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Chapter 5

Even though the Buffalo and Black Rock was small and not very impressive, it still sparked an interest in improved rail transportation. In August of 1836, construction began on Buffalo's first steam powered railroad line. Actually, it was just an upgrade of the Buffalo and Black Rock, but instead of terminating in the village of Black Rock, the track was laid all the way to Tonawanda. After four years of construction, the line continued all the way to Niagara Falls and was finally ready for its new name, the Buffalo and Niagara Falls Railroad.

Curious citizens flocked to the station to see the departure of the "Iron Monster" as the Buffalo and Niagara Falls prepares for its inaugural run.
Upon completion, the traveling public found that they could now make the 28 mile trip from Buffalo to Niagara Falls on one railroad pulled by a wood-burning steam engine in just under 3 hours! Today, we obviously consider this slow by comparison, but in the 1830's, the same journey by stage coach would take nearly twice as long. To the passengers, the pace of the journey on the new novelty must have been an awesome experience.

According to Ed Patton, the public was very confused with this new technology. "The steam engine was big, it was loud, it was very scary, and it was fast. Large, fast moving objects could be very terrifying for people who were basically used to the movements of horses, carts and hauling animals such as oxen. Bringing the railroad into the mainstream of society was an outgrowth of the improvements in technology, and the improvement in safety of the railroads compared to other forms of travel. It was also very important to be able to keep a regular schedule."

"However, I think the real reason for the public's overwhelming approval of the railroad was the fact that the steam engine eventually became a very reliable, and a fairly safe contraption for people to ride on. This helped to alleviate the public's fears."

The dangers of running heavy locomotives over flimsy strap rails are demonstrated in this lithograph. This unfortunate soul, and countless other unlucky travellers, found themselves being impailed by the strap rails when they sprang loose and flew into the cars above.

By the mid 1830's, the people of Buffalo were witness to the arrival of a new technology that boasted incredible improvements in travel, but no improvements in comfort. Looking back at the Buffalo and Niagara Falls when it began operation in 1836, Buffalo's premier newspaper, the Commercial Advertiser, described the railroad in a such a way that would make most rail passengers of the 20th century cringe.

"Everything was primitive! The roadbed was nothing but earth thrown up on about the same way highways are graded to the present day, no ballast being used, the stringers lying almost loosely on the road bed. The track at first consisted of iron straps about a half inch in thickness and from 10 to 12 feet long, cut at angles at the joints, and spiked to a square piece of timber at six foot intervals."

Another view of the notorious strap rail system. Public outcry was a major deciding factor in coming up with a new and safer way to convey the railroad.

The straps were very dangerous as the nails that were used to secure them would work themselves loose under the weight of the locomotives and cars. In the summer, the heat would bend and distort them out of shape so that they would pop out of place and punch through the bottom of the cars!

A conductor from the early days of the Buffalo and Niagara Falls remembered one such incident. "I remember a narrow escape a young lady had. She was reading a novel and quietly enjoying her ride, when suddenly and with a crash, the end of a rail tore up between her feet, went through her skirt, and fastened itself to the roof of the car! We had to cut the lady's dress in order to rescue her."

"Snake heads", as wild strap rails were called, were not the only worries that passengers faced with early 19th century railroads. It is important to remember that the cars were only converted stage coaches. Many offered no protection from the outside elements. The heat, cold, and burning cinders from the locomotives wood fire would enter the cars cause great excitement amongst the passengers. Even though the locomotives were built of steel and iron, and seemed amazingly strong, boiler explosions were quite common and extremely life threatening.

It was hopeful that a train would not derail while on route. In the early days of railroading, passengers were informed on their tickets that in the event of a mishap, they were required to disembark and aid the train crew in placing the locomotive and the cars back on the track! In fact, special tools were always carried on the locomotive for just such and emergency. If you wanted to get to your destination as fast as possible, it was inevitable that there would be derailments especially in an age where there were no safety regulations.

If a derailment occurred north of Black Rock, there would be no one around except the passengers. If you wanted to resume your journey, you may have had to push the train yourself, so to speak. Of course, this was only if it was a minor derailment. Steam railroad travel was a novelty, but it was hardly pleasurable. No one ever knew, when a brigade of cars left a depot, when it would arrive at the other terminal, or if it would arrive at all.

The maiden run of the Buffalo and Niagara Falls Railroad pulls away from the United States Hotel in 1836, the same depot used by the Buffalo and Black Rock.

