Some railfans define the Bessemer by what it used to be. Born as a strict coal hauler, at one time the railroad handled more tonnage per mile than any other line in the U.S. Coal from southern connections and online mines moved north to Lake Erie. Iron ore and other steelmaking materials moved south from the harbor at Conneaut, Ohio, to Pittsburgh area steel mills. Bessemer & Lake Erie’s earliest predecessor was Bear Creek Railroad which was incorporated in 1865. After being renamed Shenango & Allegheny, it became Pittsburgh, Shenango & Lake Erie after emerging from receivership in 1888. PS&LE reached Wallace Junction, Pa., in 1891 and Conneaut in 1892. Andrew Carnegie financed the building of Butler & Pittsburgh Railroad south from the PS&LE connection at Butler, reaching North Bessemer in 1897. That same year, Carnegie acquired PS&LE and merged it with his B&P to become Pittsburgh, Bessemer & Lake Erie. PB&LE became Bessemer & Lake Erie railroad upon completion of the K-O Cutoff that year.
Shortly after that, Carnegie’s interests were acquired by the newly formed U.S. Steel. In 1988, all of the steel company’s railroad operations around the country, including B&LE, were sold to holding company Transtar. In 2001, Great Lakes Transportation purchased certain assets including B&LE; Pittsburgh & Conneaut Dock Co.; and Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range. Just three years later, GLT was acquired by Canadian National, and the mighty B&LE became an easily forgotten limb of the gargantuan CN system. Despite the change in corporate masters, you would be hard-pressed to see any real change if you were standing trackside in the hills of western Pennsylvania in 2010. The first repaints were still five years in the future, but we knew change was coming to a land dominated by dark orange diesels.
ABOVE: BLE SD40T-3 907 leads northbound empties through Grove City, Pa., on September 4, 2009. BLE 907 remains in orange, reassigned to the CN-controlled Missabe.
Canadian National’s operation of B&LE is surprisingly simple. The main function of the Bessemer Subdivision is to act as a conveyor of steelmaking materials. Ore and limestone are unloaded off lake freighters at Conneaut Harbor and moved south to Union Railroad at North Bessemer, Pa. Once there, URR forwards the cars the final few miles to the massive Edgar Thomson Works at North Braddock, Pa. The Edgar Thomson Works represents the last integrated steel mill in the Pittsburgh area.
Operationally, not much has changed with the CN takeover. Other than the paint, the Bessemer looks much the same today as it did in 2010 when orange locomotives made up the entire roster. All road crews report on call to the yard office at Greenville, Pa. A crew going on duty there can operate to any point on the railroad. The entire B&LE is dispatched remotely by CN from Homewood, Ill., and is officially called the Bessemer Subdivision. In 2010, all trains were powered by EMD products. Rebuilt “tunnel motor” SD40T-3s 901, 902, 905, 907, 908, and 910 are of Southern Pacific and Cotton Belt ancestry, while SD38ACs 866–868 and Missabe-painted SD38 862 are pure Bessemer.
ABOVE: On a beautiful October 17, 2010, SD38AC 866 leads southbound taconite pellets through CE Interlocking at Cranesville. The signal alongside the third locomotive is a switch position indicator for the main, alternate route (both behind the photographer), and the Erie branch seen diverging to the right of 866.
At Conneaut, ships pull into the port to unload. B&LE is also able to interchange with CSX at CP 113 near its upper coal facility east of the port. Trains leaving Conneaut (milepost 138) first cross under the archways of the CSX (former New York Central) main line and then under a trestle carrying Norfolk Southern’s former Nickel Plate Road line. The Conneaut Branch crosses the state line into Pennsylvania before passing the villages of West Springfield and Lexington. At Lexington, the Conneaut Branch crosses the right-of-way of the former Pennsylvania Railroad’s Erie & Pittsburgh branch, which parallels B&LE to the west from here to Shenango…