Railroad University: Abandoned Spur Lines Near Colleges

Spur tracks serving industrial outfits used to be much more numerous than they are now, before competition from the trucking industry made many of them unprofitable.

Many colleges and universities in the early 20th century were directly or indirectly served by railroad spurs, some built specifically for the college, others built to serve nearby industries.

Notre Dame & Western Railroad #5352, serving Notre Dame University. Image: Dick Leonhardt
With that in mind, today's blog will be on these railroads and spurs that served universities.

#1.) & #2.) Notre Dame & Western Railroad and St. Mary's Railroad - South Bend, IN
I was notified of these sister lines by Tom Burke, who noticed their earlier omission on my abandoned railroads map.

Image: Notre Dame University Archives
What makes these lines unique is that they actually were separate entities in the railroad world, the Notre Dame & Western Railroad began service in 1902, splitting off from the Michigan Central tracks west of the campus, and continuing east past St. Joseph's Lake into the central heating system of the campus.

On the map in red: The ND&W Railroad spurred off from the Michigan Central east to the campus, while St. Mary's Railroad headed west.
The line's primary operation was to haul coal to the campus, but also transported other materials in addition to people, including those attending ND Football games. The ND&W actually lasted much longer than many other railroad spurs on this list, although excursion trains stopped much earlier. The Michigan Central's successors, New York Central, Penn Central & Conrail all transported coal via the branch, but service ended before Norfolk Southern took over Conrail in 1999.

Efforts to re-open the line lasted as late as 2006, however it was officially abandoned with the tracks removed by 2012.

St. Mary's Railroad had a similar story throughout its life. Given that St. Mary's is a much smaller campus than Notre Dame, it also stands to reason that its railroad was much smaller, less than a half mile in length. Nonetheless, it ran until at least 1990.

St. Mary's Railroad Locomotive. Image: Dennis Schmidt
#3.) Massachusetts Institute of Technology - Cambridge, MA

MIT still has a railroad line running close to its campus, but in earlier times, the campus was also served by a tiny railroad spur serving coal to its HVAC system. In addition, this line connected with numerous spurs to the factories which were once located north of its campus.

A c.1930 map showing the factories north of MIT in Cambridge. Image via Boston Streetcars.
There are a few examples of scarchitecture from the past tracks that are visible today.

The MIT Police Building has an obvious example of scarchitecture from the line was spurred off from the still-existing tracks here.
Despite just one track running over the Charles River, the bridge has two spans, a visible reminder of its past.
#4.) Ohio State University Railroad - Columbus, OH

Map of the line, spurring from what was C&O trackage (now CSX) west of OH-315 to the OSU campus.
You might be beginning to see a common theme with regard to why these university spurs were built, as indeed Ohio State's Railroad spur was also used to haul coal to its heating system. Unlike Notre Dame's, however, it did not get its spur named as a different railroad, it was simply Chesapeake & Ohio's Ohio State branch, beginning service in 1909.

Image: The Lantern (Ohio State's Newspaper) via Rare-Mileage
The line at its peak was roughly 2.5 miles long, and in addition to coal, also hauled materials for the university's expansion, and indeed took passengers to and from OSU Football games from time to time. Despite not being named, OSU did own a couple of their own pieces of equipment for the line, including the diesel crane shown above.

Perhaps the most famous run along the line was 1948's,  “Freedom Train”, which stopped and visited the university, carrying with it original copies of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence. (Rare-Mileage)

With the construction of OH-315 in 1970, along with coal being hauled by truck, the line was abandoned.

#5.) Penn State University - State College, PA

Penn State University's railroad connection via the Bellefonte Central Railroad was actually at once proposed to be much longer than the line which did come to fruition. While only about a mile was built, it was proposed to be part of a longer line between Fairmont, PA and Lemont, PA, slightly over 10 miles long. This was to be part of the Lewisburg & Tyrone Railroad, a Pennsylvania Railroad subsidiary.

A Bellefonte Central Car. Image: onwardstate.com
The Bellefonte Central Railroad served many mining interests near State College, with a line running between Bellefonte and Pine Grove Mills, which had a spur directly serving State College and Penn State, ironically running across from PSU's Department of Geography.

