OPINION

Guest Column: 'All Aboard!' the scenic railroad in Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Jennie Vasarhelyi
Cuyahoga Valley National Park
A wheelchair lift increases accessibility on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.

After more than a year of COVID-19 restrictions, train whistles once again routinely echo through Cuyahoga Valley National Park. This summer Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad is offering a full slate of activities including excursions, events, and Explorer, a shuttle service for cyclists, runners, hikers, and kayakers.

Trains first rolled through the Cuyahoga Valley in 1880 when the Valley Railway started operations. Railway promoters wanted to connect Canton, Akron, and Cleveland to mineral fields in central Ohio. The railway primarily hauled coal, but also carried stone, iron, sand, lime, and agricultural products. Passengers used the line as well. Depots sprung up at Independence, Tinkers Creek, Alexander’s Mill, Brecksville, Boston, Peninsula, Everett, Hawkins/Ira, and Botzum.

The Valley Railway changed the Cuyahoga Valley. Before the railroad, communities in the valley centered around the Ohio & Erie Canal with businesses clustered at locks. With the railroad, depots became community hubs. Two paper mills opened, using the railroad for shipping. Those mills are gone, but the National Park Service has repurposed company-owned buildings. The company store for Cleveland-Akron Bag Co. has become Boston Mill Visitor Center. Company-owned buildings associated with Jaite Paper Mill have become park headquarters.

The faster connection between the valley and the nearby cities contributed to change. The canal’s 4 mph speed limit prevented quick access to the cities. The railroad brought the valley and cities together. The valley could supply fresh milk and produce. City dwellers could use the train for leisure trips to the valley.

In 1880, the same year the railway began operations, John Reese of Canton published the "Guide Book for the Tourist and Traveler over the Valley Railway."

The book focused on the natural landscape, historic structures, and recreational potential of the valley. With the train, the valley become Cleveland and Akron’s countryside.

Freight trains rumbled through the valley until the 1980s. By that time, the line had also begun its role as transportation for park visitors. Today, the National Park Service owns the tracks. Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad is a non-profit partner that owns and operates the trains.

The depot in Peninsula is the only remaining historic depot. Originally the Boston Mill Depot, it was moved to Peninsula in the 1960s. The National Park Service constructed yellow shelters at today’s train stations (Rockside, Canal Exploration Center, Brecksville, Boston Mill, Indigo Lake, Botzum, and Akron Northside) to make it easier to visit the park by train.

The National Park Scenic Excursion lets you tour Cuyahoga Valley National Park while leaving the driving to CVSR. Train windows offer scenic views of the valley as the trains run through the valley bottomlands near the Cuyahoga River and Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail. Nature abounds along the tracks as they pass through wetlands, fields, and forest.

From June through October, the National Park Scenic operates Wednesday through Sunday. Passengers can board at Rockside, Peninsula, or Akron Northside station for the 3 1/2 hour round trip. The CVSR Train Tracker app includes the Voices of the Valley audio tour, which shares stories about the view from the train window.

Events occur on the train throughout the year. This summer, the Cleveland Dinner & Event Train occurs every Friday night except June 18, originating at Rockside Station in Independence. It includes dinner, beverage, and entertainment options.

CVSR Explorer is an expanded shuttle service that takes advantage of the train’s location parallel to the Towpath Trail and Cuyahoga River. Use this service to bicycle, run, walk, or kayak in one direction and hop on the train for a relaxing ride in the other for a one-way fee. CVSR staff load bicycles and kayaks on a baggage car. You can access this service at any train station throughout the day. Flag down the train by waving your hands over your head. An annual Explorer Pass is available.

For more information about Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad’s programs and services, visit www.cvsr.org or call 330-439-5708. COVID-19 safety measures are described online at https://www.cvsr.org/covid-19-safety/.

Vasarhelyi is Chief of Interpretation, Education & Visitor Services for Cuyahoga Valley National Park.