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Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad

...and other National Park Service units in northern Ohio

By Robert & Kandace Tabern, Email:

Trip taken: June 2014 - Article written: November 11, 2014

Welcome to Ohio!  Today, co-authors Robert & Kandace Tabern will tell you about four great National Park Service worth your visit.

From our previous TrainWeb blogs, you may have gathered we are both heavily involved with the National Park Service's Trails & Rails program, which puts volunteer interpreters aboard Amtrak
trains across the country to present an education program in the lounge car. In fact, it was almost two years ago now that we proposed starting a new program on the Southwest Chief between Chicago, Illinois and La Plata, Missouri. We were able to convince Amtrak, the National Park Service, the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation (APRHF), Texas A&M University, and the owners of the Depot Inn & Suites to enter into a unique partnership to make this a reality for passengers. We have managed the program of 30 volunteers since then, which we are proud to say has reached out to over 40,000 Amtrak passengers so far. You may have also gathered from our previous writings that we enjoy traveling to national parks and hiking as much as we like riding trains. So, it was only fitting that we combined our biggest travel passions and finally visited four national parks of northern Ohio, with the "crown jewel" being Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which has a rail line owned and operated by the National Park Service - the only spot in the country you can really find something like this!

Co-authors Robert & Kandace Tabern take a ride in the dome car on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad in June 2014
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

To have the convenience of a car for our quick trip and to avoid getting on and off the train in the wee hours of the morning at Cleveland, we decided to drive from our home in the Chicago area to our various destinations in this trip report. However, if you decide to be more adventurous than us... you can use either Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited, which operates from Chicago to New York City/Boston via Toledo and Cleveland, or Amtrak's Capitol Limited, which operates from Chicago to Washington, DC via Toldeo and Cleveland. There are several rental car options available near the stations in Toledo and Cleveland... just make sure they are open when you expect to arrive.

After a relatively uneventful overnight drive on Interstate 80/90 through Illinois and Indiana, our first stop was at Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial in Put-in-Bay, Ohio. This memorial has two purposes: to honor those who fought in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812 and to celebrate the long-lasting peace among Britain, Canada, and the United States. Since the memorial is located on South Bass Island in the middle of Lake Erie, visitors must either take a boat or fly on a private plane to reach the site. We decided to take the Jet Express II boat from Port Clinton, Ohio, because of its speed and frequent service. We caught the first departure of the morning at 8:45am.

Co-authors pose with the Jet Express II Ferry Boat in Port Clinton, Ohio before getting ready to cross Lake Erie
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

Arriving on the boat at Put-in-Bay, Ohio
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

The crossing of Lake Erie to access Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial took less than 30 minutes one-way with Jet Express II and cost less than $40 per adult for the round-trip... not too unreasonable. There was some brief narration on the boat too... guides talked about how Lake Erie is the narrowest and shallowest of all five Great Lakes. We didn't know that! We also learned most visitors spend the day on South Bass Island touring various shops and sites, or even stay overnight in one of the many bed and breakfasts located there, but we were there just for a few hours to specifically tour the national park site.

The memorial itself, completed in 1903, is a 352-foot-high Doric column that rises over Lake Erie. The name "Perry" refers to Oliver Hazard Perry, who led Americans in the Battle of Lake Erie. Six naval officers (three Americans and three British), who were slain during the battle, are buried under the rotunda of the memorial. So what is there to do there? First, we highly recommend visitors check out the National Park Service audio/visual presentation that explains the battle. One should also stop by the small museum and visitor center area. For a nominal fee, take an elevator up the column (there are some stairs involved, too!) to get a sweeping view of Lake Erie. On a clear day, like we had on our trip, you can actually see parts of mainland Canada. The United States-Canada border lies just five miles north of South Bass Island.

Co-authors pose at the entrance of Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

A statue of Oliver Hazard Perry inside the Visitor Center with the Doric column in the background
(Photo by Kandace Tabern)

On a clear day, visitors can see the mainland of Canada in the distance, 352 feet above Lake Erie
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

After a quick trip out to Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial... we hit the road again... heading further east on Ohio State Highway 2 and Interstate 90, towards Cleveland.

Ohio State Highway 2 connects Port Clinton with Cleveland
(Photo by Kandace Tabern)

After quickly bypassing Cleveland before the afternoon rush hour set in, our second stop of the day was at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio. The site preserves the property associated with the 20th President of the United States. Garfield acquired the home in 1876 to accommodate his large family. The home, called Lawnfield by reporters, was the site of the first successful "front porch campaign" in 1880. James A. Garfield was President from March 4, 1881, until his death on September 19, 1881. Four years after his assassination, the Memorial Library wing was added to the house by Mrs. Garfield and her family; this set the precedent for future presidential libraries.

