Born 75 years ago: B&O’s Cincinnatian

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Wednesday, February 16, 2022

B&O Mount Clare workers gather around the train in December 1946. B&O photo, TLC Publishing collection
What if a railroad ran a passenger train that couldn’t make money in one market, then simply flipped it at one of its end points, chose a new destination, but kept the same name? Sounds easy, doesn’t it?

That’s exactly what the Baltimore & Ohio did with its Cincinnatian, a homebuilt steam-powered streamliner that arrived 75 years ago to much fanfare, connecting Baltimore and Washington, D.C., with its namesake city on a reasonably convenient daytime schedule. Then, just three years later, when revenue projections didn’t pan out, the B&O decided to use the same train to link Cincinnati with Detroit. This time, it was a modest success.

If nothing else, the Cincinnatian was an eye-catcher. Resplendent in B&O blue and gray, it was hauled by a quartet of substantially rebuilt and streamlined P-7d 4-6-2s hauling a string of five refurbished heavyweight cars. The train was compact, fast, and stylish, as described beautifully in writer Bob Withers’ story about the train in the December 2010 Classic Trains special edition called Dream Trains II

In that story, entitled “Pride of the B&O,” Withers explained how the unveiling of the train on January 19, 1947, came to symbolize the loyalty and craftsmanship of hundreds of B&O employees, especially those who worked on the train at the railroad’s Mt. Clare Shops in Baltimore. 

In June 1950, shortly before the train moved to the Detroit route, Pacific 5302 hammers eastward up Salt Lick Curve just west of Terra Alta, W.Va., with an original Cincinnati-Baltimore consist of a combine, three coaches, and observation-diner-lounge. E. L. Thompson photo
As Withers recounts, the Cincinnatian was one of the great homegrown trains of all time. Designed by B&O research engineer Olive Dennis, it operated with a pool of four rebuilt Pacifics, all of them originally P-7 class engines built by Baldwin in 1927 and refitted with one-piece cast frames, roller bearings, and semi-water-tube fireboxes. Dennis enhanced the sensation of speed with bullet-nose cowlings, angled cab windows and black-and-aluminum parallelogram accents elsewhere on the engine. Once completed, the engines’ 1927 roots were hardly visible.

The same could be said for the Cincinnatian’s cars, each set of which included a combination baggage-lounge, a pair of 60-seat coaches, a 56-seat coach with what was called a stewardess-nurse’s station, and an observation/lounge/dining car. The latter pair were named Fountain Square and Peebles Corners and looked positively rakish with their curved windows and raised aluminum heralds and lettering.

Revisions to all the cars included roller bearings, non-fogging windows, individual seat lighting, Venetian blinds, and vibration dampers on the trucks. The entire train was equipped with full-width diaphragms, giving the Cincinnatian an integrated look befitting what was intended to appear as a deluxe accommodation.

As Withers recounts, the public initially embraced the train. “They loved the diner’s Maryland spoon bread and raved about the public address system — upon which the conductor called station stops, the steward announced mealtimes, and the stewardess/nurse pointed out scenic delights. . . . Employees and the public alike were ecstatic.”

Despite all the improvements, the Cincinnatian had one big Achilles heel: the operating profile through the Alleghenies, especially over the tortuous sections between Cumberland and Parkersburg known as Seventeen Mile Grade, Cranberry Grade, and Cheat Grade. The demands of the route and the need to avoid helpers necessitated the tight consist, which in turn limited the train’s ability to create revenue. 

As Withers put it, “The B&O’s feeble bottom line couldn’t stand that for long. However, management considered the train a valuable asset, and blamed the sparsely populated route for its poor financial performance. Solution: find another line where the deluxe consist could succeed.”

Northbound Cincinnatian meets an extra at the North Dayton yard in August 1955. J. Parker Lamb photo, Center for Railroad Photography & Art collection
That’s where the Detroit version of the Cincinnatian comes in. The train managed to do a capacity business over the 1949 holiday season, then was postponed for several months due to a coal strike. Finally, on June 24, 1950, one day after the last run from Baltimore, the Cincinnatian began its service to Detroit. For the first several years, it was rather successful.

All of us benefit from the fact that, during those early Ohio years, the train frequently came into the viewfinders of photographers Wallace W. Abbey and J. Parker Lamb, both of whom made the train a favorite target. Their images lacked the dramatic Allegheny scenery, but their compositional skills more than made up for it.

Inevitably, even the Detroit version of the train fell victim to the forces pinching passenger trains by the 1960s, and the Cincinnatian limped through that era with changing consists and schedules, despite a modest revival during Paul Reistrup’s era as director of B&O’s passenger service (Reistrup would go on to lead Amtrak as president 1975-1978). The loss of all mail and express business by 1970 was a killer. Give the train credit, though: it lasted until April 30, 1971, the eve of Amtrak. A lot of great trains never got that far. 

The Cincinnatian meets another B&O train at Deshler, Ohio, in September 1952. Wallace W. Abbey photo, Center for Railroad Photography & Art collection
Don’t expect a new version of the Cincinnatian to return anytime soon — or likely ever. The people and politicians of Ohio can’t even be convinced to support the oft proposed and obviously strategic Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati corridor, an idea that passenger proponents have been pushing for decades. A service linking Toledo with Cincinnati is far beyond the pale.

As for the Cincinnatian’s original route out of Baltimore, a big piece of it is literally gone. In its infinite wisdom, CSX in 1985 decided to abandon 82 miles of the old National Limited main line between Clarksburg and Parkersburg, W.Va. They tore up the tracks four years later.

Thank goodness so many intrepid photographers — including Abbey and Lamb — were there to record the Cincinnatian in full stride. 

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