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WNYRHS HISTORY - THE TRAINS WE RODE

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"THE TRAINS WE RODE:"
BUFFALO TO NEW YORK CITY ON SCENIC RAILROADS
by: Donald L. Pevsner
         Buffalo, NY 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 170-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 by ferry across the Hudson River 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 (1913-1962, when the line was reduced back to two tracks), and fielded such famous trains as the “TWENTIETH CENTURY LIMITED” (which, alas, stopped at 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 subsequent 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, between Utica and 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 the stiff grades of 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 largest is in Nicholson, PA). 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 separate short-line railroads. If you drive Interstate 86 east of Elmira, you will be traveling over a long segment of the former Lackawanna right-of-way that was 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.  On January 6, 1970, the last surviving Chicago-Hoboken "LAKE CITIES" passenger train died as well. South of Binghamton, the Norfolk Southern Railroad now owns the line to Scranton, PA; two Pennsylvania counties own the line from there to the Delaware Water Gap at Slateford Junction, operated by a short-line railroad, and New Jersey Transit owns the rest of the line to Hoboken, NJ (with 21 miles of track missing in western New Jersey that needs to be relaid by NJDOT 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, via two farther-west river valleys, 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 New York, Susquehanna and Western Railroad subsidiary 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").  The "BLACK DIAMOND" died on May 11, 1959, ending the last chance of daylight vistas along the route. The main line was torn-up in the late 1970's between Buffalo and Victor and between Shortsville and Ithaca. Short-line railroads now operate the line segments Victor-Shortsville; Ithaca, NY-Sayre, PA; Sayre-Mehoopany, PA and Mehoopany-Pittston, PA. 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 to Harrisburg, but leases the segments from Buffalo to Machias and Machias to Driftwood, PA to two different short-line railroads. AMTRAK now operates passenger service from Harrisburg to New York City.

          *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 this PRR-financed railroad in 1885, when J.P. Morgan personally forced the Presidents of the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroads (aboard his yacht, "CORSAIR") to stop trying to invade each other's home territory, to prevent ruinous future rate wars. This incredible corporate saga is far too long to relate here, but one fascinating result was the building of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, 55 years later (it opened in 1940), over much of the abandoned right-of-way of the South Penn Railroad: formed by the NYC to steal traffic from the PRR between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh. Through passenger service from Buffalo over the "West Shore" began on January 1, 1884, and lasted until 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 south 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 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 540-mile-long NYO&W was abandoned on March 29, 1957, and torn-up in 1958. 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 bus tours of its former scenic highlights and numerous books on its many historic treasures. As with the Lackawanna route farther west, NYSDOT purchased a long segment 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. Two small tourist railroads now operate the segments between Kingston-West Hurley and Highmount-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 in 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 from Lyons to Corning (the last NYC passenger train was listed in the timetable dated September 17, 1935, and was gone in 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 all have 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 many valuable assets by a series of irresponsible owners, prior to current Central Terminal Restoration Corporation ownership. It is the last of the great major U.S. railroad stations not to have been either demolished or repurposed. (Its former partner in woe, Detroit's Michigan Central Station, was recently purchased by Ford Motor Company and is being adapted at great cost into historic Ford offices.) 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 car barn 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 east side of Buffalo. The replacement passenger station would perform its function for only six 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 August 13, 2019.

COPYRIGHT© 2009-2019 by: Donald L. Pevsner
                             Attorney-at-Law
                             2010 Valle Cay Drive
                             Vilas, North Carolina 28692
                             eMail: DonPevsner@aol.com


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