The exterior of James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

A closer view of the home of the 20th President of the United States, James A. Garfield
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

A view inside the James A. Garfield home
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

After an overnight stop at a chain motel in Akron, we got up early the next morning and headed to what had been the main purpose of our trip - a visit to Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The park was designed to preserve and reclaim the rural landscape along the Cuyahoga River between Akron and Cleveland. The park is administered by the National Park Service and is the only national park in Ohio. It was established in 1974 as Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area and was designated as a national park in 2000. By the way, we learned Cuyahoga means "crooked river" in Mohawk. Visitors should stop by the park's visitor center to get a brochure and park newspaper and learn about all of the sightseeing options.

At the entrance of Cuyahoga Valley National Park

(Photo by Kandace Tabern)

If you are a rail enthusiast, the only real way to see Cuyahoga Valley National Park is by train. In fact, the National Park Service owns and operates its own track through the park. According to volunteer tour guides on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad, the track right-of-way dates to around 1880. Ownership has transitioned from the Valley Railway to Cleveland Terminal & Valley Railroad (CT&V), to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, to the Chessie System. The Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad operates their excursion trains in cooperation with the National Park Service and the Wheeling and Lake Erie Railway (WLE).

There are a number of different types of excursions that the Cuyhoga Valley Scenic Railroad operates (including a beer tasting train!), but we decided to do the regular 3-hour morning scenic round trip from the Rockside Station (located at 7900 Old Rockside Road in Independence, Ohio) to the Indigo Lake Station (located on Riverview Road in Peninsula, Ohio). Tickets were sold at the Rockside Station with reasonable prices for such a lengthy scenic trip. Adults could choose from regular coach seating ($16), "first class" seating in the lower level of the Dome Car ($21), or "premium" seating in the upper level of the Dome Car ($26). We wanted to really see the park and enjoy the vintage Dome, so we bought two upper level tickets.

Rockside Station, the first boarding point in Cuyahoga Valley National Park for the scenic railroad

(Photo by Robert Tabern)

Our train arrives at the Rockside Station
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

Author Robert Tabern poses with the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad's dome car
(Photo by Kandace Tabern)

Stairs leading to the upper level of the dome car; the $5 premium upgrade includes coffee/tea and snacks.
(Photo by Kandace Tabern)

We got mixed information amongst the volunteers as to the history of the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad's dome car, but some research after getting home on the Akron Railroad Club's website revealed it was originally built for the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad for use on the California Zephyr. The car saw service on the Rio Grande Zephyr that operated between Denver and Ogden, Utah from 1970 until 1983. It was acquired by the National Park Service in 2011 so passengers can get the best views of the park possible.

Besides the dome car, the equipment roster of the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad is quite a unique mix. The group owns an observation/bar/sleeping/lounge car called the St. Lucie Sound, which was acquired in 1995 from the ex-Florida East Coast Railway; it is mainly used in charter service. The group's dining car, the Lonestar, was actually a rebuilt circus train car. And, last but not least, some of the lightweight coaches go back to 1939 and were used by the Santa Fe, Penn Central, and other railroads.

A National Park Service volunteer mentions points of interest in the dome car
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

A rainy day didn't stop us from enjoying views from the upper level of the dome car
(Photo by Kandace Tabern)

"First class" seating is offered in the lower level of the dome car, but for $5 more - move to the upper level!
(Photo by Kandace Tabern)

Great views of the Cuyahoga River valley and a high bridge from the windows of the dome car
(Photo by Kandace Tabern)

It was after Noon by the time we arrived back from the excursion through Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and we had a long drive back to Chicago that night, but we decided to make one final stop - Canton, Ohio. First Ladies National Historic Site, located there, is one of the newest units of the National Park Service. Two properties are preserved at this site, the home of First Lady Ida Saxton McKinley and the seven story 1895 City Bank Building. The buildings and museum preserve the lives and accomplishments of our nation's First Ladies. We had time to take the tour through First Lady McKinley's home.

Co-author poses in front of First Ladies National Historic Site in Canton, Ohio
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

A view inside the home of First Lady McKinley, at First Ladies National Historic Site
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

And yes, despite the long drive home to Chicago from Canton, we still made time to stop off in Bowling Green, Ohio and treat ourselves for dinner at one of our favorite greasy spoons - Waffle House. While they may be everywhere in the South, they are few and far between in the Upper Midwest!  You don't really find them anywhere north of I-80.

Yes, a stop on the way home at Waffle House in Bowling Green, Ohio
(Photo by Robert Tabern)

We hope you enjoyed our quick journey through four National Park Service units in northern Ohio... and especially our ride on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad through Cuyahoga Valley National Park. As noted, we did this trip over the course of just two days... mainly due to our busy work schedules and other commitments during the summer months. We encourage those who can allow more time at all of these sites to go ahead and do this. There was a lot we didn't get the chance to see and will look forward to going back and experiencing on future trips.


Jet Express Ferry | Perry's Victory & International Peace Memorial James A. Garfield National Historic Site

Cuyahoga Valley National ParkCuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad

First Ladies National Historic Site | Waffle House - Bowling Green, OH


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