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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, written or edited by Society Historian, Greg Jandura. 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.


Part I

By: Greg Jandura

         On June 22, 2004, Buffalo Central Terminal, that towering landmark on Buffalo's East Side will be 75 years young. This story recounts the events which led to its construction, decades in the making and the glorious realization of fulfillment of a dream. A newspaper article written in 1938 for the Buffalo Evening News starts out by saying, "When the New York Central gets around to changing the routing of its tracks on "The Terrace," some suitable monument might well be erected at this spot.

       The Terrace is the cradle of the early railroading days in Buffalo--in fact all of Western New York." (1)

       It was here that Buffalo, New York saw its first horse-drawn tramway cars, and it's first steam-powered locomotive over the Buffalo & Niagara Falls Railroad chartered in 1835. "The Terrace station was a link with the past," when the Vanderbilts were trying to build a railroad linking the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Coast. The tracks, which passed in front of it, were the first long fingers of a system which opened the west to rail travel. Even getting permission to build a railroad in those days from New York State was a major victory.

       A great factor in the rush to build railroads to the west was the rush of immigrants who arrived by canal boat...In the early 1830's immigrants were apprehensive about steamboat travel on the Great Lakes because of several major accidents."  (2)

       The first steam-powered locomotive, aptly named "Buffalo," (with a 2-2-0 wheel arrangement) pulled out of The Terrace "Car House," a small barn-like structure with a platform along its side, on September 6, 1836 headed for Tonawanda, New York, the railroads original terminus before being extended to Niagara Falls, New York. The Daily Commercial Advertiser of September 7, 1836, in speaking of the opening of the railroad said, "Yesterday afternoon the powerful and handsome locomotive "Buffalo" left this city on her first trip to Tonawanda, New York with two elegant passenger cars attached in a style that excited the admiration of a crowded assemblage."

       The passenger cars, 4 wheeled coaches seating 16 to 20 people were described as having "seats in the first car of planed wood with straight up and down backs, entirely covered by the firmament of heaven, opened to the genial warmth of Old Sol in summer and the refreshing blasts of Lake Erie in winter."

       When travel increased, the railroad added another car, "a swanky model which had a flat top resting on stanchions. It had glazed canvas curtains buttoned to keep out the storm, that is, when the button holes were not too worn and they didn't flap." (2)

       In those early days, Buffalo had just 15,000 people, Andrew Jackson was President. streets were of miry clay, which sucked into -its adhesive depths the wheels of wagons and the boots of pedestrians. Darkness on Main street was made visible by a few oil lamps. Men who would daily congregated on the Old Terrace platform of the Buffalo & Niagara Falls Railroad wore blue dress coats, with costly gilt buttons, a voluminous white cravat, a ruffled shirt, and carried a gold-headed cane. Mixed in the crowd were blanketed and moccasined Indians and immigrants in strange costumes of foreign lands. (1)

       The Buffalo & Niagara Falls Railroad was not built to give the citizens of Buffalo communication with eastern cities, but more to form a means of communication between this city and Niagara Falls, as well as to afford a means of bringing goods From Lake Ontario to Lake Erie. Incorporated with a capital stock of $115,000, Augustus Porter was chosen President; William A. Bird, Secretary and Pratt & Taylor agents in this city.

       The railroad as built would be a curiosity to railroad men of the present day. There was none of the massive iron bridges, stone culverts, or expensive road beds. The roadbed consisted of nothing but earth thrown up in about the same way highways are graded at the present day (1886), no ballast being used, the stringers (rail) lying almost loosely on the road-bed. The track at first consisted of two parallel strips of iron about half an inch in thickness and from ten to twelve feet long. These were cut at angles at the joints and spiked to a square piece of lumber laid lengthwise with the track and fastened at intervals of about six feet with cross pieces. After a few years, a heavier rail was used having a tit at one end and a socket on the other, which answered all of the purposes of fish-joints of the present day. (3)

       The Buffalo & Niagara Falls Railroad with ever freight and passenger business and railroad traffic now entering Buffalo from Canada in the 1850's, constructed a massive structure known as the Erie street Station on Erie Street in Buffalo that lasted for 50 years before outgrowing its usefulness.

       "When the remaining walls of the old New York Central station on Erie street (built by the Buffalo & Niagara Falls Railroad) were pulled down a few days ago (November, 1903) there was nothing left on that spot to tell the younger generation what Buffalo was in the way of a railroad center 50 years ago."

