PORTAGE PATHWAYS: 1953 blaze made short work of Erie roundhouse

By Roger J. Di Paolo | Record-Courier Editor Published:

When a Kent landmark went up in flames in 1953, there wasn't a great deal that firefighters could do to save it.

For one thing, the area where it was located was inaccessible by road. Firemen had to park their equipment and carry hoses and portable pumps across a swinging footbridge over the Cuyahoga River. They used water from the river to fight the blaze.

Another factor that lessened their resolve: There wasn't much to save anyway, because the burning building was in the process of being demolished. In fact, sparks from a rubbish fire there apparently caused the blaze.

So, on Dec. 22, 1953, the Erie Railroad roundhouse, located off Lake Street on Kent's north side, passed into history as flames shot 150 feet into the air.

"The last of the steam locomotive era in Kent departed in a big puff," the Daily Courier-Tribune reported. "And what a puff. It was bigger than any which billowed from the stacks of chugging locomotives during the more than 100 years of railroads in Kent."

"Railroad officials seemed to care little if the building burned. Workers were in the process of spending several thousand dollars for wrecking it. The flames were short work for a job which was expected to be completed by Jan. 1."

The roundhouse was a large, semi-circular structure with stalls for 10 locomotives. Trains were repaired there, but with the passing of the steam locomotive era -- the last Erie steam engine came through Kent in February 1952 -- its use had lessened to the point where the railroad no longer needed it.

According to the newspaper account, the roundhouse dated to 1880 -- although other accounts say it was built in 1895. The 22-track structure was the largest building in the sprawling Erie rail yards, located in the industrial district along Kent's northern border.

The yards were a transfer point for Erie freight trains. At their height, the yards had 30 tracks -- 15 running eastward and 15 running westward -- as well as two main tracks running through the yards.

"For many years, all freight trains stopped in the Kent Yards to have cars switched out or added," railroad historian Bruce Dzeda writes in "Railroad Town: Kent and the Erie Railroad." The yards also served as a connection point for the Erie and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

The rail yards had a much smaller workforce than the Erie car shops, which were located off Mogadore Road, south of downtown Kent and employed about 800 men at the height of their operations shortly after World War I. They closed in 1930.

"The Kent Yards were a challenging, and sometimes miserable, place to work -- especially during extreme weather," Dzeda writes.

They also were a hazardous place, too. Car inspectors walked on the tops of rolling cars to examine their brakes and many fell to their deaths.

The yards were still active when the railroad decided to demolish the roundhouse in 1953. Workers had begun dismantling the structure shortly before the fire broke out.

The blaze was caused by sparks that had landed on the roof of the building. Its aged timbers, soaked with decades of oil, made it a virtual tinderbox .

"The building was soon in flames. There was never a chance of saving the historic structure," the Courier-Tribune reported.

Its remote location hampered any attempt to fight the blaze. While the roundhouse burned, firefighters focused on keeping the flames from spreading and disrupting communications along the B & O tracks running alongside it.

The yards remained in operation following the fire, but gradually decreased in activity. As the 1960s dawned, only a handful of tracks remained. The Erie-Lackawanna Railroad announced an end to Kent-based switching crews in 1964. That left fewer than a dozen permanent employees at the yards; about 100 continued to travel in and out of Kent.

Passenger service at the downtown Kent depot also dwindled, finally coming to an end in 1970.

The site of the roundhouse was visible decades after the fire. Today, the yards are largely overgrown and obscured by the passing of time, but those traveling the Portage Hike and Bike Trail on Kent's north side can see remnants of the Erie's heyday, including the ruins of a water tower and concrete foundations that provide hints of the once sprawling railroad complex.

Want to leave your comments?

Sign in or Register to comment.