I never understood the lure of trains. Don’t get me wrong. I love trains. I just can’t figure out why. I mean, I was born at the dawn of the Space Age, watched Star Trek when it was still on the air and followed NASA’s lunar program with diligent pride. Heck, I even majored in physics and astronomy, served on the Strasenburgh Planetarium’s 40th Anniversary Task Force and created an official astronomy outreach project (AstronomyTop100.com) that received the official endorsement of the United Nations during the International Year of Astronomy in 2009.
Many were the times when I thought I was finally done with trains. But, like the mob to Michael Corleone, they kept pulling me back in. Back to a past I never knew. Back to a past that was past when my parents were kids. Indeed, it became an obsession early in my marriage, where I would drag my wife (and eventually my children) across abandoned meadows to identify the architectural remains of our region’s industrial past. I dreamed of creating a museum quality diorama in my basement as a tribute to Greater Western New York’s railroads, with a special concentration on the spaghetti-like network of steel ribbon located from Blasdell Junction, through Lackawanna and into South Buffalo. Unfortunately, a chronic back injury kept me stalled. I never got any further than East Salamanca.
Growing up in Blasdell, you couldn’t help but like trains. You woke up each morning to the cheerful chime of today’s arrivals. You went to sleep every night to the mournful cries of the wailing whistles’ slow ritardando as the departing freights faded to the west along the twin lake shore lines of the New York Central and Nickel Plate Railroads. On cold clear winter nights, the crisp air carried that fade to forever, or at least until a new horn signaled the approach to a nearer grade crossing.
At one time, counting shared rights-of-way, up to five Class One railroads crossed and crisscrossed through not more than a quarter mile of Lake Avenue. Each day I went to school, I crossed those tracks. Each Sunday I went to church, I crossed those tracks. Even now, for some reason, I go out of my way to cross those tracks, though the New York Central’s High Line has returned to grade, GB Tower that once guarded the Erie-Nickel Plate crossing has left without a trace and history has consumed many of those wonderful truss monsters that long ago loomed like large catheters feeding the arteries of the Bethlehem Steel complex.
The Lackawanna Railroad has always been my favorite railroad, probably because that’s where I first lived (on Victory Avenue). It was only later in life I would discover, while each derived its name from the same Pennsylvania river, the railroad never ventured into the Steel City, as it terminated at the foot of Main Street in Buffalo. (Yes, yes, I know the Erie-Lackawanna railroad traveled through Lackawanna, but, if you know me, you’d know what I think of that merger.)
Ah, the merger between the infamous Erie Railroad (ironically, given its many journeys into bankruptcy, nicknamed “Old Reliable”) and the pristine Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad (its moniker, “The Route of the Phoebe Snow,” evoking a chaste purity found only through the burning of anthracite, rather than bituminous, coal). Completed in October, 1960, the merger represented the dying breath of a once proud – and routinely profitably – DL&W, done in by Hurricane Diane, from whose 1957 devastation it could never recover. Ironically, the Erie and the DL&W had once been allies in the New York City to Buffalo rail competition, with the DL&W transferring its Buffalo bound freight cars to the Erie in Binghamton. Then, in 1883, the DL&W, no doubt finally justifying the “and Western” in its name, completed its own line from Binghamton to Buffalo. From that day, the two railroads became bitter rivals.
By the way, do you know the biggest obstacle faced by the DL&W in its quest to build its link to Buffalo? None other than Dansville Hill. Rising nearly 900 feet from its base, this hunk of solid rock very nearly proved the undoing of the DL&W’s version of manifest destiny. Still, the combined grit of corporate brass and (primarily) Italian immigrants – aided by the best explosives available at the time – blasted a rock shelf halfway up East Hill that “left a scar entirely across its fair face.”1
Once the DL&W completed its standard gauge iron superhighway to Buffalo, it became the shortest route to the Queen City from New York City; thus, besting the Erie’s broad gauge route in more ways than one. Time tables might not have made it the fastest, thanks again to the slow climb through Dansville, and, indeed, it would be the New York Central that would soon lay claim to the fastest train. And where would this speed record occur?