       The old building was built during 1852-1853. It was put up in a way different from buildings of nowadays. The walls of the train shed were four feet thick and the foundations were 30 feet deep. The contractors who have demolished it say the old walls would be good for a century or more. But it was not the conditions of the building which led the railroad company to pull it down, and put up another. It was the increasing business which had outgrown the old trainshed.

       When the station was put up (some twenty years after the Buffalo & Niagara Falls Railroad was open for business) there was now in place a single track line to Niagara Falls (using standard steel rail), taking a traveler there in about two hours. The line was equipped with passenger cars which would now (in 1903) be rejected from service as freight train cabooses. There were no through tickets issued, and no checked baggage, There were no hourly trains to Niagara Falls, no mile a minute service, no Pullman cars, or block signals. There were no train orders issued, there was no telegraph, and one train had the right of way. When it came to a curve it slowed down and a man went out ahead to see if there was anything coming around the curve before proceeding. The New York Central then did not have its tracks across The Terrace from the Exchange Street Station. Passengers on the Buffalo & Niagara Falls Railroad, who wanted to go East, or passengers on the New York Central who wanted to go to the Falls, were taken the short distance by an omnibus line. People who lived between North Buffalo Junction and Niagara Falls, who wished to go east, went to Tonawanda where they took a Canandaigua & Niagara Falls Railroad train and went to Batavia, connecting there with the main line of the New York Central. The Niagara Falls & Lockport Railroad was another line which connected with the Buffalo & Niagara Falls Railroad.

       The Erie Street Station played many dramatic parts in the Civil War. It is said many escaped slaves passed through its gates, some as freight, and in various disguises, all hoping to reach the other side of the river, the country which was to be their promised land. Old railroad employees say that "it was in 1878 that the New York Central built the first tracks which would be used as the Belt Line. The Central would run the Niagara Falls business out of the Exchange Street Station to William street and around the city to North Buffalo Junction, which was a station about where Austin street now crosses the Central tracks." (4)

       The idea of connecting Buffalo by railroad with the central and eastern part of the state seems to have taken hold of the residents as early as 1831. The first recorded indication that a railroad was projected is contained in a report in the Buffalo Journal of February 9, 1831. The Journal stated that "a respectable meeting of the citizens of the counties of Erie, Genesee, and Orleans was held at the house of John Graham in Erie County on February 1, 1831, for the purpose of improving road communications for the convenience of the inhabitants of the said counties. The subject of a railroad from buffalo to Schenectady or to some pint on the Hudson River was introduced for consideration at the meeting." (3)

       In 1853, the original New York Central Railroad was formed out of the merger of several railroad lines across the Empire State. The New York Central in the 1860's gained control of the New York & Harlem Railroad and also the Hudson River Railroad linking Albany with New York City. In 1869, the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad was created through consolidation. In 1914, the NYC&HR and the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad (LS&MS), and several other smaller railroads merged, forming the second New York Central Railroad now known as "New York Central Lines", and becoming the New York Central System in 1944.

       The Railroad construction history of the Niagara Frontier Region of Western New York State is delineated by four distinct eras: (1) 1833-1853: The completion of the New York & Lake Erie Railroad to Dunkirk, New York, from Piermont, New Jersey along New York's Southern Tier. Also, the consolidation of smaller railroads across the Empire State, forming the first New York Central Railroad. (2) 1854-1872: The merger of several smaller railroads westward to Chicago from Buffalo by way of Erie and Cleveland into the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad. The Michigan Central/Canada Southern Railroad, and Great Western/Grand Trunk Railroad in Canada competing for Buffalo-Chicago traffic by way of Windsor-Detroit. The Erie Railroad (gaining access to Buffalo in 1863 through acquisition of the Attica & Buffalo Railroad of 1842, the Attica & Hornellsville Railroad of 1852, and the Buffalo & Jamestown Rialroad in 1873). (3) 1873-1906: The arrival of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad (Lackawanna Railroad); Lehigh Valley Railroad; Northern Central Railroad (trackage rights over the New York Central by way of Canandaigua to Baltimore); Buffalo Rochester & Pittsburgh Railway; Pennsylvania Railroad, (dating back to the Buffalo & Washington Railroad of 1868); New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad (Nickel Plate Road); New York, West Shore & Buffalo Railroad, (West Shore Railroad); Wabash Railroad (trackage rights over the Grand Trunk Railroad); Toronto Hamilton & Buffalo Railroad (jointly owned by the New York Central-Michigan Central-Canadian Pacific Railway); Buffalo & Susquehanna Railway (briefly in operation from 1906-1916). Many of these railroads interchanged their coach and sleeping cars, offering "through" service between the Midwest and the East Coast.

