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Historian's Corner GIF This page is devoted to some of the many historical articles about railroading in the Western New York area. This installment was written by Donald L. Pevsner, a New York transplant now residing in North Carolina. As more articles are added, old ones will be archived. So sit back, or feel free to print out, and enjoy the rich railway heritage of Western New York.


by: Donald L. Pevsner
         Buffalo, New York has always been a major railroad city. Before the New York State Thruway and the jet airplane took the business away, the most important passenger rail market in New York State was the Buffalo-New York City market. During the past 150-odd years, eight different routes developed to serve this crucial market: all of them scenic. Let's pay a visit to bygone days, and see how you could get there in style:

          *NEW YORK CENTRAL RAILROAD: Largest of them all, passenger traffic began with completion of the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad, which connected New York City to Rensselaer (and west via ferry to Albany), on October 3, 1851. Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt's colossus developed into a four-track main line most of the way between New York City and Cleveland, OH, and fielded such famous trains as the “TWENTIETH CENTURY LIMITED” (which, alas, stopped in Buffalo only to change crews en route to Chicago in its later years) and the daylight “EMPIRE STATE EXPRESS”. The New York State Thruway, opened on December 15, 1955, paralleled the New York Central mainline, and was heavily-subsidized with tax dollars. Against the private passenger car on a 436-mile route, rail service stood little chance of profitability. On May 1, 1971, most of the nation's rail passenger service was taken-over by AMTRAK, whose "Empire Service" continues today with the only passenger trains between Buffalo and New York City, over tracks now owned by CSX and Metro-North. Scenic highlights include the Mohawk and Hudson River Valleys, all the way from Utica to New York City.

          *DELAWARE, LACKAWANNA & WESTERN RAILROAD: Built beginning in 1851 to haul anthracite coal from the mountains near Scranton, PA to both Buffalo and New York City, the Lackawanna fielded the "LACKAWANNA LIMITED" as its premier train. On November 15, 1949, its heavyweight, steam-powered consist was replaced by a diesel-powered, streamlined train named the "PHOEBE SNOW". The route to Hoboken, NJ was a scenic feast: east to Mount Morris, NY; south over famed Dansville Hill to Bath; east to Corning, Elmira and Binghamton; south to Scranton, PA; then southeast and east again through the Pocono Mountains and rural western New Jersey to Hoboken. Four enormous concrete bridges were built in Pennsylvania and New Jersey between 1911-1915 that have been engineering "wonders of the world" from that time until today. The Erie-Lackawanna merger of 1960 resulted in the abandonment of the Lackawanna main line west of Binghamton, excepting segments between Buffalo and Lancaster; Greigsville and Groveland; and Wayland and Painted Post, now operated by small short-line railroads. If you drive NY Route 17 east of Elmira, you will be traveling over long stretches of the former Lackawanna right-of-way that were acquired by NYSDOT after the line’s abandonment. The "PHOEBE SNOW" to Buffalo was eliminated in 1963 and rerouted to Chicago, on which route it finally died on November 27, 1966. Connecting service from Buffalo to Hornell lasted until May 23, 1969. On January 6, 1970, the last surviving Chicago-Hoboken "LAKE CITIES" died as well. East of Binghamton, the Canadian Pacific Railway now owns the line to Scranton, PA; two Pennsylvania counties own the line from there to the Delaware Water Gap at Slateford Junction; and New Jersey Transit owns the rest of the line to Hoboken, NJ (with 28.45 miles of track missing in western New Jersey that needs to be relaid to re-establish a through line).

         *ERIE RAILROAD: Operated through Jersey City-Buffalo service, with a later connection at Hornell, from 1852-1951. Its route through New York State included splendid scenery along the Upper Delaware River between Port Jervis and Binghamton, after which it roughly paralleled its Lackawanna rival west to Buffalo. After the Erie-Lackawanna merger, its Buffalo route used a combination of the Lackawanna from Hoboken to Corning and the Erie from there to Buffalo, crossing the spectacular Portage Viaduct at the southern edge of Letchworth State Park. It all ended on May 23, 1969. Norfolk Southern now owns the trackage from Buffalo to Binghamton, and leases it to a short-line railroad from there to Port Jervis, after which Metro-North owns the rails onward to Hoboken, NJ.