However, no matter what the potential for danger was, the people of Buffalo proudly came out to witness opening day of the Buffalo and Niagara Falls Railroad. The Commercial Advertiser was there to cover the event. "September, 1836. Yesterday afternoon, the powerful and handsome locomotive "Buffalo" left this city on her first trip to Tonawanda with two elegant cars attached, in a style that excited the admiration of a crowded assemblage"

"The railroad is a most delightful and useful mode of conveyance. The scenery is of the most picturesque, and when the locomotives are in operation, it must attract the attention of all travelers."

A railroad track is oftentimes something that we in the 20th century take for granted. They are victims of that age old phrase, "you've seen one, you've seen them all". But to the citizens of 19th century Buffalo, especially those living in the city in the late 1830's, the sight of the Buffalo and Niagara Falls making it's daily excursions was thrilling.

Besides the constant worry of a loose strap rail, passengers also had to contend with the possibility of a boiler explosion on the locomotive. The chance of harm to the passengers was "lessened" by the placement of a flat car behind the locomotive loaded with bales of cotten.

"Several years ago, I was witness to a most unusual sight - a train of wooden coaches pulled along rails by horses. Surely, this was not unlike our stage coaches of the day. The presence of rails made this contraption quite different. But this new steam locomotive! It throws up black smoke, gives off glowing sparks, and seems to be breathing on its own! It coughs. It sizzles. It makes power out of wood and water! Indeed, this is a most startling thing -- a new sort of animal. It made my eyes to bung out! A gentleman, who was standing next to me remarked that this monstrosity looked very much like an iron horse. I suspect that this comment will come to describe a symbol of American life for many years to come."

The train was able to introduce people to neighbors they never knew they had as it traversed the countryside on its daily journey. The road followed the west side of the terrace to sixth street, known today as Busti Avenue. It continued along 6th Street for a ways and then went out to Niagara Street. At the Scajaquada Creek, just below Forest Avenue, the road made a detour through the woods to the right and then on to Tonawanda.

The double set of tracks in the middle of the cobblestone street carrie the D.L.& W. trains to the coal docks on Erie Street. This view of Water Street at the corner of Norton Street dates to 1912 and shows the potential dangers of having an active rail line on city streets. Luckily the streets were deserted when this photograph was taken.

The charter of the road gave the directors the right to lay their track from Buffalo to Niagara Falls on any route they saw proper, including laying track right down the middle of the street! Of course, the activity of traffic was considerably less than what we see today, but in time, sharing a highway with a railroad would become a major nuisance.

The Buffalo and Niagara Falls was considered to be the first major railroad to operate out of the city of Buffalo. It was also the first to bring about social changes due to its operation within the city limits. As its popularity and usefulness increased, it eventually eliminated the strap rails and converted its line to standard iron "T" rail similar to what is used today. However, as the railroad's acceptance progressed into the 1850's, most of its trackage was still located on the Terrace. A public outcry rose up to have the tracks removed from this busy street because the city was growing both socially and economically, and railroad related accidents became more frequent and costly.

Ed Patton explains. "Moving the railroad tracks off the streets was actually a matter of public concern over the carnage. By 1907, Buffalo papers reported as many as 2 to 3 deaths every day with the city caused by the railroad. They were an attractive nuisance for children. When a train was being assembled by the movement of cars going back and forth, the street was an extremely dangerous place to be. There were loud noises constantly. Steam engines were puffing black smoke, bells were clanging, and whistles were blowing with ear piercing ferocity. Remember that most of the industry in the city was powered by steam engines, so the public had to contend with those noises also."

This view shows the true effect of having railroad tracks in the street. On the right is the old D.L.& W. station at the corner of Main and Ohio Streets. The yard for the passenger cars was right on Ohio Street!
"Of course, you also had the rails sticking out of the street to contend with. It was very hazardous to take an iron-shod wagon across them. It was very easy for horses could slip or catch their feet. Even people walking across the tracks would have the same problems. By 1910, the public was so concerned by the number of accidents that the legislature was being forced to enact laws that would get the railroads off the streets."

Dr. Gerber points out that "railroad transportation had begun to expand dramatically in the United States during the 1840's and 1850's. Slowly but surely, the railroads developed the capacity not simply to serve the needs of water-born commerce, but they developed the potential to supplant them -- to replace the canal and lake craft."

"At this time, the leaders of Buffalo's commerce began to think of alternative economic strategies for the future of the city because they faced a situation in which if they continued to depend on water-born commerce, the city would decline very rapidly. Buffalo's economic leaders did two things that were related to each other. They began to make investments in the railroads in order to tap the hinterlands around Buffalo and bring commerce in that would be shipped out by water, and they began to investigate the railroad as an alternative to the canal which would in turn make Buffalo a central point for rail operations."

The ability for the railroad to change Buffalo into an industrial and cultural center was staggering, but the city still had to solve the problem with railroad tracks consuming its streets.