Dennison Railroad Depot Museum
Dennison Railroad Musuem
This is a sign from one of the stops along the Panhandle route.
Inside the Museum
Every railroad museum I’ve been to has its own distinct character and, for want of a better term, theme, and the Dennison Railroad Depot Museum is no exception. Its focus is on the intwining history of the town of Dennison and the railroad that both fueled its growth and caused its worst hardships. Along the way the museum diverts into related topics, all of them interesting and relevant. When I write these travel logs I always pick highlights of what I found because I want readers to visit a given place and see far more than what I’ve covered. With this museum if I tried to write about every topic it highlights, I would wind up with a full length book! It is any case the best railroad museum I’ve been to, high praise indeed because the others I’ve seen were all excellent in and of themselves.
The history of Dennison begins not in the town itself but rather with the city of Uhrichsville next door. The first settler of European decent to arrive in the spot that would become Uhrichsville was Michael Uhrich. Here he built a mill on the Stillwater Creek in 1804 (or 1806—sources differ). He laid out the town he called Waterford in 1833, but about six years later it was renamed to Uhrichsville. Nearly thirty-eight miles to the east as the crow flies, the residents of Steubenville thought it might be a good idea to lay down an east-west railroad with their town as its eastern terminus. After some lobbying, the Ohio Legislature issued a charter for the Steubenville & Indiana Railroad on February 24, 1848. The company was officially organized in 1850 and during this time the people of Uhrichsville convinced it to run through their town. The first passenger train came through on September 10, 1854.
The new road had one major flaw. It didn’t connect to any other lines, so it had no way to easily transfer goods coming from the east or heading west to its own trains. The Panic of 1857 caused its finances to tank and by 1868 it was part of a new road made up of other bankrupted lines called the Panhandle Railway, which was soon merged with a couple more railroads to become the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati & St. Louis Railway (PC & SL). In 1864, an earlier iteration of that—the Pittsburgh, Columbus & Cincinnati Railroad—decided to build a massive yard in an area just east of Uhrichsville. The next year a village to accommodate the workers, Dennison, was founded. This place was chosen for the new yard because it was the midpoint between Columbus and Pittsburgh.
Dennison was sometimes referred to as the “Altoona of the Panhandle,” the meaning of which none of the museum’s information signs explained. Altoona is a railroad town in Pennsylvania that grew exponentially because the Pennsylvania Railroad put a major yard here. Panhandle is a reference to a part of West Virginia that is shaped like a pan’s handle which juts up between Ohio and Pennsylvania through which the PC & CR’s tracks passed.
In 1873 a permanent depot was built in Dennison, the very one that now serves as a museum. (It also has a restaurant that I didn’t visit.). The depot’s original windows were painted black during World War II in case enemy bombers attacked by (which was a technical impossibility at the time, but a sound precaution since who knew what the Germans had in their air force?). The windows were then boarded over. When the building was restored, the boards were removed and the windows cleaned.
In 1890 the Pennsylvania Railroad bought the PC & CR along its Dennison yards (although the PC & CR’s name didn’t change to Pennsylvania Railroad until 1921). The Pennsylvania Railroad soon upgraded the yard’s shops. Railroads were exceedingly dangerous to work for or even ride on in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in large part because many roads didn’t value the lives of their workers and cut corners rather than invest in safety. The Pennsylvania Railroad was different. Its trains had the new Westinghouse airbrakes that were far more effective and much safer to implement than the old car by car type. Pennsylvania Railroad cars, if unexpectedly uncoupled while moving, would automatically come to a halt. The tracks themselves were made of steel rather than the less than durable iron. Improved safety switches were put in.