Chasing the Iron Ghosts of Blasdell Junction

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A different year. A different time. A different era. A different culture.

Dry cinder and billowy steam painted the surroundings. The clanking and grinding of metal against metal pierced the air. The steady distant drone of heavy industry Blasdell Junction - RR Sign Amidst Nature_300provided background color for the audio pallet.

Within less than one square mile of reshaped earth lay more than twenty-two linear miles of railroad. Stacked one above another, the tracks featured motive power from five Class 1 railroads and one industrial switcher.

Squeezed within a quarter mile wide swath of land included: two junction tracks (formerly the Terminal Railroad that bypassed the busy railroad yards of the City of Buffalo) and the four track mainline of the New York Central; the two track mainline of the New York, Chicago and St. Louis (Nickel Plate Road); the single track branchline of the Erie’s Southwestern Division; the double track branchline and two interchange tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad; the double track branchline of the Lehigh Valley Railroad; and, an industrial spur of Bethlehem Steel’s South Buffalo Railway.

Cartographers have called this montage of railroading lore Blasdell Junction. At its peak, hundreds of trains traveled through it and interchanged in it each day. Such name trains as the Twentieth Century Limited, the Erie Limited and the Nickel Plate Limited sped through it on their way to and from Buffalo. To its south lay the open road to New York’s Southern Tier, western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Chicago and points beyond. To its north loomed Lackawanna, the New York Central’s Seneca Yard and, beyond that, the City of Buffalo. To its west lay the crowded storage tracks of the South Buffalo Railway and the great Bethlehem Steel complex. To its east, in a dramatic change of mood, flourished the tranquil village of Blasdell.

The forces of economic change have left their mark on Blasdell Junction. Today, Conrail runs on the three track ex-PC ex-NYC mainline. It also uses the now single-tracked ex-PC ex-Penn ex-Terminal Railroad bypass to double back into Seneca Yard. Norfolk Southern travels along today’s single tracked ex-NW ex-NYC&StL mainline. Buffalo Southern, a seldom used short-line, inhabits the weed plagued ex-Erie mainline. Only the South Buffalo Railway remains as it stood years before, albeit with less activity.

That accounts for the rail that remains. Much of the original roadbed no longer exists. More than a generation ago, the NYC dropped its use of the elevated junction tracks connecting to its mainline at Blasdell Junction. Only a portion of elevated roadbed and the truss bridges over the ex-Erie and ex-NYC&StL mainlines survive. Penn’s interchange track with the NYC&StL has passed into history. The other Penn line and its neighboring LV branchline have both gone to weed. Only a secluded fragment of the elevated roadbed endures and half of the tandem truss and girder bridges linger hauntingly over the ex-Erie branchline, the half over the ex-NYC&StL mainlines recently having been removed to provide better clearance for Norfolk Southern.

Walking along these forsaken roadbeds instills a sense of tragedy within one’s soul. Of course, one cannot overcome the blunt logic of economics. Yet, the nostalgia for the Junction persists. Nowadays, Blasdell Junction offers no junction trackage. The major interchanges take place a few miles to the north under the Tift Street Bridge. Blasdell Junction can only offer through trains, the south end of Conrail’s Seneca Yard and, as always, South Buffalo’s single industrial spur.

For the railway aficionado, the lure of the past overwhelms. You feel the rumble of the Pennsy steamers as you walk among the weeds atop the manmade embankment. The blare of an imaginary horn shrieks alarm as the specter of a LV diesel rides through the now-graffitied truss bridge. A blurry vision of a powerful Nickel Plate Berkshire belches soot and water when it grinds through the crossover at GB Tower with a short Erie freight waiting patiently in the hole. You immerse yourself into the American industrial might that once enveloped Blasdell Junction and see not one, but three separate New York Central trains on two different levels fly by the intimidated cars stopped on Lake Avenue. You smile. Your inside tingles Blasdell Junction - Rails to Horizon_300with a pleasantly fuzzy sensation. You take a slow deep breath and again smell the acrid air of steelmaking and grimy rail dust.

But the clickety-clack of a hotshot container train wakes you from this wistful dream. For a moment, the squeaking of rail and the low rush of the train satisfies. Then, as suddenly, it is gone.

A gentle silence once more descends upon Blasdell Junction. Soon, as the ears tune themselves anew, the sounds of wildlife fill the healthy air. The spirit of Blasdell Junction, for an instant rekindled, has, like the Junction itself, returned to Nature.

Comments

  1. Chris Carosa says:

    Author’s Note: I originally wrote this on April 12, 1995, at least according to my computer. This explains the Conrail reference and not the current day CSX reality (as well as the use of now dormant Seneca Yard.) I may have written it beforehand, say, in the summer of 1993. At that time, I hiked the trails along Blasdell Junction for two hours with my brother’s SLR camera (these are but two of the many picture I snapped). I saw, heard and smelled all that nature provided, but my senses experienced very few trains. I grew up here and went to school less than a quarter mile a day. Back in the 1960’s, this junction was still a very busy railroad center (scary busy, but that’s another story). That’s how I’ll always remember it.

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