Big City Exhibits at a Small Town Museum
Visiting The Bradford Ohio Railroad Museum
By Shelly Calvert
Photos by Jaden Fisher and Matt Bayman
BRADFORD - Bradford, Ohio is one of those little towns that takes a blip to drive through, but once was a bustling place with an important role in history. Located dead-center between Piqua and Greenville, Bradford was a thriving destination for rail travelers and dignitaries, as well as a hot spot for railway workers and train personnel. The current residents of this small rural town have preserved their rich history by creating a surprisingly modern museum.
The Bradford Railroad Museum, which is stationed in a refurbished bank building in the middle of town, gives the railway system— and the history of this town—an interesting and engaging family-friendly place to visit. Admittedly, museums, especially ones about trains, may not be for everyone, but for anyone who gives this little museum a chance, the exhibits, many of which are delightfully interactive, could give a new perspective to the importance of trains in our region. It definitely will change a few minds about what a small town museum looks like. And all bonafide train enthusiasts will enjoy the wealth of information and artifacts displayed here.
Bradford, with a population of just over 1,800, is a quiet rural town now, but in the mid-1850s to 1920s it was an important part of the railway system in this region. It connected already established routes and then split into two lines at Bradford, one going to Chicago and the other to St. Louis. The famous Lincoln Train that traveled from Washington D.C. to Springfield, Illinois in 1865 stopped in Bradford for fuel and water.
So what made this seemingly ordinary town such an attractive place for a large train operation all those years ago? It’s simple. It had 44 acres of land loaded with timber at a time when several of the big rail companies signed an agreement as joint operations. They needed a spot north of Covington, Ohio to improve their services. Bradford, known then as Union City Junction, became the logical choice to connect and grow the railway system going from east to west. It took a lot of wood back then to make railroad ties and to fuel the steam trains. As it grew, the site became a stop-over for railway workers waiting for their next assignment, and it housed a roundhouse for train repairs and storage. It was also a critically located refueling station with plenty of water for steam engines. Eventually a telegraph station was built and Bradford blossomed into a hub of jobs, restaurants, bars and provisional stores. The town even built a YMCA especially to accommodate railway men.
Marilyn Kosier, M.D., is the founder of the museum. She decided to carry out the idea of a railway museum suggested by her father, Herbert Kosier. Dr. Kosier is an eye surgeon who resides in Lancaster, Ohio but her roots are in Bradford and her family was involved with Bradford’s railroad system.
“What makes our museum special is that the displays are all focused on the people of the railways,” said museum director Roger Johnson. “Working on the railway was hard work. There were such a variety of jobs. There were the engineers and brakemen, and the train had its own doctor, as well as chefs and servers for the dining cars.”
Most of the displays at the museum have job descriptions and explanations of the characteristics needed to carry out each railway job. Getting to know the people adds a personal touch to the displays and allows museum visitors to connect to the lively community that existed in Bradford.
While credit for the museum goes to Dr. Kosier and the museum’s board of directors—all of whom had a vision for something special—Exhibit Concepts in Vandalia is the creative entity that made the displays captivating.
“We are proud of what we have accomplished here,” museum board member Sue Vickroy commented. “We invite people to come and see a museum that looks like one they would find in a big city.”
Indeed the Bradford Railroad Museum has thoughtfully included something for every age group: 130 years of history told through video, photographs and artifacts from the railroad operation; a “yard model” with working trains and a scaled version of what the Bradford railway station looked like in its hey day; a play area for children, including a Thomas the Tank play table; a replica of a dining car including a display of the dishes used to serve passengers; and a small gift shop with items for younger and older railway enthusiasts.
The old telegraph station is represented with working artifacts, an educational display for sure. History is artfully laid out as visitors wind through the exhibits. From the inception of the railway operation until its final days, the story is told with honor and beauty: a modern presentation that draws its guests into long ago days.
Just building the railway system was a back-breaking endeavor accomplished by men, horses and wagons. Iron was needed for the track, as well as stone ballasts, used to support rail ties. All of these supplies were extremely heavy, not to mention the eight-pound sledge-hammers the men swung twenty times per minute for about nine hours a day! For one-mile of track it took 6,400 fish plates, 3,200 ties, 330 steel rails and 12,800 spikes. Now imagine thousands of miles of track across Ohio alone and the enormity of building the railway system becomes impressive.
