Stand fast, Berea!

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, May 8, 2018

In a photo from the photographer's 1957 Trains magazine story about New York Central's BE Tower in Berea, Ohio, the operator waves to a westbound freight coming off the Lakefront line. Richard J. Cook
So often, the search for constancy in railroading seems futile. I guess that’s the natural order. You think some things are immutable — like humps yard in Louisville or Cumberland, or building locomotives in Erie, or having a steak dinner on the Lake Shore Limited— then poof! They can be gone in the time it takes a CEO to hit “send” on an email.

That’s why it was reassuring on Sunday morning to drive up over the crest of the Front Street/Ohio 237 viaduct in southwest suburban Cleveland and see a familiar friend: the elegant stone tower of the Berea depot.

I was in Cleveland for the annual convention of the New York Central System Historical Society, and before heading back to Milwaukee, I just had to see Berea again, to feel the urgent pulse of its endless parade of trains. It turned out to be a beautiful spring morning for some train watching. 

Berea needs no introduction to most Midwestern fans. For more than a century it’s been a busy, strategically important junction, the historic confluence of the main lines of two major New York Central predecessors, the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern and the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis, or Big Four. One upon a time, Berea was as “NYC” as Harmon or Selkirk. 

NYC Hudson 5204 flies past BE Tower with the 'Box Car Special,' a train of specially equipped boxcars carrying express shipments at passenger train speeds on March 10, 1946. A shortage of baggage cars prompted NYC to press boxcars into express service. Richard J Cook
Now, of course, Berea is the location of not one but two giant Class I’s, Norfolk Southern and CSX. For NS, Berea is where its Chicago main line swings into view from Cleveland’s lakefront. Berea is home to CSX’s Chicago main line, too, but also sees a lot of traffic destined for St. Louis on the old Big Four, which meets CSX’s ex-B&O main line at Greenwich, 42 miles to the southwest.

In its NYC heyday, Berea attracted throngs of photographers, including such masters as Herb Harwood and Wallace W. Abbey. But the greatest chronicler of Berea was Richard J. Cook, a legendary photographer whose 1968 book Rails Across the Midlandswas a formative experience for thousands of fans. Including me.

Dick Cook knew Berea inside and out, something he demonstrated impressively in a memorable article from the October 1957 issue of Trains, “Second Trick at BE Tower.”

In a gripping narrative, Cook took readers through the pressure-packed shift of a new tower operator on his first day. In just eight hours he juggles cascading train orders, answers countless phone calls, operates many of BE tower’s 111 pistol-grip levers, and OS’s a staggering total of 51 trains, including nearly all the big names of the Great Steel Fleet. In keeping Berea fluid, Cook saw prestige. 

“Finally you’ve reached the No. 1 tower on the division,” he wrote, “the one many men shy away from because of the responsibility, the sound judgment involved in making split-second decisions necessary to keep the trains running.”

Berea has remained a busy spot for NYC's successors. In summer 1971, an ex-PRR Alco C628 leads a Penn Central freight west past the tower. Wallace W. Abbey
Cook’s photos were an indispensable part of the story, especially his view from the interior of BE, shown here, the operator waving to the crew of hotshot train NC-1 as its three Alco FA diesels hit the curve on Lakefront Track 1.

If Cook came back today, he’d recognize the place. First there’s that handsome old station, a sandstone Victorian Gothic monument erected in 1876. The station closed in 1958 but somehow managed to stay in place long enough for the restaurant business to claim it in the 1980s.

Today’s Berea Depot Bar & Restaurantis open every day and has a wide selection of lunch and dinner items on its menu, plus a spacious outdoor deck on the east end of the building, where you can have a CSX train with your margarita. The tracks are that close.

Cook might also be pleased to see that BE tower still stands, although it was closed long ago; the work his second-trick operator did back in 1957 is now performed largely by NS dispatchers in Dearborn, Mich., and CSX in Jacksonville. So Berea has that remote, detached quality that characterizes most junctions these days. Still, the old tower is a great prop for a photograph. 

Today, Berea's Victorian Gothic station houses a restaurant whose outdoor deck gives a fine view of passing CSX and NS trains. Kevin P. Keefe
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of action on the tracks. The NS Chicago Line sees 50 to 55 trains per day, and the CSX Cleveland Short Line Subdivision adds another 30 to 35. Upon my arrival, I waited only a few minutes before two westbound NS intermodal trains cruised past the tower. That’s way it is all day.

Berea is also one of those places where you feel relatively welcome. If there’s plenty of space for restaurant patrons, fans are generally allowed to park at the south end of the parking lot, or also in the grass along the east side of Depot Street. Railroad police are used to train-watchers and generally leave them alone, so long as everyone stays off the tracks.

If you linger until evening, which I recommend, you might get the feeling Dick Cook did when he reflected on Berea: “Your tower is the block house on the frontier, the outpost in the forest of gleaming steel ribbons and black night. You are in command of the rolling trains, guardian of the command post of the railroad.”

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