For Willard, Ohio, the past could be the future
THOMAS J. SHEERAN
Jul. 01, 1997
WILLARD, Ohio (AP) _ The town of Willard was so closely linked to the golden age of railroading that it even took its name from a B&O president.
Now, long after the glory days of the Iron Horse, Willard is hoping to ride the rails to prosperity again.
This town 75 miles southwest of Cleveland will be the biggest beneficiary of the $10 billion deal by CSX Corp. and Norfolk Southern Corp. to carve up Conrail. About $50 million will go toward rail yard improvements in Willard, once an important link in the lucrative Chicago-New York freight corridor.
After seeing just one new home constructed here last year, townspeople are looking forward to good things down the line.
``It's great news,'' said Nickolas Alexakos, who owns a restaurant and 35-room motel that caters to railroad employees and is now thinking of expanding the motel.
The investment will mean about 140 new rail jobs for this tree-lined former railroad boomtown of 6,500 where a brightly painted caboose still sits in a park.
Willard was founded as Chicago Junction in 1874, during the post-Civil War period when the railroads were expanding rapidly across the country.
Because of confusion over mail shipments headed to Chicago during World War I, the town's name was changed in honor of Daniel Willard, then president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.
As recently as the early 1950s, Willard had 1,000 workers repairing locomotives. But that number has dwindled to fewer than 300. The biggest employer is a publishing house with a work force of nearly 2,000.
Now, CSX, determined to take business from truckers who clog the interstates between the Midwest and East Coast, will spend $175 million to improve its rail lines in Ohio, including upgrading and double-tracking the line between Chicago and Greenwich, Ohio, just east of Willard.
That will be a step back in time for many railroaders. The second line to Chicago was removed more than 15 years ago.
``I was working when they took those mains out. I never thought I'd live to see them put them back,'' said Mayor Todd Shininger, who retired as a signal foreman after 45 years with what once was the B&O, then the Baltimore & Ohio/Chesapeake & Ohio, then the Chessie System and finally, CSX.
Currently, up to 25 trains roll into town each day. At the yard, cars are sorted and new trains assembled.
Half of the new investment will buy high-tech electronics to speed the sorting and re-coupling, thereby increasing the number of daily trains to 40. The rest will go to expand a rail yard that already stretches three miles.
City Manager James K. Koshmider said local industries that rely on trucks for shipping will begin to consider rail as CSX cuts delivery times.
Locomotive engineer Bob Durr, 52, is counting on that.
``We're going to be able to lower the price of transport for both the agricultural community and the manufacturing community,'' said the 25-year railroader. The expansion ``will mean more people employed in the community, it will mean a more viable work force here that will be able to deliver the best service possible.''
That pleases Dave Carty and Grover Sparkman, who own a barber shop in Willard's bustling downtown, a handsome place with a clock tower and renovated buildings dating from the turn of the century.
Carty and Sparkman think the new workers, plus CSX ``stopovers'' who live out of town, will be good for their two-chair business.
``Railroaders are some of our best customers,'' Carty said.