When the Erie Canal opened in 1825 spanning 363 miles, it represented the first transportation route to the west besides wagons and was the longest artificial waterway in North America. Today, New York’s canal system has been in operation longer than any other constructed transportation system in North America.
While the Canal had significant impacts to economy of the local area, there were drawbacks: transit speeds were slow, and the area’s lengthy winters brought an end to any transportation. The answer rolled out – literally – by the mid-1830s with the advent of the railroad.
Here are 7 fun facts about Buffalo’s extensive railroad history:
1- 1836 saw Buffalo’s first railroad operating by steam locomotive, and soon, the area would become known as a successful focal point of transportation. By the late 1890s, Buffalo had burgeoned to the eighth largest US city, as well as the second largest rail hub.
2- The financial crisis known as the Panic of 1837 was a catalyst behind the failure of two railroads: the Buffalo and Erie Railroad and the Aurora and Buffalo Railroad. The former was planned to traverse from Buffalo through Chautauqua County to the Pennsylvania line; the latter was to unite Buffalo with what’s now known as East Aurora. But it wasn’t to be: both failed before even a foot of track had been laid.
3- Before becoming known as the New York Central Railroad, a long history exists – in 1868, the then-Cleveland & Toledo (C&T) Railroad was taken over by the Lake Shore Railway. It would later become known as the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway. By 1914, it joined with the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad to become known as the New York Central Railroad.
4- Many enthusiasts say that the steam locomotive was perfected by the New York Central. From 1902 to 1967, the infamous 20th Century Limited express passenger train ran on the New York Central Railroad. Marketed as “The Most Famous Train in the World,” it travelled between New York’s Grand Central Terminal and Chicago’s LaSalle Street Station through Buffalo in just 16 hours or under.
5- Back in Buffalo, New York Central was running some pretty robust operations in the Buffalo area by the early 1950s, necessitating engine-serving facilities at Gardenville, Central Terminal, Black Rock, and East Buffalo. The New York Central also established Buffalo Stockyards in 1863, which were closed in 1958.
6- What was Buffalo’s second largest railroad? The short-lived Erie Lackawanna (EL) Railroad, formed in 1960 with the controversial merger of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad and the Erie Railroad. The union brought together the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad’s 212 diesel-electric locomotives with Erie Railroad’s 484.
7- Last but certainly not least…When people think of Buffalo and its extensive history as a rail hub, the renowned Buffalo Central Terminal almost always comes to mind. In 1925, New York Central Railroad, The City and Grade Crossing, and the Terminal Station Commission signed an agreement that would allow the Central Terminal to be constructed approximately 2.5 miles from the downtown business area.
Architected to accommodate more than 200 trains and 10,000 passengers each day, the Central Terminal opened in June 1929. It wasn’t until the WWII era that it saw its busiest period, when it became a key hub for transporting troops, goods and services.
Post WWII passenger rail travel plummeted, and by 1955, the New York Central Railroad put the Central Terminal up for sale, though there was little interest in such a massive hulk of a property. In 1979, it was officially closed as a train station. It wasn’t until 1997 that the site was acquired by the non-profit Central Terminal Restoration Corporation (CTRC).
According to the site, “Efforts are ongoing to refurbish and repurpose the property on Buffalo’s East Side as a thriving hub of community events and activity. To help fund restoration, the CTRC currently hosts 30+ public events a year in this beloved building.” If you’d like to help, explore the many ways you can get involved here.
For a deeper exploration of Buffalo’s railroads, enjoy these links:
- Railroads in Buffalo
- New York Central Trackage In Buffalo, NY in 1950
- Todd’s Railfan Guide to Buffalo, NY
- Western New York Railway Historical Society
- Buffalo Cattaraugus and Jamestown Scenic Railway (BC&J)