Ask any old time railroad employee when the railroad industry was in its prime and he will most assuredly say the era of World War Two. Never before had there been the amount of traffic generated by the war effort and because of its location, Buffalo was one of the largest rail centers in the world. Sadly, the city of Buffalo would suffer a casualty of the war with the decline and fall of Central Terminal.
Just after the war ended, the railroad industry was still riding the crest of the wave of prosperity with a few changes. The diesel locomotive, put aside because of the war, was introduced as a cheaper, cleaner, and more effective way of pulling trains. Rail employees saw it coming and most were not happy. Layoffs were imminent as a crew to run and maintain a diesel engine was half of that needed for a steam engine.
The New York Central was one of many railroads that felt the sting of other infiltrators into their domain of mass transportation. In the late 1940's, the Interstate Highway System and the new jet engine on airplanes made train travel seem antiquated. Many historians believe that railroad companies always had a distaste for passenger travel and never made a dime providing it. Perhaps the other methods of new mass transit would be a good excuse for the railroads to get out of a part of their industry that was costing them money for nothing in return.
Central Terminal had a quieter atmosphere as fewer and fewer people crowded into its concourse to take the train and in 1949, the City of Buffalo got what it had always wanted all along; a downtown train station. This began a series of events that would ultimately spell the beginning of the end of Buffalo as the second largest rail center in the country.
When the new depot was constructed by the New York Central, it was placed on Exchange Street a little further up the road from where the old depot stood. The Central closed the Terrace Station, pulled up the rails that ran on the Terrace and down Court Street, and lay new rails on the bed of the old Erie Canal. Buffalo's Department of Public Works had begun a $25 million project of elevating the new New York State Thruway and the old main line of the Lehigh Valley was used for the run from downtown Buffalo.
The new station opened in 1952 and initially saw almost 21 trains a day. Today, railroad men refer to this small brick building as "Amshack". The New York Central demolished the Terrace Station in September of 1952, one month after the new depot opened. The Thruway project continued until completed in 1955. By then, passenger travel had diminished well below the 99 daily trains that Central Terminal had experienced in 1953. In March of 1954, the last steam train departed the Terminal. The situation was getting worse.
As the 1950's came to a close, the New York Central Railroad was experiencing what the majority of every class one railroad in the country was feeling; a drastic drop in profits. Passenger operations were becoming an ever increasing drain on costs, freight revenues were suffering from the proliferation of the trucking industry, and the St. Lawrence Seaway was draining business away from Buffalo as a major shipping port.
Realizing that they were over extended, the NYC began to sell off many of its assets including 406 passenger stations. Only 50 were sold. Central Terminal was pretty much abandoned by its parent company because the costs in taxes and maintenance were very high. But in 1956, if you had the money, you could have purchased the Central Terminal for $1 million.
In August of 1959, Buffprop Enterprises signed a 25 year lease with the Central with the intention of converting the terminal into a shopping plaza and offices. The NYC held on to the train concourse for its remaining passenger trains, but it scaled down its ticket offices and baggage facility. Basically, the Central built a station within a station. The rest of the building began to shut down.
The fate of Central Terminal took another turn for the worse when Buffprop ran out of steam for the whole renovation project. In 1960, they defaulted on their lease and the NYC had the terminal back in their hands.
Buffalo was now on a downward spin toward oblivion as a major rail center. The Lehigh Valley's beautiful marble depot, abandoned since 1952, was demolished in 1960 to make way for the city's New York State Building. (I will not pass judgment in this article, but anyone who has seen both of these buildings will agree with me when I say that the State building is one of the ugliest excuses for modern architecture that the city has ever seen. When asked about why the Lehigh Terminal was never even considered for remodeling to fit the criteria as an office complex, a local architect told me that it was felt that the building was too cavernous and drafty!! Score another loss for Buffalo.)
In 1962, the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad was finalizing its merger plans with the Erie Railroad which finally came to pass in 1963. The new company, the Erie - Lackawanna Railroad abandoned the majestic terminal at the foot of Main Street. The station was finally demolished in 1979 during construction of Buffalo's light rail rapid transit system. However, the station's train shed still exists as a maintenance shop for the NFTA.
(Even though I never saw the interior of the D.L.& W. terminal, I have been told that the entire building was in much worse shape than Central Terminal due to vandals and the weather! A friend of mine said that one time he went inside to take some pictures and ran into a bunch of bums living there! It was even more dangerous than the Terminal!)
To go back a bit, the Erie Railroad sold their depot on Exchange Street and Michigan Avenue in 1935 and moved all their operations into the Lehigh Valley terminal. The Erie's depot existed as the headquarters for a trucking company until it was finally destroyed by fire in February of 1946. All that remains is a section of wall facing Michigan Avenue.
To further add insult to injury, the New York Central closed the little brick depot it had constructed only ten years earlier. It now seemed impossible to be able to catch a train out of Buffalo.
Meanwhile, traffic at Central Terminal was down to only 22 trains a day by the mid 1960's. In 1966, the Central demolished the Pullman service center, ice house, and coach house to help save on taxes. The final blow came in 1968 when two of the biggest rivals in railroad history, the New York Central and the Pennsylvania, merged to form the disastrous Penn Central Corporation.
Unanimously, every railroad in the United States wanted "out" with their passenger services. In 1971, the Federal Government formed Amtrak as a way of securing what little passenger services remained in the country. Amtrak continued to use Central Terminal, but cut the service to only two trains daily to New York. By 1974, service was installed to Detroit, and by 1975, to Chicago. Amtrak, while not an immediate success, was on its way to keeping America moving by rail. In 1976, the bankruptcy of Penn Central forced the formation of Conrail which used the Terminal as its Buffalo headquarters.