While pulling the Central’s Empire State Express, Engine 999 became the first steam locomotive to pass the 100 mph barrier when it clocked a top speed of 112½ mph on a special run between Batavia and Buffalo.2 Of course, the day before, on May 9, 1893, it had already become the first vehicle on wheels to surpass 100 mph when it travelled the 69 miles from Rochester to Buffalo in 68 minutes, with an average top-end travel speed of 102 mph.3 Reporters and train officials recorded the official speed record the next day (May 10, 1893) on the return trip as Engine 999 passed through the village of Crittenden in Alden, Erie County.4 Just to complete the Greater Western New York connection, the engineer of Engine 999 heading the Empire State Express was Charlie Hogan of Batavia.5
Unlike its most famous train, the 20th Century Limited, which provided pretty much non-stop service from New York to Chicago (OK, OK, it did stop for refreshments at around midnight in Buffalo), the Empire State Express actually serviced the cities of New York State. The Express was the New York Central’s “New York State” train, traveling from New York City through all the cities of the Erie Canal (that’s from Albany to Buffalo) and on to Niagara Falls. Engine 999 still exists, but, poignantly, it sits like an anachronistic display within the Chicago Museum of Industry, a gateway to the museum’s once famous (and now mostly outdated) model railroad. Perhaps one day Engine 999 will find itself in a more suitable location graced by a model railroad display depicting the true height of 20th century industry (hint: Central Terminal).
Just as the New York Central owned the northern tier of Greater Western New York, it was the Erie and the DL&W battling it out for supremacy in the southern tier. The DL&W had several advantages. Built two decades after the Erie, it could identify profitable municipalities and build a direct route to Buffalo. The Erie, on the other hand, had to re-gauge its track from broad to standard (i.e., the gauge modern railroads use today) and it had to build a reliable route to Buffalo (remember, it originally terminated in Dunkirk).
Therein lay the problem. Its original route through the undulating hills of Allegany County required trains to climb steep grades; hence, slowing them down. In 1905, the Erie Railroad, through its subsidy the Genesee River Railroad, began buying property for its new “River Line,” a 34-mile cutoff between Portage and Cuba.6 Along that line the railroad would have to cross the expansive mile long Genesee River valley in the Town of Caneadea just north of the Town of Belfast in Allegany County.7 This deck girder bridge would rise 141 feet above the valley floor, would extend a total of 3,121 feet and would require 3,871 tons of steel,8 making it, as near as I can tell, the longest railroad bridge ever constructed in Greater Western New York.
But there’s an even more fascinating fact about the Genesee Viaduct. Stretching from one end to the other, this structure dominated the docile valley of the Genesee. In the otherwise tranquil setting of the slow snaking river, the man-made behemoth interrupted the otherwise placid fertility of this quiet preserve. Its twenty-five towers, each with two spindly steel legs resting on a blockish concrete foot, stood as a magnificent testament to progress, industry and economic vitality. Actually, there were only 48 feet, as one tower rose directly over the river. Rather than individual feet, both legs rested on a concrete pier. Except there’s a problem with this particular pier. The company engineer who drew up the plans for the bridge assumed the Genesee River flowed to the south. As a result, the pier formed a point facing north. In reality, the river flows north, so the south end of the pier should have had the point. When Harry Benjamin, who worked on the carpenter gang, pointed this out while the pier was being built, his observations were ignored because Harry “was just a farm boy, not an engineer.”9 As a result, the pier was built incorrectly.
