City Quotient: Lockbourne Honors Its Canal Heritage

Jeff Darbee
Land of the Locks

The little community of Lockbourne in southern Franklin County has a name that seems made up. What’s the story behind it?

“Lockbourne” is a combination of “lock” and the second syllable of James Kilbourne’s last name. (He was the founder of Worthington and a significant early Ohio politician.) Why “lock”? The Ohio & Erie Canal, built between 1825 and 1832 on a 308-mile route from Cleveland to Portsmouth, wound its way through southern Franklin County.

Knowing the town location would be an important point on the canal, Kilbourne saw a business opportunity and established Lockbourne, naming it in part for himself and in part for the stone locks that let the canal ascend and descend hills. Lockbourne was important because it’s where the Columbus Feeder (which provided both transportation and much-needed water) joined the main canal. Quickly supplanted by railroads from the 1850s on, the canal was fully abandoned after Columbus’ 1913 flood.

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Today, Lockbourne, the “lock and canal center of Central Ohio,” celebrates that heritage and sees its several surviving locks (all of them listed in the National Register of Historic Places) as major historical and recreational assets. With several other communities, it’s working to make canal remains part of a new heritage trail from Buckeye Lake to Portsmouth. For a small town (estimated 2019 population: 246), Lockbourne has a seriously big spirit.

On the Far West Side, north of I-70 and west of I-270, there’s a big train yard that looks like it doesn’t have much going on. What’s there, and why is it so far out of the city?

That’s Buckeye Yard, built in 1969 by the Penn Central Transportation Co., child of the 1968 merger of the New York Central and Pennsylvania railroads. PC, as it was called, promptly went bankrupt six months after Buckeye opened, but the railroad kept operating.

The new yard was an important improvement; it replaced old and cramped Downtown yards and maintenance shops of the Pennsylvania Railroad. For its time, Buckeye was a state-of-the-art “hump” yard for “classifying” freight cars—sorting cars from disparate places and reassembling them into trains going to specific destinations.

Day and night at Buckeye, strings of cars were disconnected while being pushed over a low hill (the “hump”) to roll by gravity into separate tracks from which trains were made up for onward movement. Fast-forward to today, when much “single-car” railroading has been replaced by “unit” trains, where all cars carry a single commodity to a single destination, and “intermodal” trains carrying highway trailers and shipping containers. The hump at Buckeye Yard is still there but shut down several years ago; only a few such yards remain nationwide.

After PC and other bankrupt companies were merged into the eventually very successful Conrail, eastern railroads Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation acquired Buckeye Yard, now called “CSX Columbus.” One of CSX’s five Ohio intermodal terminals is there, and Norfolk Southern uses its part of the yard to store surplus freight cars.

Jeff Darbee is a preservationist, historian and author in Columbus. Send your questions to cityquotient@columbusmonthly.com, and the answer might appear in a future column.

Sources: lockbourneohio.us; ohioexploration.com; remarkableohio.org; Ohio & Erie Canal Southern Descent Historic District National Register nomination form; midamericafreight.org; columbusrailroads.com

This story is from the October 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.