Coal was the dominant commodity for the line, and its largest customer was the university. The fact that it also was a major source of passenger traffic helped keep the line running until 1974. 

Image: Onward State
The spur ended at Fraser St & College Ave near today's College of Engineering Building. 

#6.) Illinois State University - Normal, IL

My fiance's alma-mater had its own coal spur as well, from the original Chicago & Alton Railroad Tracks, which later became the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad, now today owned by Union Pacific.

ISU and Normal, IL on the 1926 USGS Normal Topo Map.
The line ran on what is today School St up to Mulberry St from the mainline. This was abandoned sometime in the 1950's according to Topo Maps.

Just east of the campus ran a much more substantial Illinois Central line, abandoned between Clinton & Oglesby, IL. Today, this is known as the Constitution Trail.

The Constitution Trail at Bloomington, IL (Image: BN Realty)
#7.) Northern Arizona University - Flagstaff, AZ

My own alma mater also had a rail line running adjacent to it, however this line did not serve the college, but was rather one of the last logging railroads in the State of Arizona.

One of two abandoned logging railroads starting from Flagstaff. The other, the Arizona Mineral Belt Railway, was abandoned in 1904.
The Saginaw & Manistee and the Arizona Lumber & Timber Company had a railroad line running from the AT&SF Railway at Flagstaff, extending south approximately 36 miles to Allan Lake Landing. It actually followed a roughly similar path of the Arizona Mineral Belt Railway which came decades before it. This line lasted until 1966, but as a logging road, it only served the interests of the company which built it, and did not have any spurs of its own (other than for logging purposes)

#8.) University of California, Berkeley - Berkeley, CA

The Berkeley Branch of the Central Pacific, later Southern Pacific Railroad is still in service, as a BART Line servicing downtown Berkeley, CA, however now its trackage lies below street level. It opened for service in 1876.

Berkeley, CA Southern Pacific Station. Image: Postcard via eBay
From what is now known today as Emeryville, CA, the line ran to Downtown Berkeley, up Adeline St and Shattuck Av up to Vine St, serving both passenger and freight trains. Today's BART line ends operations on Shattuck a few blocks south, turning west at Hurst Av. 

Image: USGS San Francisco Topo Map, 1899

While the University of California campus wasn't directly served by the line, it was located only a block west of the campus' west end, and the existence of the university was an impetus in the line getting built in the first place.

The relationship between Higher Education and the Railroad Industry certainly goes beyond these lines which indirectly or directly served universities, thus if there's any other historic branch lines that served universities, let me know in the comments. Thanks as always for reading!


  1. There was a short branch off the Fitchburg Railroad in Cambridge, MA that served Harvard University. As far as I know, it was a passenger-only branch. Today, Museum St occupies much of its former right-of-way.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Do you have any more information or links to other information? It wasn't on topo maps dating back to 1893. It's possible it's older than that of course.

  2. Purdue had a railroad that served its locomotive lab. That railroad had a spur that served the old power plant. I think the old power plant was still standing when I went to college there in the early 1970s. https://towns-and-nature.blogspot.com/2018/09/west-lafayette-in-purdue-universitys.html

  3. While I was looking at your abandoned railroad map for the Purdue Railroad, I noticed you are missing the original Monon route through town that did street running on 5th Street. https://towns-and-nature.blogspot.com/2018/01/lafayette-in-monon-street-running.html

  4. University of Illinois also had a locomotive lab. The map is missing the spur that went to it. https://towns-and-nature.blogspot.com/2018/09/urbana-il-university-of-illinois.html

    I think the power plant was on the south side of campus, so it would have had a separate spur.

    1. Dennis, thanks for the comments. Each of the lines you mention have been added to the map!

  5. The Toledo Branch of the former Southern Pacific (Now UP) in Oregon runs west from a wye in downtown Corvallis past the southern edge of Oregon State University. Legend has it that students used to hop freight trains for a ride to the coast, but in the 70's one was killed when his backpack caught the timbering inside a tunnel. Freights still serve a paper mill complex at the coast and there are trains at least weekly going through Corvallis and around the wye to the coast. I don't know whether any commodities or passengers were brought directly to The Beavers' campus by rail.


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