Alas, time marches on, old industries fade, new methods take their place and short-sighted bean counters, perhaps inspired by short-sighted laws, make short-sighted decisions. The results of these decisions forever take away once wondrous and utile resources from all future generations. So, too, it has been with the railroads. When the Erie merged with the weakened DL&W, Erie management had the advantage of vigor, and it was the Lackawanna’s lines that were torn up west of Binghamton. This included the track across the face of Dansville Hill; thus, stripping the chance for rail passengers to ever again experience the “never to be forgotten” view from the summit of East Hill, where, “as far as the eye can reach in almost every direction there opens a panorama that cannot be excelled.”10
Fatefully, what the Erie did to the Lackawanna, Conrail did to the Erie-Lackawanna. Though I am a Lackawanna fan, this revenge tastes just as bitter. The last train on the River Line ran on Mother’s Day in 198011 and the forever frugal Conrail razed the steel superstructure crossing the Genesee Valley the next year. This was before my mind turned once more to trains. I never got a chance to see with my own eyes the Genesee Viaduct in all its glory. The closest I’ve come is the similarly styled viaduct crossing the Genesee at the south end of Letchworth State Park. Historic in its own right, this former Erie Bridge is a gem you can still embrace.
As for much of the rest of the one-time heyday of railroads in Greater Western New York, it’s best to put on your archeologist’s hat, as it will take some effort and a willingness to explore if you want to uncover anything of interest. And there are things to uncover. But it’s not just the discovery that excites; it’s the intrigue of the journey that lures you in.
There’s something positively Indiana Jones-ish about walking through now overgrown fields searching for a clue to a former water tower’s foundation. Of course, nowadays, just unearthing the remnants of an ancient right-of-way brings a glow to my face. For instance, though the Genesee Viaduct no longer hogs the vista of the Genesee Valley between Filmore and Belfast like it once did, traces remain.
I know. I’ve gone there. I’ve traveled down Route 19, one eye on the road, one eye on the river valley. The steel may have been scrapped and sold to Japan12, but the rock – or in this case, concrete – lingers. You can still see the wrong-way pier. And the cement feet, arranged in tidy rows two by two like oh-so-many midget Easter Island statues, still mark the path where the giant once walked, replaced today by an all too quiet ghost.
And speaking of rock, one of these days, while traveling on 390 above Dansville, take a peak across the valley. You’ll see East Hill. And if the light’s right, or if you’re traveling in the winter, you’ll see a stone scar athwart its face. Man might be able to take a bridge away, but only nature will remove that wound. The Dansville Cut endures on East Hill, a tribute to ingenuity, engineering and resolution.
Such is the nature of some hidden gems, like these, that rock best tells the story, both when man shapes rock, and, as we’ll see in the next chapter, most especially when man makes rock.
If you like this story, you’ll love Chris Carosa’s new book 50 Hidden Gems of Greater Western New York. Be sure to check out the book trailer on 50HiddenGems.com and sign up for the GreaterWesternNewYork.com newsletter so you can be the first on your street to find out when the book is published this fall.
1 Bunnell, A. O., Dansville; Historical, biographical, descriptive, Instructor Pub. Co., Dansville, NY, 1902, http://archive.org/stream/cu31924028823791/cu31924028823791_djvu.txt |
2 Squire, Roger L., Erie County Railroads, 1836-1972, Origin and Development, Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, Volume XX, 1972, p.15
3 “Empire State Express NO. 999, Historian’s Note,” Genesee County History Department website, History Stories page, http://www.co.genesee.ny.us/departments/history/empire_state_express_no_999.html |
6 Burt, William D., “Erie’s River Line Part 2: Leap for the Brass Ring,” The Diamond, Volume 5, Number 2, Erie Lackawanna Historical Society, 1990, p.8
7 Pomeroy, Jim, “Caneadea Here and There,” Town of Caneadea website, History page, http://townofcaneadea.org/content/History |
8 “Erie Lackawanna RR,” Allegany County Historical Society website., http://www.alleganyhistory.org/places/towns-and-villages/a-e/caneadea/related-articles/2205-erie-lackawanna-rr |
9 Burt, William D., “Erie’s River Line Part 3: Long Summer on the Cutoff,” The Diamond, Volume 6, Number 1, Erie Lackawanna Historical Society, 1991, p.11
11 “Erie Lackawanna RR”
12 “Erie Lackawanna RR”