was latticed with track and becoming — often painfully — aware of the dangers of grade crossings.
“The accident that occurred at the Market Street crossing a few months ago by a train dashing through a funeral procession, causing a runaway and seriously injuring a lady, would have been avoided had there been a watchman there,” Lima’s Daily Democratic Times wrote on July 11, 1888. Watchmen at the crossings, the newspaper opined, were particularly needed on Sundays because that was when “ladies and children do their driving, and they are the ones who use least judgment in approaching a crossing.”
In the early 20th century, with more track, more trains, more people and, now, automobiles, grade crossings became even more dangerous for ladies, children and anyone else who didn’t use sound judgment.
In February 1913, the Lima Times-Democrat reprinted an editorial from the Blade of Toledo which called for the elimination of all grade crossings as the only way to eliminate the danger. The Times-Democrat’s editor agreed, adding, “The evils of the grade crossing are becoming more apparent in this city every day, and the duty that faces those in authority is to take such measures as will cause the elimination of these death traps at the earliest possible moment.”
As in many cities, those in authority in Lima were discussing ways of going either over or under the most dangerous spots. Proposing projects proved far easier than getting them done. As early as November 1911, Lima’s leaders were discussing the idea of a viaduct over the D.T.& I. tracks on Bellefontaine. More than a century later, an underpass is being built in that area.
However, the most frequently mentioned proposals involved viaducts or “subways” on St. Johns Road, South Main Street and South Metcalf Street at the railroads separating the homes of workers on the north side of the tracks from the city’s growing industrial base on the south side.
On June 3, 1913, City Council accepted a plan from the Chicago & Erie railroad to pay 65 percent of the cost of an underpass on South Metcalf Street south of Vine Street and an “overhead bridge” on St. Johns Avenue in exchange for permission to run double tracks through Lima.
Ground was broken July 10, 1913, for the underpass but the St. Johns viaduct never happened, although an underpass was built in the 1970s. “The Metcalf Street subway will give this city one of the most important and needed improvements that has been undertaken in many years,” the Lima Daily News wrote in 1913. “It will eliminate the grade crossing on South Metcalf Street where there is constant heavy traffic between the city and Willys-Gramm motor truck plant and the Solar Refinery. No street leading beyond the corporation limits of the city is more heavily traveled by vehicles of every kind ….”
On Oct. 19, 1913, while the underpass was under construction, city officials began looking at the possibility of a viaduct just to the south over the multiple tracks of the Lake Erie and Western railroad. A year later, the L.E. & W. offered to pay 65 percent of the cost of a viaduct in exchange for city permission to add tracks to its yard on the south side, and adding to the number of tracks that cars and pedestrians would need to navigate.
Although the project looked promising, the shortage of steel and other materials caused by World War I delayed the project until 1918. On July 7, 1918, the Daily News reported the proposed viaduct would cost $60,000 and eventually span a total of 12 tracks. “The matter has been hanging fire since 1916 and has reached the point where council feels that strenuous efforts should be taken at once to secure an overhead road at this point where six tracks cross the street. This is one of the most dangerous crossings in the city and is subject to heavy traffic.”
The project hit one of many stumbling blocks in June 1919 when the railroad submitted plans for a roadway 24 feet wide while the city wanted a 32-foot thoroughfare. “The viaduct to be erected over the Lake Erie and Western railroad tracks at the Wapakoneta Road is no nearer completion than it ever was, and in the meanwhile pedestrians and motorists continue to risk their lives by crossing the long stretch of tracks,” the News wrote on July 30, 1919.
After a compromise apparently had been reached on a 26-foot-wide road strong enough to carry the city street railway, the courts weighed in at the end of 1919, granting the county an injunction preventing the L.E. & W. from using the new tracks until all viaduct plans were ironed out.
After more months of haggling over details among the railroad, city and county, the News reported on May 29, 1921, that “when the steel market hits the bottom, assurances have been given by officials of the Lake Erie and Western railroad company that construction on the Metcalf Street bridge overhead will begin.” The viaduct, the newspaper wrote, “has been under contemplation for a number of years. Its construction was delayed by the advent of war and later because plans for the structure were tied up in court. The way was cleared recently when common pleas court passed on the plans, which had been approved by county, city and railroad engineers.”
Finally, in January 1923, after a last-minute proposal from the county surveyor to build a tunnel under the tracks was rejected as impractical, work began. “Unless some unexpected incident occurs, construction of the L.E.& W. railroad viaduct over the tracks at South Metcalf Street will be started in April …,” the News wrote. The cost of the project now was estimated at about $250,000.
“Steady progress in the establishment of safe grade crossings is seen and quicker relief is anticipated by city officials following the sale Friday of $40,000 worth of bonds for the Metcalf Street viaduct,” the News wrote in January 1924.
As 1924 drew to a close, with city, county and railroad officials now arguing over who would pay to pave the roadway, the Lima Beane, alter-ego of the News editor, published an open letter to everyone involved. “Gentlemen: You will do everyone a great favor if you will hurry matters along so the Metcalf Street viaduct can be opened soon,” he wrote. “Conditions on the south side so far as ingress and egress are concerned are very bad. Main Street is blocked and other improvements make travel vexing. The overhead should have been opened ere this, I believe, and further delay should not be permitted.”
On Sept. 7, 1925, as the city held a combination Labor Day and Mardi Gras celebration complete with parades, bands and ball games, officials of the Nickel Plate Road, which had taken over the L.E. & W., city, county and state highway department (Metcalf Street now carried the traffic of the Dixie Highway) dedicated the span. “The Delphos band took part in the ceremony,” the News reported on Sept. 8, 1925, “with a number of band concert selections. Four serial bombs were touched off by a leader of the Boy Scouts climaxing the ceremonies.”
Dedication or not, the viaduct would not open to traffic for more than a year to give the earth-filled approaches time to settle. Finally, just in time for Christmas 1926, when workmen finished laying brick on the bridge and its approaches, the viaduct was thrown open to traffic.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.