1978 saw the reopening of the little depot on Exchange Street (Amshack), and service was restored to Niagara Falls. But what was happening to Central Terminal? Slowly but surely, Amtrak was discovering that this enormous structure on Buffalo's East side was just too much for the amount of traffic that was coming in and out of the city. The building was finally sold in 1979 to Anthony Fidele for $75,000! Mr. Fedele planned on converting the Terminal into a hotel/recreation center, but those plans never came about.
Buffalo was a changed city in the early 80's. Gone were the days of having the title of "second largest rail center in the country". The city's east side, the home to Central Terminal since 1929, was becoming an area of decay and abandonment. The Polish community that once held the majority of the area's population was now seeing a tremendous rise in crime. People were now afraid to go out to the Terminal because it was becoming quite clear that the East side of Buffalo was not a safe place to be. Anthony Fedele was experiencing this problem first hand when he unsuccessfully tried to bring tenants to the Terminal.
But there was one last hurrah. In 1980, the Terminal was the scene for the shooting of the movie "Best Friends" starring Goldie Hawn and Burt Reynolds. If anyone has ever seen this light comedy, the scene with the Terminal is truly breathtaking. Shot in the middle of winter, the Terminal is resplendent! Even though it is a view from 1980, you can almost get a sense of what the building was like when it opened. However, it is empty. The movie crew didn't have a problem with crowds milling about. There weren't any. The Terminal looks like an empty shell.
Freight operations were changing too. Gone were the days of the 40 foot wooden boxcar. Now, trains were composed of high cars over 80 feet in length. Conrail, to accommodate this added height, blasted away the section of the passenger concourse over the belt line in 1982. The concourse was abandoned as Amtrak no longer used the Terminal as a passenger station because in 1979 they built their station in Depew, a mile or so up the track from the old terminal.
In November of 1983, the building was in danger of being sold out from under Anthony Fedele when the IRS came looking for back taxes on the station. He made a valiant attempt at settling the debt by paying $10,200 toward the $142,128 bill, and agreed to pay $2000 a month until the matter was settled. However, the continued decay of the neighborhood drove all perspective buyers away.
A glimmer of hope appeared in 1984 when Central Terminal was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. This gave Mr. Fedele a break on the taxes and also stopped any chance of having the building demolished. New York State recognized the Terminal as an excellent example of the Art Deco style and Mr. Fedele thought that his building was saved. However, fate was unkind.
Conrail gave up its interest in the building in the mid 1980's and pulled out all of its operations. To make matters worse, a fire destroyed the mezzanine level where not only Conrail was located, but Mr. Fedele's apartment as well. (Yes, he was so attached to the building that he converted a wing into living quarters for himself.) Mr. Fedele gave up ownership of the building in 1986, and several more private owners took over after that. But with no one to police the building, it became wide open to vandals and mother nature.
By 1990, 75 percent of its interior had been pillaged. Artifacts were removed and sold at architectural auctions, memorabilia was stripped by curious railfans, and anything made of copper and brass was ripped out and sold for scrap. Even the proud buffalo statue was crushed when a previous owner, while trying to remove the dome lights in the ceiling, backed a truck into the statue's pillar and knocked the buffalo off smashing it to bits.
Then there were the elements. The roof of the building was destroyed when vandals pulled the copper flashing off thus letting in all the snow and rain. As the seasons changed, water would seep into cracks, freeze, and crack the brickwork of the building like it were Styrofoam. Water began to pour into the building like a river, bringing down ceilings and walls, buckling floors, and rusting metal. The mail and baggage area suffered the worst. Every wall was leveled by the water, and moss actually began to grow on the floors!
The waiting room, cluttered with remnants of Conrail, turned into a disaster area as the plaster on the ceiling fell down. If you were to go into the waiting room now, you would have to wear a hard hat and a rain coat because it would be like walking through Niagara Falls.
Down in the basement, a water main broke and flooded the entire section of the workshop and boiler room with 8 feet of water. Unable to get to the leak to fix it, the Water Department left it alone. The major problem with this is that the water freezes in the winter, and the ice expands and pulls the foundation of the building apart as if it were paper.
The tower is littered with paperwork from the last 30 years. All of the records from every railroad that used the Terminal are thrown all over ever floor. If you drive up to the building, you will see receipts from the New York Central flying out the windows and lying on the grounds. Most importantly, there are no doors or windows on the building so it has become a haven for trouble. It is a very dangerous place and a consistent problem for the city of Buffalo.
In 1993, the passenger concourse was purchased by a construction company that uses it to store heavy equipment. The long concourse was surrounded by a barbed wire fence and this helps to keep the vandalism in check, but the damage has already been done. In 1997, the building was purchased by the Central Terminal Preservation Company and this new owner has pledged to secure the building and at least stop the destruction that's being caused by the elements. For more on this subject, please visit the Press Articles section.
My only advice to anyone who reads this is to do yourself a favor and go see the Terminal for yourself. I am in no way encouraging anyone to do anything dangerous, and I take no responsibility for anything that happens there. It is a dangerous place, but it is also the last of its kind in the world. It represents an architectural style no longer in use anywhere. It symbolizes an era of history that brought power and wealth to the City of Buffalo. It was built to withstand a nuclear disaster but it remains powerless to stop the destruction brought upon it by things both man-made and God-made.
Take your pictures now because there are always plans for demolition. The only thing stopping that is the $20 million price tag. We have lost so much in this city; the Lehigh Valley and D.L.& W. terminals, the Larkin
Building. Don't miss seeing Central Terminal. Be curious, but be careful.