          *LEHIGH VALLEY RAILROAD: Home of the famed "BLACK DIAMOND" daylight train and "MAPLE LEAF" overnight train, the Lehigh Valley had a markedly different route. It ran east from Buffalo to Manchester and Geneva, NY; then turned south via Ithaca to Sayre, PA, and southeast from there to the Wilkes-Barre, PA area along the beautiful Susquehanna River. Last, the Lehigh River Gorge and Lehigh Valley were traversed to Easton, PA, with New York's Pennsylvania Station reached after a crossing of rural New Jersey. The LV was another former anthracite coal road, whose through passenger service lasted from May, 1876 until February 4, 1961 (the "MAPLE LEAF"). Its daylight "BLACK DIAMOND" died on May 11, 1959, ending the last chance of daylight vistas along the route. A short-line railroad now owns the line from Victor to East Shortsville, and Norfolk Southern owns the rails from Ithaca to Sayre, PA, after which two short-line railroads own or lease them as far as Wilkes-Barre. From there, NS owns the line the rest of the way to suburban New Jersey.

         *PENNSYLVANIA RAILROAD: The PRR provided the most circuitous routing of the eight, running south to Olean, NY; then south and southeastward via Emporium and Williamsport to Harrisburg, PA, through hundreds of miles of remote Pennsylvania mountain and valley scenery. A swift connection was made at Harrisburg for New York City passengers, while the Buffalo train continued south to York and Baltimore, MD. This “BUFFALO DAY EXPRESS" made its last run on April 30, 1971: one day before AMTRAK assumed operation of nearly all of the U.S. passenger trains that it wanted. Norfolk Southern now owns the entire line, but leases the section from Machias Junction, NY to Driftwood, PA to a short-line railroad.

         *NEW YORK, WEST SHORE & BUFFALO RAILROAD: An 1883 relic of ruthless railroad competition between the Pennsylvania and New York Central Railroads, this line paralleled the New York Central all the way from Weehawken, NJ to Buffalo, running on the opposite side of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers. The NYC absorbed it about 1885. Through passenger service from Buffalo over the "West Shore" began on January 1, 1884, and lasted until about 1918, though isolated passenger service west of Albany lasted until 1934. However, you could ride the line between Albany and Weehawken, NJ until October, 1958, receiving a different perspective of the Hudson River. (The remaining West Shore commuter service between West Haverstraw and Weehawken was discontinued in December, 1959.) The line is entirely gone between Buffalo and Rotterdam Junction, NY (a few miles west of Schenectady), except for a freight bypass of Rochester, but remains the most important CSX freight line into its sprawling New Jersey yards.

         *NEW YORK CENTRAL "AUBURN ROAD": A scenic branch line between Rochester and Syracuse offered a slower option, via Canandaigua, Geneva and Auburn, NY. Faster, through trains provided travel at both ends of the branch line. Passenger service ended on May 19, 1958. A short-line railroad now owns the line from Canandaigua to Syracuse, but the tracks are gone between Rochester and Canandaigua.

          *A “TIME WARP”: NEW YORK CENTRAL RAILROAD and NEW YORK, ONTARIO & WESTERN RAILWAY (connecting at Oneida, NY): Only intrepid railroad enthusiasts and rural scenery-lovers would use this route, but the results were well worth it. They took the modern New York Central for a fast ride to Oneida, NY; then connected with the meandering O&W train, originating in Oswego, from there to Weehawken, NJ, via Norwich, Sidney, Walton, the Sullivan County Catskills, Middletown, Cornwall, and finally Weehawken (the NYO&W had trackage rights south of Cornwall over the New York Central’s “West Shore” line.) NYO&W passenger service north of Walton did not survive World War II, though it operated south from Walton until 1948; then from Roscoe until all passenger service ended on September 10, 1953. Everything on the line was right out of the 1890’s, with the little passenger stations still lit by oil lamps until the 1950’s and the tiny hamlets which it served looking just like Norman Rockwell paintings. The entire NYO&W was abandoned on March 29, 1957, and torn-up shortly thereafter. While it lasted, though, it was a totally-unique railroad experience. Today, tens of thousands of railroad enthusiasts who were not even born when the NYO&W turned its last wheel have made it into a genuine “cult” railroad, with regular bus tours of its former scenic highlights and numerous books on its many historic treasures. As with the Lackawanna route farther west, NYSDOT purchased long stretches of the NYO&W right-of-way after abandonment, between Cadosia and Fallsburg, and built the NY Route 17 “Quickway” over it. You can visit a small NYO&W Museum in downtown Roscoe, where Route 17 has completely eliminated the old station area and tracks.

*There were several other potential routes, though multiple train-changes made these suitable for railfans-only, for the most part:

          (1)New York Central east from Buffalo to either Syracuse or Utica; then the Lackawanna from either city to Binghamton, with a further change to the Lackawanna or Erie to Hoboken. DL&W passenger service from Utica to Binghamton lasted until April 29, 1950, while its service from Syracuse (with a change of stations there) lasted until September 15, 1958.

