Barber’s Belt Line
It was March 19, 1891, when Ohio C. Barber (founder of the city of Barberton) along with some of his associates filed Articles of Incorporation with the Secretary of the State of Ohio, to construct a railroad in Summit County, Ohio. Their proposed railroad would run from the west bank of the Tuscarawas River, through and around Barberton to the New York Pennsylvania & Ohio Railroad (latter the Pennsylvania Railroad) main line. The first company served by their little railroad was the Barberton Strawboard Factory.
The Belt Line, opened for operation July 12, 1892 and was officially called the Barberton Belt Line Railroad Company.
The first significant expansion for the Belt Line came only four years after its opening. It was on March 3, 1896, that construction of a branch line from Barberton south to Warwic began. The new line was to connect the Belt Line railroad to the Cleveland Lorain & Wheeling Railway. This section of track never saw completion. It ended far shy of its intended destination – the actual length of track laid was just one mile. All was not lost, the tracks did reach far enough to connect to properties of O. C. Barber’s National Sewer Pipe Company.
It was at about the same time, October 1899, when a new Barberton railroad began to show signs of life. The Cleveland Barberton & Western Railroad planners were proposing a line from Cleveland to Cuyahoga Falls, Akron, Barberton and on to Creston. The railroad turned out to be a failure. Only a small portion of the line was ever constructed. The tracks stretched from Barberton northward to meet the Northern Ohio Railroad Co. (latter the AC&Y) at Fairlawn/Belt Junction.
Just two years later yet another railroad company began working on plans to construct a path through Barberton. This railroad was to be called the Barberton Akron & Eastern Line Railway Company. Its investors filed articles of incorporation on January 24, 1902 and began construction of its line from Barberton eastward through Akron and on to Youngstown. It was just another in the string of failed plans for new railroads in Barberton. The BA&E never completed its construction and never opened for service. The remains of this failed railway would latter be swallowed into the A&BB.
Each attempt at a new railroad became an opportunity for O.C. Barber to expand his own empire. O.C. Barber worked to consolidate all the small railroads into one effective transportation service. The Akron & Barberton Belt Railroad Co., was created by consolidating the Barberton Belt line Railroad Co., the Cleveland Barberton & Western Railroad Co., and the Barberton Akron & Eastern Belt Line Railway Company. Articles of Incorporation were completed on May 3, 1902 and were filed with the state on May 6, 1902.
It wasn’t long before Barber had purchased most of the A&BB’s stock. A position not overlooked by the major trunk line railroads connecting to the A&BB.
Railroad for sale
Recognizing the powerful position and potential of the A&BB the trunk railroads sent scouts to look over, observe and inspect the operations and right-of-way options. Although not speaking publicly of it, their intent was to size up the little railroad in preparation of making Barber an offer to purchase it.
Barber assigned William A. Johnston, a close associate and central figure to the planning of Barberton, to accompany the representatives on a tour of the A&BB railroad. Following the inspection, Johnston was certain the major railroads were planning to make Barber an offer for the purchase of the belt lines.
Before long, Vice President James McCrea of the Pennsylvania Railroad company requested a meeting with Barber that would include representatives from the Pennsylvania, Erie, Baltimore & Ohio, and the Northern Ohio Railroad Companies. The meeting was to take place at a luncheon in the dinning room of the Barberton Inn. Nearly twenty five men attended from the various railroads along with Barber, Baird, and Johnston.
On May 13, 1902, now in control of an important link for many of the large railroads, O. C. Barber made a deal with the Pennsylvania, Baltimore & Ohio, Erie, and Northern Ohio Railroad Companies for the sale of his A&BB stocks, bonds, etc. The deal, was an ownership split equally between each of the trunk roads. The sale was worth one million dollars to O.C. Barber and his investors – he latter regretted the transaction. The four purchasing railroads soon had the A&BB valued at three million dollars, a two million dollar loss in the eyes of Barber who never forgave the railroads for ‘stealing’ from him.
William A. Johnston, reported the following concerning the sale of the A&BB to those railroads:
“… the trunk line railroads sent their scouts to look over the Belt Line. It was my duty to accompany these men, and after several had been shown over the road, I reported to Mr. Barber and Mr. Baird that I believed the big roads were thinking of buying the Belt line.