Many Bradford residents still remember their fathers, uncles and neighbors working long hard hours as engineers, brakemen and refueling operators after the railway came to life. Union City Junction became known as Richmond Junction as the railway expanded. In 1866, it was determined that Richmond Junction had grown enough to establish an official post office. Residents decided that a new, official name for the junction was also in order. They named the town after railway postal agent Tom Bradford.
By the 1870s thousands of miles of track had been laid in the United States, springing up cities and connecting industries and towns at a speed that far exceeded the previous canals and horse-drawn wagon modes of travel. Early steam trains could only go about 100 miles before refills. Watering stations were vital to keeping the Iron Horses running. Wood fuel and train repairs were also common reasons for stopping at the Bradford Railway, a strategic location between big cities.
Toward the end of the 1870s, coal became the fuel of choice. According to one of the Museum’s visual accounts of this next time period in history, the coal “unfortunately brought a whole set of unpleasantries to town. The storm cloud of filth the locomotives pumped in the air draped everything in a fine layer of soot. Even a simple task like hanging out laundry became quite a grimy conundrum.”
As people flooded into Bradford, the soot wasn’t the only dirty business to envelop the town. Bradford gained the nickname “Little Chicago.” Everything was covered in dirt and grime. The plank sidewalks would turn to mud when it rained. People had to be on the look out for pigs and other livestock that would often escape their holding pens. And then, by 1901, immoral activity such as drinking, gambling and seeking out the company of women, began to define the town as a very rowdy place. To solve this problem, Bradford built a YMCA and opened The Stag Club, a place for the moral and physical advancement of single young men. The Stag Club became so popular that men from all around the region joined. With a cleaned-up reputation, Bradford continued to thrive.
A telegraph tower was built as another milestone in the town’s railway history. Morse code transmissions improved communication, bringing the operation even more up-to-date. Diesel engines were powering down the rails and Western Union installed equipment over the entire Pennsylvania Railroad system to keep trains on time and in check. In Bradford, three towers were required to keep track of the trains coming in and out of the station. This time of prosperity, though, was about to take an unfortunate turn.
On August 23, 1920, the citizens of Bradford awoke to the sound of alarms after two young men discovered a fire at Arnold’s Lumber, according to the museum’s records. Firefighters from neighboring towns and the Pennsylvania Railroad firefighters came to the aid of the town in an attempt to save stores, but the fire was so massive that everyone had no choice but to flee for their safety. By the time the fire was finally out, a major part of the business district was gone and some families were left homeless and had to leave town. Even the coveted YMCA was a total loss.
The fire left a lasting impact on the town, and yet more destruction came roughly five years later. Railway consolidations furthered the decline of Bradford’s importance. By 1931 the yard had about 300 locomotives and 3,000 freight cars out of commission, left to rust. The roundhouse, which was a massive structure for storage and train repairs became obsolete. Crews were eliminated, and eventually trains would only stop for fuel and water. By the 1950s, the roundhouse was abandoned and demolished. It was the beginning of the end for Bradford’s railway days.
In 1983 the junction tower closed forever and two years later, Locomotive 6369 slowly rolled through town to pull up the rails. Men who had worked on the railway—some of them for more than 30 years— sullenly removed the last existing pieces of the track. Bradford’s long run as a railway boomtown came to an end.
“When I was in my 40s, I went across the street and got onto one of the engines,” relayed Vickroy, whose childhood years were filled with strictly enforced prohibition from going anywhere near the trains or any of the railway workers (because of their reputations and a fear for her safety). Her intent was to surprise and honor her father by waving to him from the train. He was employed by the railway for many years and the family lived across the street from one of the tracks. Seeing his adult daughter on one of the engines sent protective waves of anger through Vickroy’s father and he was not pleased. “Susie, I told you never to crawl on a train!” he yelled.
These memories are all that remain of Bradford’s Railway days. But the town’s historians have enough artifacts, stories, dates and memories to fill one of the most well-done museums in the state. It is worth hopping into your twenty-first-century mode of transportation with your family, a school or church group, or just by yourself and take a little trip back in time to when locomotives ruled.
The Bradford Railway Museum has paved the way for an extraordinary experience. The Bradford Railway Museum is located at 200 N. Miami Ave., Bradford, OH 45308. Due to COVID safety protocols, the museum has limited hours and restrictions on the number of people allowed in the museum at one time. Hours are Saturday only from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., March through December.