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Great Railroad Stations - Tonawanda, NY

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Great Railroad Stations 

by John C. Dahl

Tonawanda, New York

The first railroad between Buffalo and Niagara Falls was laid down relatively early in the railroad era, 1836.  The Albany to Buffalo route was merged into one company across the state in 1853.  Later, in 1869 the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad was formed by rail tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, consolidating his rail properties from New York City to Buffalo.  The Buffalo to Suspension Bridge (Niagara Falls) line paralleled the Military Road of 1801.  There is no record of a previous station structure in Tonawanda until the 1870 station was built.  The Tonawandas (Tonawanda and its sister community across the Erie canal, North Tonawanda) were then very prominent manufacturing and shipping points on the canal, with lumber the most important commodity.  Before the turn of the century, the Tonawandas would become the world's largest lumber port.

Constructed in a style of architecture called "Steamboat Gothic" the first Tonawanda depot continues today to be a useful structure, housing the Historical Society of the Tonawandas.  Intricate wooden gingerbread details under the end roof gables depict squirrels and ivy.  On one end of the building's roof, fastened to a post, was the whimsical figure of a man playing a flute, with squirrels running around his feet.  Wood carvers from the carousel works of the Alan Herschell Company in North Tonawanda were employed to accomplish this unique folk-art.

For some fifty years, the small brick depot served its home town well.  Wooden benches lined the inside walls, and a great iron pot belly stove provided heat in winter.  Willard Dittmar, curator and director of the Historical Society, recalls as a youngster ice skating on the frozen Erie Canal, and then coming into the depot to warm up by the old stove.  The original operator's bay window was later converted into the front door vestibule.  The station waiting room doors were long ago bricked up.  Even today, the original locations of the doors facing Main St. can be seen in the brick. At the north end of the building is located another door, used by the agent for baggage.  Wooden wainscoting on the interior walls is still visible in some places.

The station is located on its original site, on a triangular piece of property bounded by Main, Fletcher, and Grove Streets.  The Central's tracks were situated on the east side of Main Street in Tonawanda and Webster Street in North Tonawanda.  This arrangement became increasingly congested as the communities grew around the turn of the century.  Long freight trains and frequent passenger trains clogged the many crossings.  Danger to pedestrians, horse and buggy, and later motorists became intolerable.  Train speeds were also unacceptable to the railroad as the line had became a vital artery between the Buffalo and Niagara Falls industrial complexes.  In 1917 work was initiated to relocate the Central's tracks from the city streets.

After the track relocation project was completed, passenger train service was discontinued to this station on June 11, 1922.  The building was used variously as an American Legion Post, then as a temporary school house after the Delaware Street school in Tonawanda burned, and then for some thirty-four years as the public library.  Luckily, the railroad had ignored early city requests to demolish the station after the tracks were removed.  Additions to the rear of the building were made in the 1930's.   In 1964 the library relocated to a new building and the structure was turned over to the Historical Society for use as a museum.

(Note: I would like to thank Willard Dittmar of the Historical Society of the Tonawandas for providing information used to prepare this article.)

New York Central and Hudson River Railroad

Tonawanda, NY September 24, 1995.

 

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