Shortly after this, Mr. Barber received a communication from Vice President James McCrea of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, asking for a conference of representatives of his road, the Erie, B&O, and the Northern Ohio with Mr. Barber. The conference was held at a luncheon in the dinning room of the Barberton Inn. There were about 25 men representing the four trunk line railroads, Mr. Barber, Mr. Baird and myself. Mr. Barber sat at the head of the long table. After the luncheon was finished Mr. McCrea arose and said:
Mr. Barber, I do not intend to make a speech. No doubt you know what we are here for, and to get action on the matter, I want to ask you your price on the entire property of the Belt Line Railroad.
Mr. Barber arose and said:
Gentlemen, I did not ask you here. You came on your own invitation. I am glad to see you here. I never intimated to anyone that I wanted to sell my Belt Line, it is the most valuable property I own, and I can see no reason why I should sell, or why I should name a price. However, since you came on this mission, I have no objection to you making a price. I thank you.
After considerable badinage, Mr. McCrea said:
Mr. Barber, at a conference held before we came here today, the limit price to be offered you was set at $500,000. I believe it is a fair offer, and will make you a handsome profit.
Mr. Barber interposed and cried out:
NO, NO, I will not consider it for one minute. No, sir.
Mr. McCrea then said:
Well, Mr. Barber, inasmuch as we have journeyed here today, and dined together, and made you what I consider a fair offer, won’t you at least give us your price?
Mr. Barber left the table, beckoned to Mr. Baird, and the two walked to the end of the room where they could talk the matter over without disturbance. The other men arose from the table and gathered into groups of four and five. In my group was the late Superintendent Baker of the Northern Ohio railway. He remarked to me:
Well, Mr. Johnston, what do you think of Mr. McCrea’s offer?
I think it is like shaking a red flag at a bull.
A bewildered little man, not knowing my association with Mr. Barber, called out:
Oh, it will be alright. They’ll pay him a million dollars for his road.
Just then Mr. Barber and Mr. Baird started for their seats at the table. Mr. Barber had already reached his chair when I intercepted Mr. Baird and told him that they would pay a million dollars, and how it had been told to me. He quickly went to Mr. Barber, took him aside by the arm, and they walked back to the corner. In a minute they were back in their seats.
Mr. Barber in a fine fettle and excellent humor, told them that he had never before considered selling the road, yet after consulting with Mr. Baird, and realizing that he was not a practical railroad man, etc.., etc.., he had decided to name his price, it was going to be a fair price, one which he knew would part him from his railroad.
The price, gentlemen, (the railroad men were all leaning in towards Mr. Barber) as I said before, I am going to be fair, and set a price which will, I know, meet with your approval. This price, gentlemen, to you, is two million dollars.
The railroad men arose as one man and rushed out of the room, with Mr. Barber clapping his hands and laughing so as to be heard out in the hotel office. Six days later, Mr. Barber accepted one million dollars in cash for the property (5-13-1902). Within a short time, the four trunk line railway companies — the purchasers — bonded the Belt Line property for three million dollars. Mr. Barber, until his death, believed that he had been swindled out of two million dollars.”
Barber never got over his anger with the railroads and spent much of his remaining life preaching against railroads, and for government ownership of the railroads. In the fall of 1903 Barber began exposing railroad crimes of overcapitalization. During the financial scare of 1907 Barber preached around the country that all the problems had been caused by the railroads.
The 1902 purchased of the Akron & Barberton Belt Line allowed for the completion of the line from Barberton to East Akron. Records show that in 1903 the line consisted of 23.15 miles of main track and 11.45 miles of side tracks.
On Oct. 15, 1904 the partly finished line of the former Barberton Akron and Eastern Belt Line Railway Company was completed from Barberton to White Grocery (in or near Akron, Ohio) a distance of 12.56 miles.
1905 saw the Belt Line expand to swallow up yet another local railroad. This time the target was the Barberton & Southern (B&S). The addition of 1.77 miles of B&S tracks gave the A&BB a direct connection to the Pennsylvania and Erie Railroads.
As with all railroads, WWI brought the A&BB under the control of the US Government. In 1920 the line returned to private hands.
The glory years
Traffic on the A&BB began to increase substantially in the mid 1930’s. This growth was so immense that the Belt Line at one point operated nine crews working eight to 16 hour shifts, around the clock seven days a week.
By 1945 the railroad operated 42.57 miles of trackage in and around Akron. Nearly 20 of those miles were side tracks.
Dieselization on the A&BB began in the early 1940’s so that by 1952 the railroad had completed the process with the arrival of its last of four new Baldwin locomotives. Those locomotives would also be the last time the A&BB would purchase new locomotives. From that point on locomotives were leased or purchased from other railroads.