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Highland Falls, NY
When traveling east by car or train across New York State on occasional rail oriented safaris, talk inevitably gets around to the "West Shore". You can see its remnants still, and its influence on the history of railroads in New York State is a source of interesting conversation. The sale of Conrail to CSX included the West Shore line south from Albany to New Jersey. That line continues to be a vital link in Northeast railroading, and ironically, is the only piece of the West Shore that should ever have been built.
The New York, West Shore & Buffalo Railroad was formed in 1881. The financial twists and turns that led up to the formation of the company are a story in itself. It is a story of rail barons and Wall Street tycoons, of rough and tumble railroad men, and grandiose schemes and speculations.
The trail west across New York State has a long history. Even before the coming of the railroad or the Erie canal, the only natural break in the great chain of mountains across Eastern North America south of Canada is the water level route formed by the Hudson and Mohawk River valleys of New York State. For eons, Native American knew of the natural trail west to the Great Lakes. A rough road in the late 18th Century began to be hacked out of the wilderness and the coming of the Erie Canal truly exploited the natural trail west. Only a few years later, railroads too would make their mark, and the huge successes the early lines generated fueled development of more. Such was the case of the West Shore.
The New York Central consolidated several of the smaller lines from Albany to Buffalo in the years prior to the Civil War. Enter Commodore Vanderbilt in 1867 and the manipulations that joined the NYC to his Hudson River railroad, forming the mainline we know today from New York City to Buffalo. But railroad fever had struck in the early 1880ís, and it was felt a second competing route to Buffalo following the west shore of the Hudson River to Albany and then further west was justified. By 1882, some $7 million had been raised for a well engineered line. The various entanglements and perhaps somewhat shady financial techniques used to advance the railroad in those early years, coupled with cutthroat competition from the Central, forced the line into bankruptcy the same month it finally reached Buffalo, January 1884. "While the NYWS&Bís promoters were still permitted to dream, they envisioned a splendid terminal in Buffalo of steel and pressed brick. After the flamboyant fashion of the eighties it was to have a clock tower, a port cochere and a train shed 600 feet long arching over eight platform tracks."1
Soon however, the realities of two parallel railroads and a limited amount of freight and passenger traffic forced the West Shore deeper into ruin. At the same time a complicated series of maneuvers in the New York Central versus Pennsylvania RR "wars" involving a parallel railroad to the PRR named the South Pennsylvania were taking place in the back offices and executive suites of Wall Street. Seeing such cutthroat competition as unproductive, J.P. Morgan arranged a meeting. On July 7, 1885, aboard Morganís yacht Corsair, as it steamed up the East River to Long Island Sound the basic scheme was laid out. In exchange for the PRR purchasing the mostly unbuilt South Pennsylvania, the Central would acquire the West Shore line. Again further legal entanglements ensued. In the end, the NYWS&B was sold under foreclosure to a new West Shore corporation bankrolled by the New York Central and leased to it for 474 years. Thus did NYC acquire a parallel mainline from New Jersey all the way to Buffalo. After the 1930ís Depression, the West Shore would be used primarily for freight traffic. Since it tended to bypass major bottlenecks on the mainline, it served as a valuable way to expedite through traffic. When needed the line provided an alternate route if wrecks blocked the mainline, as occasionally did occur. In Syracuse, NY the West Shore route would be extensively rebuilt in the 1930ís as the main passenger route through the city.
As one of the few original wooden West Shore depots still standing, Highland Falls is a unique survivor. Vintage postcards turn up now and then of the West Shore depots of the 1880ís. They depict a family appearance, and in the high Victorian style of the times often resemble popular home designs. Located just south of West Point, Highland Falls is a great place to watch trains. CSXís former Conrail River Line, as it is known today, is a vital freight link between the Albany gateway to New England and western New York and the New Jersey gateway to all points south. And that is just as the builders of the West Shore had envisioned over 100 years ago.
Highland Falls, NY. One of the very few still existing classic style Victorian wood stations of the "NYWS&B" Railroad. The line, now CSX, was Conrail, which itself played out itís final chapter in the continuing story of the "West Shore." Here we catch a southbound freight on a beautiful June 9, 1998 morning. [JCD photo.]
1 Rev. Edward T. Dunn, A History of Railroads in Western New York, pg. 138
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This page was last updated Thursday, December 06, 2001
©2001 Jim Dent
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