       Another New York Central Depot was the Union Depot in East Buffalo opened in 1874 and constructed almost on the site of the present day Buffalo Central Terminal. It was used chiefly by "through" trains of both the NYC and the LS & MS Railroads. The Exchange Street Depot was located off the railroads main line and most if not all train movements required the time consuming practice of backing in and/or backing out. "The Union Depot's shape was that of a parallelogram, consisting of a main structure with two wings. The main buildiong was two stories high with a mansard roof, the stories being 18, 16, and 11 feet in height respectively. Its dimensions were 160 by 40 feet, the wings being 45 by 55 feet, jutting out in front, one story high, with a flat roof, the entire length of the building being 250 feet. The ediface was constructed of the best pressed brick, with trimmings of Williamsville Limestone."5 It contained the usual amenities of waiting rooms, eating rooms, and ticket and railroad offices, it was at the time considered too far out from Buffalo's geographic population center, about 2 1/2 miles. It was never popular with travelers and abandoned in a few short years in favor of Exchange Street Station in downtown Buffalo.

       Focusing our attention again back to The Terrace Station, "After much effort and litigation, the New York Central succeeded in getting a track connection down between the Niagara Falls line and the Exchange Street Station and the depot now known as The Terrace Station. It was opened in the Summer of 1880 and this was all in accordance with a plan thought out in cooperation with the City of Buffalo. For a long time the New York Central had been hampered by the lack of a direct connecting track between the two downtown stations in this city. The citizens of Buffalo did not like having the principal station of the railroad in East Buffalo, in that day relatively much further out then today.

       Here was a trading point, Buffalo sacrificed to a degree its historic and once beautiful cobblestone "Terrace" which was already going to seed and the New York Central was permitted to put tracks though it from Erie Street to Exchange Street. In return, "it promised these tracks to passenger trains and to always (999 years) maintain a passenger station west of Michigan Street in a contract which it has fulfilled to the letter, even upon completion of Central Terminal and to the present day."

       The railroad did more. "With the new connection track finished, it agreed to utilize it in the installation and operation of the Belt Line passenger service all the way around the town, which in that day was a needed facility. It did still more; it enlarged and greatly extended the Exchange Street Station. The East Buffalo passenger station was then practically abandoned." (1)

       "The old station on Erie Street was not abandoned as a passenger station by the New York Central right away. All passengers which came over the Grand Trunk Railway, and many from Buffalo, who were bound for the Falls, still patronized the Erie Street Station. A coach was taken out of there four times a day and drawn to North Buffalo Junction, where it was attached to the regular train which had gone around the Belt Line the previous day. It was not until the last months of 1880 that the old station was abandoned as a passenger station."  (4)

       "Until 1929, when the New York Central opened the new Buffalo Central Terminal in East Buffalo, The Terrace and Exchange Street area had always been the great railroad interchange point between eastern and western civilizations. The old Exchange Street Station might have seemed decrepit to later-day citizens, but it served well for some 80 years." (1)

       Upon the formation of the first New York Central Railroad in 1853, company records indicate that land was purchased that same year and a simple platform and shed were built in 1854. Business increased and the structure was renovated and expanded in 1856. The final Exchange Street Station was erected in 1870 on the site of the original Exchange Street Station. It is believed that a fire destroyed the original structure. Additions were added to the second depot in 1885, 1900, 1901, 1906 and 1907, resulting in a unique hodgepodge of architectural statements. Facilities included a baggage check room, ticket area and waiting room, dining room, kitchen, laundry and railroad offices.  (5)

         "For six decades New York Central's Exchange Street Station (abandoned in 1929 and demolished in 1935) felt the tread of the rich and the poor, the mighty and the lowly, the happy and the sad. Every President from Grant to Coolidge at some time or another used its venerable trainsheds, while royalty in numbers were received by admiring throngs." (6)

          Over the decades, the proud Exchange Street Station stood tall when President Abraham Lincoln and his wife came through in 1861 on his way to his first inauguration, and later felt the grief of a nation with the funeral train carrying his mortal remains back to Illinois stopped for all to pay their respects in 1865. In 1901 of the 8 million visitors who came to see the wonders of the Pan American Exposition, 1 million of them passed through the Exchange Street Station's gates. President and Mrs. William McKinley also came to the Exposition by rail and two weeks later from unforeseen medical complications at the hands of an anarchists bullet, his mortal remains and grieving widow made the somber trip to Washington D.C. from here. Tens of thousand of Western New York's young men left from this depot to fight in both the Civil War and World War I, many paying the ultimate sacrifice.

