The Lehigh Valley Black Diamond at Dingens Street

The Lehigh Valley was a glorious railroad and one that had an enormous presence in the Buffalo area. However, when the railroad fell upon tough times after World War 2, things started to disintegrate at an alarming rate.

The Lehigh began its inclusion of Buffalo as a major port of call in 1869 and had freight and passenger services available. Their facilities were all basically in the same area -- their first passenger station being on Washington Street at the corner of Perry Street with the freight station right next door.

By 1916, the Lehigh built what became the greatest railroad depot Buffalo had ever seen. Constructed entirely of white marble, the depot looked like a Roman temple. It sat on a chunk of land between Main and Washington Streets and their passenger platforms were built on Washington Street, parallel to Exchange Street. The old depot was razed and their new freight station was built on the site. Today, this plot of land is occupied by the Donovan State Building.

To expand its freight operations in the Buffalo area, the Lehigh Valley purchased 742 acres of land along the Buffalo River in 1882 with the projected goal being an enormous land/water transfer station. The railroad wanted to build many small canals and docking facilities off the river to help accommodate freighters entering the facility, but all they were able to accomplish was the installation of a huge rail yard and coaling facility. Today, this property is part of the Tifft Farm Nature Preserve.

By the mid 1950s, the Lehigh was in big financial trouble and had to begin liquidating its assets in order to survive. The New York State Thruway Authority, for some years earlier, had its eyes on the Lehigh's main line out of Buffalo which started at Washington Street and continued through the middle of the city as it headed south. To make a long financial story sad, the Thruway Authority made the Lehigh an offer they couldn't refuse and purchased their entire main line for construction of the 190 south bound. Think about that next time you drive on this route. You are on the old railroad right-of-way.

The diesel locomotive was introduced as a way of cutting operational costs for every railroad. This gave the Lehigh Valley the incentive to be one of the first railroads to completely dieselize their fleet of locomotives by the late 40s. By eliminating steam engines and the human element needed to keep them running, the diesel could operate with only a 2 man engine crew and a skimpy engine house crew. Every single Lehigh steamer was immediately scrapped.

Next to go was their beautiful depot on Washington Street. The Lehigh had abandoned the structure in favor of a smaller and less ornate building on the Buffalo / Cheektowaga border. Located on Dingens Street, this building was a far cry from the previous building and was a flop from the start. By the late 1950s, almost every railroad across the country was desperately trying to get out of the passenger business for lack of profits. The Lehigh was no exception. They wanted to stick to freight traffic and abandon all passenger operations. By the end of the 1950s, the Lehigh was down to almost one or two trains a day.

The Lehigh Valley, believe it or not, hung on to life until 1975 when it was absorbed into Conrail, the operation that formed out of the failed Penn-Central Corporation. As soon as the Lehigh ceased operation there began an immediate demolition of all of its property and the removal of its trackage. This is why finding traces of the Lehigh is so difficult to this day. There is almost nothing left. However, you can still find its right of way out in Depew, New York which can be used as a bike or hike trail. This trail may actually still lead to Ithica, New York, where the Lehigh had another of their facilities.

The recording that John Prophet made on July 7, 1950 features two trains still using the Lehigh Valley's downtown passenger station. the first is train #11, the "Star", as it crosses Dingens Street heading west into Buffalo. The train has just travelled overnight with sleeping cars from New York and Philadelphia. Since this recordings was made before Prophet had the power converter, he knocked on the front door of a house on Dingens Street and asked the lady of the house if he could plug the recorder into an outlet in her kitchen. The lady was only happy to oblige and allowed Prophet to use her house power to get this recording.

Since the Lehigh Valley dieselized their entire fleet of locomotives very early in the game, and since Prophet was not at all a fan of the new type of locomotives, it's interesting that the reason he chose to record this train was because of a very persuasive friend. The Lehigh was the first railroad to install a three horn "chime" system on their locomotives. The standard of the day for these Alco diesels was a single horn that sounded like a nightmare. With these Lehigh diesels, the new horns were something that people had never heard before and John's friend thought that recording them would be a good idea. Good indeed.

The photograph below shows a Lehigh train, pulled by these new Alco diesels, leaving the passenger station in downtown Buffalo. The train is exiting the "Head House", as the platforms on Washington Street were called. Actually, the Head House was the building that faced Main Street. The platforms and sheds were situated behind this building. The actual station can be seen just over the train sheds. Interesting of note is that you can make out the New York Central's new Exchange Street Station just above the nose of the locomotive. This station is still used as the Buffalo location for Amtrak.

The second part of Prophets recording features the east bound "Black Diamond", a Buffalo to New York train, crossing Dingens Street after departing from the Buffalo station sometime around 9:40 am. Again, listen for those fine Alco chimes. You will also be able to hear a police whistle at the tail end of the recording as a cop was at the crossing directing traffic.

To see a map of this area, click here.


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The Recordings

The Buffalo History Works