          (2)New York Central east from Buffalo to Rome or Utica; then NYO&W Rome or Utica Branches to its mainline, and a connection on to Weehawken, NJ. These O&W services did not survive World War II.

          (3)Lackawanna or Erie east from Buffalo to Binghamton, changing there to the Delaware & Hudson to Oneonta, where a further connection was made to the matchless Catskill Mountain Branch (former Ulster & Delaware) of the New York Central on to Kingston. Finally, a connection was made at Kingston to the River Division (West Shore) of the New York Central, to Weehawken, NJ. The Oneonta-Kingston line was one of the most scenic in the nation, and its passenger service lasted until March 31, 1954. A dedicated group of volunteers is currently attempting to revive passenger service on the line between Kingston and Roxbury. The segment from Roxbury to Bloomville has been preserved as a rail trail, while the Bloomville-Oneonta segment was abandoned in 1965 and torn-up by 1966. D&H passenger service between Binghamton and Albany lasted until January 24, 1963.

          (4)Other possible north-south routes included the Pennsylvania’s Elmira Branch from Newark, NY to Elmira, connecting to the Lackawanna or Erie on to Hoboken, NJ (the last PRR passenger train from Sodus Point south, via Newark, NY, operated on July 20, 1931); the New York Central (the last passenger train from Lyons to Corning was listed in the NYC timetable dated September 17, 1935, but the service was gone by 1936), with similar connections; plus the Pennsylvania from Canandaigua to Elmira (joining PRR’s Elmira Branch from Sodus Point off its Canandaigua spur), with similar connections, or all the way to New York City via a Harrisburg, PA connection. The last PRR Canandaigua-Harrisburg run (and last Elmira Branch passenger train in New York State) operated on January 2, 1956. These would have all been reached via the New York Central mainline from Buffalo.

*A NOTE ON BUFFALO PASSENGER STATIONS: Buffalo and history have not treated its "temples of transportation" kindly:

          *The magnificent Art Deco Central Terminal, opened on June 22, 1929, was abandoned by AMTRAK on October 28, 1979. It was then allowed to be vandalized and stripped of all valuable assets by a series of irresponsible owners, prior to current Central Terminal Restoration Corporation ownership. Let us hope that an appropriate adaptive re-use of this landmark building lies in the offing, to glorify Buffalo's past and future.

          *The marble-clad 1917 Lackawanna Terminal downtown station was abandoned by the Erie-Lackawanna (and tenant Nickel Plate Railroad) on November 28, 1962. It swiftly became a decaying ruin. The terminal headhouse was finally demolished in 1979, and the elevated trackage area and lower space became the home of the NFTA carbarn and offices. If you open a door on the top floor, the empty concrete troughs which once held the Terminal's station tracks are still there.

          *The elegant 1916 Lehigh Valley downtown station was sold to the New York State Thruway Authority, together with 4 1/4 miles of right-of-way, in October, 1954. It was demolished beginning on August 3, 1960. The LV proceeded to build a small $1.45 million combination passenger and office building at Dingens and South Ogden Streets, at its yards on the eastern outskirts of Buffalo. The replacement passenger station would perform its function for only five years, until February 4, 1961, when the last “MAPLE LEAF” ran. Some of the land where its old, far-grander station stood was sold to the BUFFALO NEWS, for its main office and plant. The rest became the site of a state office building, and right-of-way for the same Thruway that proceeded to devastate all of the rail passenger business between Buffalo and New York City.

          *The Erie’s 1875 Exchange Street downtown station was abandoned on August 4, 1935, and torn down in 1936, at which point the Erie became a tenant of the Lehigh Valley. While not a showpiece, as were the three stations above, it is one more lost piece of Buffalo railroad history.

JetBlue and the New York State Thruway just cannot measure-up to the wonderful experience of a long, relaxing, scenery-filled day of rail travel between Buffalo and New York City. This writer was lucky enough to ride the New York Central, Lackawanna and Erie routes in the early 1960’s, and deeply regrets that he missed the Lehigh Valley and Pennsylvania routes while they were still operating.

[Thanks to Rev. Edward T. Dunn, S.J., for his epic book, "A HISTORY OF RAILROADS IN WESTERN NEW YORK" (The Heritage Press, Western New York Heritage Institute, 1996).

*This article is current as of May 5, 2009.

COPYRIGHT © 2009 by: Donald L. Pevsner
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