the beacon of buffalo
Sooner or later, every person driving in and out of Buffalo catches sight of the building looming in the distance. Some think that perhaps it's City Hall, but they soon realize that it's too far away from the metro area to even be a part of Buffalo's downtown district. So what is it? It seems to be out in the middle of a residential area. It seems to be along the path of some railroad tracks. Above all, it seems out of place.
Call it what you will; a black sheep, a costly mistake, a victim of neighborhood decline, or an accident waiting to happen. One thing will always remain clear, Buffalo's New York Central Terminal is the last in a breed of buildings that portrayed their parent company as an infallible organization of power and wealth. To this day, it symbolizes an era that many know nothing about -- when train travel was the only way to get around the country, and when you told someone to "meet you by the buffalo", they
knew exactly what you meant. This article will serve as a introduction to the building that has become the blight of Buffalo's proud architectural heritage.
buffalo's first railroad depots
The City of Buffalo was no stranger to huge and elaborate railroad terminals. The Attica and Buffalo was the first railroad to enter Buffalo from the east. The structure used by the Attica and Buffalo was a modest brick building located on Exchange Street, but after several years of service, it burned to the ground. Its replacement was built in 1855 around the same time that the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad was formed.
When the first railroads in New York State were constructed from the early 1800's up until 1855, they consisted of small, individual companies that formed a broken string of iron across the state. In 1855, they were all consolidated into the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad and this new company made great improvements in the way people got from Albany to Buffalo. It was now possible to board a train and journey east or west without having to get off your train and walk to the next railroad station, board another train, and continue on.
The N.Y.C.& H.R. used the Attica and Buffalo's station on Exchange Street for many years there after. Abraham Lincoln stopped there twice; first on his inauguration in 1861, and second on his funeral in 1865. His funeral train was quite a sight to behold and the entire city of Buffalo went down to the depot to see it.
By the early 1870's, the depot came to be known as the Exchange Street Station, but by the end of the 1800's, some would refer to it as the Union Depot. By 1900, several railroads would use the station including the Pennsylvania Railroad.
The Pennsy's ancestor, the Buffalo, New York, and Philadelphia Railroad, had their depot on the corner of Exchange and Louisiana Streets and their main line ran from Buffalo to Emporium, Pennsylvania.
When the B.N.Y.& P. became the Western New York and Pennsylvania, all operations were moved to the Exchange Street Station. In 1900 the Pennsy "leased" the W.N.Y.& P. as an input into Buffalo and the "Standard Railroad of the World" had a route into the Queen City.
For the most part, the building stood on its original foundation on Exchange Street between Washington and Michigan Streets. It went through a series of enlargements and remodelings as its host railroad grew and the city grew with it. By 1901, the building that started out as the modest depot for the Attica and Buffalo was now a hodge-podge of additions that made it very unappealing to the eye.
In 1855, the Buffalo and Niagara Falls Railroad, the second to be created within the Buffalo city limits, built its station on Erie Street on the banks of the Erie Canal. Eventually, the Buffalo and Niagara Falls was consolidated into the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad and this gave the railroad routes from Buffalo to Albany, and from Buffalo to Niagara Falls. The only major problem with the Niagara Falls route was that passengers arriving in Buffalo from the east had to disembark from their train at Exchange Street, where the tracks dead-ended, and walk or take a carriage the few blocks to Erie Street in order to catch the train to the Falls. The railroad needed to have the two stations connected.
the belt line
In 1879, the New York Central (the "Hudson River" was eventually dropped from the name) lobbied long and hard to get permission from the city to connect the two stations by laying tracks across the Terrace and Main Street and down to Erie Street. The railroad had to first agree that it would institute passenger service on its "Junction Line" which started in East Buffalo and ended at the International Bridge. Connecting the two stations would be very important for this Junction line because by doing so, the Central would have a route that completely circled the city of Buffalo.
To this day, this line exists as the Belt Line. When the Central finally opened the Belt Line in 1883, people could take a train around the city for five cents. Buffalo got a commuter train route, and the Central got a connection between Exchange and Erie Streets.
In 1880, the Central erected a small wooden clapboard building on the Terrace to serve as their station for Niagara Falls bound passengers. The City of Buffalo forced the Central to agree on always maintaining this structure for passenger service, and to have nothing but passenger trains on the lines that crossed the Terrace. This put an end to the Erie Street Station for the Central, and the building was eventually taken over by the Grand Trunk Railroad for passengers going to Canada.
In 1881, disaster struck the already rundown Exchange Street station. Heavy snow forced the collapse of the depot's enclosed 120 foot wide train shed. Four people were killed by the collapse, and this prompted the directors of the Central to seriously consider building a new depot.
By the late 1800's, Buffalo had become a tremendous rail center. Over thirty different railroads had either lines into the city, or offices here with track rights to move passengers and freight over other lines. The city also saw the need for a new Union Terminal, and tentative plans were drawn up to have a station built a little further east of Exchange Street, closer to the Belt Line. However, these plans never materialized.
other railroads in buffalo
By this time in Buffalo's history, many of the prominent railroads that hung their hats here began building terminals in the downtown area.
The Erie Railroad erected a depot within eye shot of the Central's at the corner of Exchange and Michigan Streets. What made the Erie a strong competitor was the fact that it offered a 15 mile shorter route to New York, and it offered excursions to places like Gowanda, Portage, Alden, and Hornell.
