A bridge full of history is hidden in Willshire in one of its many wooded areas. (DH Media/Jim Langham)
A bridge full of history is hidden in Willshire in one of its many wooded areas. (DH Media/Jim Langham)

WILLSHIRE – It takes a good look but the secret of the establishment of young Willshire can still be seen about a half mile north of town in the woods surrounding the St. Marys River. There, a trail and eventually a railroad bridge stretches across the river on the west side of Ohio 49.

Across the road, what looks like a trail on the edge of a large field bordering the north side of a woods stretches to the east. However, a study of the combination of the bridge and the trail eventually makes it plain that this is once where one of the first railroads in the area passed through.

The history book established by the Van Wert County Historical Society states that the establishment of the railroad to Willshire launched the beginning of what was, at one time, an active downtown area.

“Since the completion of the railroad to Willshire, the business of the town had grown very rapidly,” states the history book. “There were two large hardware store establishments and two large drugstores. A third mercantile opened and also a stock of dry goods, clothing and boots and shoes by Koeple and Lockhart.”

Other businesses that flourished following the establishment of the railroad included two bakeries, two hotels, three wagon and carriage shops, three blacksmith shops, two merchant mills, two saw-mills, one stave and heading factory, one harness shop, two shoe shops, two marble shops and two churches.

The railroad, most commonly referred to early as the Clover Leaf, also incorporated the purchase of the Toledo, Cincinnati and St.Louis Railroad, referred to by its promoters as the, “Little Giant Line.”

Whitey O’Daffer, in his History of Van Wert County, noted that in 1878 a group of businessmen in Delphos formed a company known at the time as the Toledo, Delphos and Burlington Railroad Company. O’Daffer stated that the objective was construction of a narrow-gauge railroad from Toledo to Kokomo, Indiana by way of Delphos.

“Having secured the right-of-way for 26 miles between Delphos and Willshire, the first locomotive ran across the route on March 14, 1880,” stated O’Daffer. “The early result of the railroad was increased volume of business for the Delphos businessmen.”

By 1900, O’Daffer said that the bulk of the eastbound traffic was delivered from Willshire to the Erie Railroad in Ohio City. At that point, most of the Clover Leaf’s grain shipment moved east and north to Toledo or Cleveland or Buffalo.

Eventually, the Nickel Plate Railroad purchased all of the Clover Leaf stock on Aug. 1, 1925. Then, on June 1, 1948, this road was purchased by Norfolk and Western Railroad Company.

“The last steam engine to run over this road was pulling a 40 car freight going east on July 20, 1959,” observed O’Daffer. “The last passenger train pulled by a steam engine made its final eastern run on Sept. 30, 1938.”

Once in a while, photographers, hikers and local historians will climb the steps on to the bridge that once supported trains making their way through the small village of Willshire. Today all is still, but a footprint of history still lies in the woods north of Willshire, symbolic of the settling of the small western Van Wert County village.