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Great Railroad Stations - Williamsville, NY

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Great Railroad Stations 

by John C. Dahl

Williamsville, NY 

Everyone has one or more favorite railroads. For this railfan, the Lehigh Valley Railroad and its fascinating story have long held my interest. My grandparents had built a home in 1955 about one hundred feet west of the Lehigh Valley’s junction with the New York Central (Tonawanda Jct.) and their back yard butted up against the right of way. Thus my early association with the "Route of the Black Diamond".

The Lehigh was a late comer to the already crowded New York to Buffalo venue. Founded in the anthracite coal territory of eastern Pennsylvania, the Lehigh Valley early on assumed an important place among eastern railroads. "Black Diamonds", coal, fueled the industrial economy of the late 19th Century. With an outlet to New York tidewater in place, the railroad looked west to secure a position in the growing business to the Great Lakes and Midwest. Buffalo, NY was the logical point of contact since it had become one of the greatest railroad and Lakes shipping ports of the country. The trade to Canada was also growing, and Buffalo and Niagara Falls served as important gateway cities on the route.

In 1892, the railroad opened it’s own line extension from Geneva, NY to Buffalo. Among all the competing trunk lines, the LVRR was the last to arrive, and had the dubious honor of being the longest in terms of route mileage. To accommodate the flood of coal to Buffalo, the railroad constructed a massive coal storage facility in Cheektowaga, just east of Buffalo. This kept the Lehigh’s waterfront terminal at Tift Farm free from congestion. The line prospered, and only three years later, the railroad organized the Depew & Tonawanda Railroad to build a line from Depew to the New York Central’s Batavia to Tonawanda Canandaigua branch. Joining the NYC at Tonawanda Jct., the Lehigh Valley then shared trackage with the Central for the remainder of it’s journey to Niagara Falls and Suspension Bridge where it interchanged with the Canadian roads.

The Depew & Tonawanda was built to bypass Buffalo itself, and served to expedite Canadian freight traffic, shaving valuable time off the merchandise traffic that was becoming very important to the railroad. Previous to the bypass, the railroad’s standard practice had been to interchange freight traffic with NYC at Batavia, NY. From Batavia, the Central’s Canandaigua branch was used to route traffic west to Tonawanda and then north to Suspension Bridge for interchange. No doubt the opening of the Lehigh’s own route hastened the slow decline of the Central’s trackage and it assumed a beloved status as a bucolic branch line known to railfans as the "Peanut Line". The 10.5 mile Lehigh Valley route opened on November 15, 1896, and quickly assumed an important role as a short cut for international tonnage as well as a direct route to Niagara Falls for the Lehigh’s booming passenger and tourist train business.

Built to very high standards, the D&T did indeed live up to its design as a short cut route. Its double track route followed an almost straight line for its entire distance, curving west to join the Central at a location that became known as Tonawanda Jct. The railroad was built on high embankment for much of its distance, minimizing grade crossings. Bridges were of heavy construction, and included several thru deck girder bridges for the highway overpasses at Niagara Falls Boulevard, Millersport Highway, Sheridan Drive and Main Street in Williamsville. At Ellicott Creek in Tonawanda, a nicely proportioned truss bridge carried the railroad high above the sometimes flood prone waterway. (You can still see the bridge location and the associated crossing "hump" at Ellicott Creek Road.) A Lehigh standard wood framed control tower was built at Tonawanda Jct. Automatic semaphore block signals were still in use at Tonawanda Jct. in the late 1950’s, even though the connecting NYC line had been abandoned and the tower long gone. The trackage was still double track well into the 1960’s and freight traffic seemed to hold up almost to the end of the Lehigh Valley. Crossovers here were controlled by a ground level switch shanty, which still stands as of this writing. The Williamsville depot was built to a company standard wooden station plan, similar to many of the neat Victorian era wood depots that once stood along the mainline through the Finger Lakes area.

As the sole surviving wood frame LVRR station in Western New York, Williamsville today has been restored on the exterior and remains in it’s original location off South Long St. With the formation of Conrail, the Lehigh Valley trackage became the first to go. A walking / biking trail in the village has been constructed for a short distance on the old abandoned right of way. No more does the Valley’s great Wyoming steam locomotives charge past the Williamsville depot with a long line of boxcars in tow. No more do the colorful Cornell red F unit diesels or the Alco road units in the "Snowbird" paint scheme rock past my childhood backyard vantage point near Tonawanda Jct. But no matter. Take a short walk on the Lehigh Heritage trail next to the Williamsville depot and listen carefully for the ghost train whistles of the Lehigh Valley Railroad.

Williamsville, NY on the now abandoned Lehigh Valley Railroad. October 4, 1998.

 Photo by John Dahl

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This page was last updated Thursday, December 06, 2001

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