The Lehigh Valley erected a station on Washington Street, and the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western had a depot at the foot of Main Street. While both of these buildings were rather small, people soon began to realize that the entire area was becoming a haven for railroad traffic.
The majority of the railroad tracks were on the street, and the air was clogged with coal smoke and soot. If a new Union Depot was going to be built, there was little if any space available downtown for both the building and the tracks needed for the amount of traffic the station would generate. The idea was shelved, but not scrapped.
The new century brought major changes to the railroads in Buffalo. Now accounting for a huge part of Buffalo's industry, the railroads were growing, and their passenger traffic was increasing tremendously.
In 1913, the Lackawanna erected its beautiful terminal at the foot of Main street along the Buffalo river. It also built an elaborate system of docks and coal stations that extended out along what is now Erie Basin Marina.
The Lehigh Valley built is gothic white marble masterpiece on Main Street in 1916, and with it, a freight house and a huge yard that was located where the Marine Midland atrium is now. Pressure was mounting for the New York Central to do something about its antiquated station down on Exchange Street.
Another disaster hit in February of 1917. A costly fire destroyed the station's west tower. The building lost all of its telegraph communication and its ticket office (you now had to purchase tickets on trains). When the damage was repaired, the tower was not rebuilt, but covered over with a flat roof. Now the decrepit building was becoming an eyesore. Once again, both the city and the railroad were pushing for a new depot, but America's entrance into World War One shelved any development of those plans.
why east buffalo?
The final push that got the plans underway for the new Union Depot came in the form of Patrick Crowley, who became president of the New York Central in 1924. Crowley was a native of Western New York, and was able to see Buffalo's importance as an industrial giant located between two of the Central's biggest cities; Chicago and New York. With the New York Central's earnings at an all time high in the mid twenties, Crowley set the wheels in motion for constructing a depot on the site of the original plans in East Buffalo.
Soon problems began to develop. Many Buffalo businessmen and politicians alike refused to support construction of a terminal that seemed to be located nowhere near the city limits. Also, to locate the depot on the site chosen meant that 150 home would have to be demolished and several city streets would have to be rerouted. These were things that the city of Buffalo was not so eager to agree on.
So why East Buffalo? The New York Central was aware of several facts. The biggest problem with putting a huge station in downtown Buffalo was the fact that there was no available land for a project of this size. Property was terribly expensive, and to gather the land needed to put up a depot with all of its tracks and facilities would cost the Central millions alone.
Another reason was actually a very practical one. From the early days of the Exchange Street Station up until the day it finally closed, trains entering the depot from the west (Chicago, Cleveland etc.) had to pull into the station, unload passengers, then back out out to the main line at departure time. The same was true for trains going to New York from Chicago -- they had to pull in, then back out to reconnect to the main line.
It was a very dangerous practice to back a train out of that depot since most engineers did it blindly. While there was a flagman protecting the train as it backed up, the entire practice was very time consuming. The idea was that if the Central had a depot east of Buffalo, the need for backing in and out of the station would be eliminated.
Perhaps a more pompous reason for the East Buffalo location was that the New York Central felt that it had the power to pull Buffalo along with it. The Central hoped that it could encourage downtown merchants to move their locations out to where the new depot would be since these same merchants were opposed to the idea of the depot being located in downtown Buffalo. While this strategy worked for New York City, when the Pennsylvania Railroad pulled the shopping district from 14th Street to 34th Street,
it was not going to work in Buffalo. It became clear that even though the Central needed a new depot, the railroads of 1928 were not as important as they once were. There wasn't even a trolley line built out to the new depot.
art deco splendor
The architectural team of Fellheimer and Wagner were commissioned to design the building, and after having all the legalities settled, the Central began construction of their new terminal in 1927 with the preparation of the land the terminal was going to rest on. The City of Buffalo demolished the homes and rerouted streets. Peckham and Lovejoy Streets were widened, and a new 100 foot long street was created along the old West Shore railroad tracks and named Lindbergh Drive. Curtiss Street was moved so that the terminal would straddle it like a bridge and it could serve as a way for services to enter the building such as mail and baggage.
Later, Lovejoy would eventually be renamed to Paderewski, after the pianist Ignace Jan Paderewski, and Lindbergh would be renamed to Memorial Drive after the pilot disgraced himself during World War Two.
When the building was finally completed in 1929, the New York Central had spent 14 million dollars and had built a railroad masterpiece. The new Central Terminal was not just another railroad depot, but rather a small city in a self contained complex of Art-Deco splendor. Now, the Central needed to have it used to the same degree as the old Exchange Street Station.
History was not going to be kind. Central Terminal opened in May of 1929, five months before the beginning of what was to become the Great Depression. From its opening date right up until the New York Central merged with the Pennsylvania to become the Penn Central, Central Terminal lost money. In fact, the only time the terminal was busy from morning until night was during the era of World War Two.
One thing that the New Central Terminal was never able to achieve was the elegant status of a gateway into Buffalo. Old Exchange Street Station, even with its old and weathered appearance, was the Ellis Island of Buffalo. Thousands of immigrants arrived in Buffalo from the east and got their first taste of American soil by walking through the old wooden doors of the Exchange Street Station. These people were the German, Polish, and Italian immigrants that eventually made their homes in the First Ward of Buffalo. It was the Polish community that was predominant on the city's east side. It was their homes that the city demolished to build Central Terminal.
Nevertheless, Central Terminal was a masterpiece. Now the railroad had to put it to good use.