         "During the years when the Exchange Street Station was in its hey-day, handling thousands of passengers daily, a frightful tragedy occurred."

         On the morning of a cold February 8th, 1881 the older part of the train shed collapsed under a great weight of snow. The trainshed was 120 feet wide and perhaps 450 feet long, supported by arched wooden trusses which rested on two rather frail brick walls only 13 inches in thickness. One of these walls was part of the original structure

         The entire shed crashed to the ground, burying trains and human beings. The accident occurred at an hour when most of the people about the station on that bitter day, were seeking the warmth of the waiting room. Four were killed, among them Henry Waters, confidential secretary of General Superintendent James Tillinghast of the Central. Two others killed were railroad employees and the fourth a passenger, "a lake captain on his way to Erie to fit out his tug for the season." (1)

         A second fire occurred in the West Tower on February 3, 1917 bringing the cupola crashing down to the trainshed. "The Exchange street tragedy marked the beginning of real outrage and demand for a new railroad station in Buffalo, agitation that went on for more than 40 years until Central Terminal was opened in 1929. After the shed roof crash, Buffalo's newspapers, printed pictures of what was supposed to be a new railroad station. But New York Central authorities came to the city, looked over the debris, and decided that it would be repaired and made to last.

         "Meanwhile, Buffalo citizens were clamoring that a new station be built, and the long fight was become for respectable facilities. For a time it seemed that their hopes were to be realized." (1)

         "In 1883, ambitious plans were unveiled for a joint Grand Union Passenger Depot to be constructed at the intersection of Exchange and Michigan streets to be utilized by the Buffalo, New York, & Philadelphia Railroad (Pennsylvania Railroad) and the New York, West Shore & Buffalo Railroad (a New York Central line). Four stories in height, it would be surmounted by a French roof highlighted by a tower with an illuminated electric clock. The train shed containing eight tracks would be 600 feet long. Work was actually started and it began as a reasonably modest enterprise, but promoters gazed upon it after the flamboyant fashion of the times. The station was never finished. When the contractors brought in their estimates, it was found that instead of costing $200,000 as it had been hoped, it would cost twice that figure."  (1, 7)

         There were four other railroad stations in Buffalo worthy of note in the 1800's. The Delaware, Lackawanna, & Western Railroad beginning in 1882 operated out of the Aetna Building at the foot of Main Street. A small wooden building intended for temporary use until a permanent and more suitable location could be found. This occurred in 1885 with a railroad station replacing the Aetna Building on the same site. Of wooden construction it was well lighted with a spacious waiting room, and baggage room. It had a trackside platform covered by a handsome wooden awning.

         The Pennsylvania Railroad (Western New York & Pennsylvania Railroad 1887-1900) shanty at the corner of Exchange and Louisiana streets was abandoned in 1892 in favor of the Exchange Street Station. The Erie Railroads early railroad history indicates that as early as 1842 there is mention in the newspaper of a temporary railroad structure on the Attica & Buffalo Railroad in the city of Buffalo in the vicinity of Seneca and Hamburg Streets. This was in the "Hydraulics" area along the Little Buffalo Creek where water power for industry was harnessed. Plans were announced to replace it in 1879 at Michigan and Exchange Streets. "It will have a frontage of 110 feet on Michigan Street and 62 feet on Exchange street, and 350 feet of covered platforms parallel with the last mentioned thoroughfare. The main structure will be built of brick, with stone columns and trimmings. It will be three stories high, counting the Mansard roof. The first floor will be occupied for waiting rooms, baggage rooms, ticket-offices, etc., the second floor for the company's offices; and the third for the library, reading rooms, etc., of the Erie Railway Temperance Association. The former adjacent depot will be used for freight. In addition, a brick roundhouse will be built in the vicinity with stalls for 52 locomotives." (8)

End of Part I - go to:  Part II   Part III   Part IV

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This page was last updated: February 25th, 2018 - Original publishing - 2004

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